A few weekends ago, my sister and I were out cruising late one Saturday night, and we decided to stop for some coffee at a downtown ministry that we occasionally visit. The Three Trees Coffee House is located in downtown Bellingham, Washington, surrounded by bars and night clubs. When we pulled up, we could hear the band returning for a second set. Frequently, local performers put on free concerts at the unassuming coffee spot. I’d heard the lead guitarist before (Mitchell Senti), and my sister informed me that the drummer used to teach at my old high school. Small world.
When we walked in, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the semi-dark atmosphere. A handful of people lounged on couches and at tables, calmly taking in the music. On my right, a couple slouched on a loveseat conspiratorially, huddled together with their earthy colored caps covering their eyes. I kept a wide berth as we walked to the back of the shop to procure our caffeine.
Although the coffee shop is run by Christians, it keeps a low ministry profile. Walking in, you don’t see signs that scream “Jesus,” and you don’t get hit over the head with a Bible before you can purchase a cup of joe. Local churches support the coffee house, in its effort to serve the community in tangible ways. Many days, you’ll find a smattering of homeless people wandering in, looking for prayer and advice on finding a job or a place to eat. These couch people, with no coffee in sight, seemed to be homeless, there to get out of the cold and listen to the band, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.
While we were ordering our coffee and chatting with the barista and barrister (what is the masculine form of barista anyway?), one of the homeless couch people walked up to the register. The young woman looked like she was just around 20, the same age as many of my college students. I’m ashamed to admit that I was immediately relieved that she didn’t smell. I didn’t want to stand next to a smelly person. She produced a map, obviously torn from a phone book, and asked all of us if we knew how to get to the nearest train station. I backed away because, honestly, I’m the worst person to ask for directions. My sister stepped in and helpfully pointed to where she assumed it would be. The girl told us they were planning on camping tonight, and she wanted to know if there were any places near the station to camp. I thought about KOAs and National Parks, but everyone else realized that she wasn’t talking about pitching a tent at an official campsite. She and her traveling companion wanted to sleep somewhere they wouldn’t be disturbed, somewhere that didn’t cost anything and was away from the prying eyes of police officers.
We got our coffee and found a seat to listen to the music for awhile. I sat and reflected on the young lady and man and their situation. Why were they on the move? What tragic circumstances faced them?
After a few songs, the young man got up and walked to the counter to speak with the barista. He spent awhile up there, head down, seemingly talking about serious things. The young woman remained on the couch and listened to the music. Eventually, their conversation came to a close, and he walked to the young woman, who joined him in leaving the coffee house. Were they asked to leave, I wondered?
When the next song ended, the barista interrupted one of the musicians. “Do you know how to write a receipt? That guy just gave us a $100 donation, and he’d like to have a receipt mailed home.” I was floored. The two “homeless vagrants” had quietly donated a significant sum of money to the ministry, and then they silently left.
I stared into my inexpensive cup of incredibly good espresso and shamefully recognized my own folly. How quick I am to judge others. I can spew all sorts of verses about how God hates it when we are so quick to judge, but in practice, I’m the worst offender.
I came to this coffee shop, knowing that despite its less than desirable location and clientele, it’s got some of the best coffee and music in town. Just like I knew that good coffee sometimes comes in strange packages, I should have remembered that people are often packaged the same way. God takes this perspective when he looks at all of us: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).
Sometimes good coffee comes in ugly mugs.