The Devil's Drink, or Why We Are Going to Make Coffee in Central Utah

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For the last few years of my life, I’ve been privileged to work with some really wonderful people in the specialty coffee community. Education, training, and collaborative opportunities have taken me all over the US to experience the very best of the industry. About a year ago, I began working with a relatively new local shop to try my hand at quality control and developing training infrastructure. It was during this time that Ned and I announced our intentions to move to rural Utah as missionaries, and we have been making plans and plugging away at preparations since then. I must tell you, out of all the opportunities I have been given over the past few years, I am most excited about putting my coffee skills to work in Utah.

Now, to some, this seems counter-intuitive. “Utah coffee shop” is a string of words that has long been somewhat oxymoronic to those at all familiar with the state’s unique culture. Overwhelmingly, of course, Utah is populated by Latter-Day Saints (or Mormons), and one of the peculiarities of their religious practice is that they don’t drink coffee. There are exceptions, of course. In Salt Lake City, where the Mormon population is less than 50%, the coffee scene is beginning to break through as build-outs, coffee carts and roasteries multiply by the year. To our great astonishment, a roaster in Logan, UT won the coveted US Roaster’s Choice Championship last year. However, these are both urban areas with substantial nonnative populations that keep the demand for coffee higher than the rest of the state. In the more rural areas of Utah the LDS population often makes up 80-90% of residents, and, boy, does it make a difference in the coffee scene.

For those more unfamiliar with Utah’s strange relationship with coffee, I will try and paint a picture. I have lived in central Utah a couple of times, and my own experience with its more rural coffee culture has had a few different faces. First, and probably most predominantly, it looked like gas station coffee. Throughout Utah, Pilot Stations offer truckers a place to get showered and caffeinated during their trek across the otherwise dry state. Secondly, it looked like the powdered instant coffee in the cabinets of polygamist families. Most fundamentalist groups don’t take the same stance on coffee consumption as their more liberal LDS counterparts, so I was offered instant coffee in their homes on multiple occasions. I was also surprised by the presence of an espresso stand in the middle of one isolated community (it was later mysteriously and quietly removed in the middle of the night, but that is an enigma we cannot hope to unravel). Third, there were the itchy-footed climber/backpackers hiking out to Utah’s natural wonders with their specialty-grade coffee, aeropress and hand grinder in tow. (I cannot judge, for these are my people, smelly as they are.)

Finally, and most specially in my own heart, there is outreach coffee.

Where I live currently, coffee-themed ministry is almost cliché. When two people want to have a good heart-to-heart, they have it over coffee. Churches have in-house coffee shops stocked with volunteer baristas from the congregation. My own church serves thoughtfully-brewed coffee from a local roaster before each service. (Incidentally, this is a matter of some confusion for me, since I have seen Sunergos’ phone number listed in the kitchen for ordering, a Quills blend stocked on the shelves, and have heard more than once that we are serving Argo Sons – all local competitors. Again, an enigma for another day). When I worked at a coffee shop downtown, I often served my pastors and other members of my congregation, gave them at-home brewing tips and learned their usual orders.

While coffee and Christianity often go hand-in-hand here in the Midwest, the relationship is more characterized by fellowship than by outreach, and your love for lattes is much more likely to land you the title “basic” than set you apart from the crowd.

In rural Utah, coffee doesn’t connote the warmth of feeling that it does for the rest of the world. A cup of coffee in your hand isn’t a common prop on the stage of one of these towns. At best, it sets you apart as a bit of an outsider. At worst, it draws looks of judgmental ire usually reserved for noticeably pregnant women guzzling from a growler. Don’t you know your body is a temple, after all?

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and there is the odd coffee drinker in rural Utah – mostly of the sort I mentioned above, but also a handful of fence-sitting or casually-Mormon folks. Mormon teaching is clear, of course: you cannot drink coffee and enter the celestial kingdom. But just because something is vilified, that doesn’t keep it from being delicious. In Christendom’s own history, we tried to defame coffee back in the 1600s, but Pope Clement himself was rumored to have said “This devil's drink is so delicious...we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!” So we did.

Unfortunately, there is no cheating the Mormon church, at least not for long. If you are a Mormon hopeful of participating in temple work (endowment rituals for yourself and on behalf of the dead), then you are interviewed by your bishop on a regular basis concerning faith and behavior. The object of this interview is for your worthiness to be assessed so that you can receive permission to enter the temple. One question, among many, is “Do you keep the Word of Wisdom?” Among other rather cumbersome restrictions, this now means abstaining from coffee and tea (not caffeine, incidentally). A negative answer can mean you are barred from temple work, and thereby barred from the celestial kingdom. It is by no means the most difficult hurdle on the road to exaltation, but crucial, nonetheless. So, in Utah, you either drink coffee openly and rebelliously, or you drink it sneakily and guiltily. Baptizing coffee is not an option.

If you sometimes detect the hint of sarcasm in my Midland accent, please know that it is not the LDS folks that I hold in derision, but the church itself. I am fully supportive of any person that wants to practice moderation, or even avoid caffeine altogether. (Okay, maybe not FULLY supportive. Maybe grudgingly tolerant. I am a barista, after all.) Of all the things religious people choose to do sometimes, abstaining from coffee is not a significant practice to get up in arms about. As a follower of Christ and lover of the gospel, I am much more offended by the fact that the LDS church has spent scores of years adding obstacle after obstacle between its members and fellowship with God. A former prophet of the LDS church, Joseph Fielding Smith, put it this way: “My brethren, if you drink coffee or tea, or take tobacco are you letting a cup of tea or a little tobacco stand in the road and bar you from the celestial kingdom of God, where you might otherwise have received a fullness of glory?”

Of course, as a coffee professional, the Word of Wisdom restriction irks me. But my husband and I aren’t going to Utah to convert people to the love of specialty coffee. We are going to share the good news of a gracious God. The question remains, I suppose, what does coffee have to do with anything? In a culture where coffee seems divisive and controversial, how can it possibly be used as a tool for outreach? Perhaps I can best answer by showing you.

In the small town of Ephraim, near the center of the state of Utah, there stands a building nicknamed “The College House.” It is an old two-story Victorian home right off the campus of a state school, Snow College. This house is the home of a non-profit organization called Tri-Grace Ministries – a ministry with many expressions, but whose ultimate mission is to make disciples. One face of the ministry, housed in the same building, is the Solid Rock Café. The café’s signage is overtly branded with a cross on its logo – again, not a terribly brave move in a place like the Midwest, but an uncomfortable choice in a place like Sanpete County, UT. Here pentagrams are much more plentiful in the LDS church’s symbolism and seem less eerie to Utah residents. To them, the cross is a symbol of death, and perhaps even defeat, so you will not find it on a Mormon building of worship.

If you decide to enter despite the cross, you will find a café in the sense most true to its etymology: a place where coffee is served. A sensible espresso machine sits on the bar, chalkboard signs list Italian-sounding beverages with their prices, and volunteers smile and wait for your order.

Making your way toward the bar, you might look to your right and see students engaged in a Bible study, or perhaps a club meeting for the campus’ only Christian fellowship. More overt references to the Bible or Christian symbolism are scattered throughout the café; most notably among these is certainly the Bible Museum, which is a tall, glass-front cabinet full of Near East artifacts related to Biblical history.

After working as a barista for several years, I’ve caught on that people’s coffee orders are often autobiographical. I get a little insight into who you are after you order that “small coffee, black, with three ice cubes,” or “skinny vanilla latte with whip” (you strange person). But nowhere does a coffee order make a more definitive statement than at the College House in Ephraim, UT. When you say you want coffee in a county that is 80% Mormon, you are setting yourself apart. Either you are the rare non-Mormon just looking for a good cup of coffee, or you are a Mormon who is open to examining their faith. When you work at a coffee shop in rural Utah, you are making a statement, as well. In essence, this entire building – its signage, its décor, its beverages – are meant as an invitation. “We are not Mormon,” it says, clearly and unambiguously. “But we love Jesus.”

So the unique thing about working as a missionary in this coffee house is that seeking hearts often come to you. Relational evangelism and organic discipleship flow freely and naturally in this space. And while minds are being engaged and hearts are being shared, it is our job to make sure the College House is warm, friendly, and truth-telling. This is a small part of what I get to do in Utah -  to help create a hospitable, inviting space where coffee is on the menu. While coffee has always been fun, now it takes on a meaningful role in the environment of opening hearts to the gospel. That is why I am excited about making coffee in Utah

Who knows, maybe a person’s first small rebellion against the Mormon Church will be to sip a cup of coffee. And if this is meant to be at all representative of their budding freedom in Christ, we better make sure that coffee tastes darn good.

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