Potter’s House: From Cloister to Coffee Shop (May-Aug 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mark Moore
May – August, 2004

The church as a coffee shop! What a fresh idea that is! It is so new, so creative, so Starbucks Gen Y cool, so postmodern and emergent, so outside-the-box and relevant; it’s so … so 1959.

Welcome to the Potter’s House. An idea for church so cool and groovy that it had to be dreamed up by some young and equally groovy Christians. Indeed it was, in the winter of 1959. And if you walk in Potter’s House today off Columbia Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C., you’ll meet a few of those servants who remain. Busy in their 45th year of washing dishes, selling books and pouring another cup of Joe. In a culture of wanna be’s and copy-cats here’s the real deal, the original, the first ever church coffee shop.

A friend an I have come from our yuppie suburbia in Northern Virginia to see the church we read about in Elizabeth O’Connor’s classic book, Call to Commitment.

After wandering the eclectic streets of Adams Morgan we finally come to the green awning of the Potter’s House. The doors are weathered barn wood and would be quite a find if you stumbled on them at a second hand junk shop. I remember reading in O’Connor’s book her story of how crazy the idea of nailing old barnwood on the walls seemed in 1959. Fortunately the beatniks on the interior design committee won out and it still hangs there today, so old that it’s “in,” so ugly that it’s cool.

“I’ll have cappucino,” I say to Mary, who is behind the counter.

“Well,” says Mary, “we have an espresso machine but it does not work all that well. Besides, Donna is not here yet and she is really the only one who knows how to use it.”

“Make it just plain coffee,” we say. We get the message that whipping up caramel macchiatos is not a priority for the staff of the Potter’s House.

The intersection of Caramel Macchiato and Joe in many ways is the crossroads where Adams Morgan finds itself these days. This predominately poor Hispanic neighborhood is transitioning from its historical place as an ethnic enclave to a home for affluent young Washingtonians. Each week another small chunk of Adams Morgan is gobbled up by young homebuyers and developers who love its 1920s architecture and classic streets. Lofts are going in over all the shops. Poor black and Hispanic families now live next door to Mercedes-driving young lawyers who make huge salaries working fifteen blocks south on powerful, connected K street. Rent is going through the roof and the traditional families of Adams Morgan are going out the door.

Interestingly, as the Potter’s house nears its fiftieth year of service to its community, it finds itself right where it has always been: transitioning to meet the needs of the community where it is situated.

A homeless lady sits near the bar talking to herself and others. She seems to be part of the old barn woodwork as far as the staff is concerned. She is a regular. Next to her, an affluent white couple talks and eats lunch. Beyond them, two men talk quietly over coffee in the corner. They are probably representative of a growing gay community in Adams Morgan which is moving North from largely gay Dupont Circle. I quietly comment that this might be the case and my friend reminds me that the two of us are also huddled closely in a corner. So much for my keen observations and stereotyping.

As we talk, in the door walks Gordon Cosby, one of the founders of the Potter’s House and its parent church, the Church of the Savior. He’s just out of teaching a Servant Leadership class. He is in his early 80s now, many years have passed since he and some friends sat and dreamed of a relevant church that could reach the returning GIs and others who were crowding into post WWII Washington, D.C.

If a group of church leaders met to evaluate Cosby, they’d see he is sort of a flop. He does not travel the world speaking about his success in ministry. He sits in the Potter’s House every day and teaches Servant Leadership classes. He has not penned a best-selling book about it, though the idea is so authentic and compelling that it would sell a million copies. He graciously welcomes us for a few minutes but begs away for his lunch appointment with a shabbily dressed man awaiting him at a table nearby. Gordon Cosby shuffles away for another lunch at the Potter’s House.

Elizabeth O’Connor’s book about the Potter’s House is in my backpack. I take it out and read her words from page 114. Words that made up their mission statement penned nearly fifty years ago by their planning committee.

“Through the Potter’s House we will say to the milling thousands of a great city, ‘We will serve you, we will be with you in a way in which you naturally gather. We are not afraid of you. You can come and see those strange people called Christians in the market place – not in their places of worship but in your own natural habitat. We will live a little chunk of our lives where you can watch what is going on…see whether we know anything about the mercy of God, whether there is a quality of being here which is different from what you have found elsewhere. You come and observe and test us. We will not protect ourselves.”

Half a century into their mission of unprotected service, it’s striking how on task these strange people called Christians are. Other than the coffee—it’s actually pretty lousy—the little chunk of their lives I see makes me think they know a little something about the mercy of God.

No wonder there have been so many copy cats. Maybe it’s time we had a few more.New Wineskins

Mark Moore lives in Springfield, Virginia and is studying Culture, Communication, and Technology at Georgetown. He and his wife, Marnie, and their three sons, Benjamin, Grady, and Cooper, lived in Uganda for nine years and were part of a church planting team there. email Mark Moore

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1579 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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