The Sipping Sacrament

Coffee, dispensed in nearly every church in America, has become indispensible to American spirituality

BY: John D. Spalding


When Rev. Maryetta Anschutz arrived at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Westport, Conn., three years ago, she noticed a disturbing trend at coffee hour. "People were sneaking off to Starbucks down the street," she recalled on a recent spring day. "Some would even return with their decaf mocha latte shamelessly in hand. I was the first to call them on it," she added. "I'm the church coffee cop."

The 28-year-old Anschutz knows exactly what's wrong with her church's coffee. "It's sludge!" she says. But coffee hour is "the center of our community," she says. "It's why many people who have few chances to socialize because of family and work go to church."

Finally, after tiring of trailing parishioners to Starbucks, Anschutz found the perfect solution: She got Starbucks to donate pots of regular and decaf each Sunday, and sold coffee to parishioners at $3 a pop. The proceeds went to the high school outreach group she's taking to build homes in Jamaica this summer. In two months, she raised more than $2,000 from coffee hour alone.

It's hard to exaggerate the importance of coffee to American church life. Pulled apart by their views about salvation, biblical interpretation and social issues, nearly all Christians share a common dedication to the beany brew. In most mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, parishioners gather immediately after services in the parish hall or church basement for kaffeeklatsches that often bear modest names like "fellowship hour" or "community hour," (though an old Lutheran joke calls coffee hour the "third sacrament," after baptism and communion). Young evangelical Christians have taken coffee spirituality offsite. In the past decade, hundreds of coffeehouses have popped up across the country with names like "The Jesus Shack," "Holy Grounds," One Way Café," "Cup O' Joy," and "The Revelation Room."

So essential is coffee to churchgoing that when someone added arsenic to the coffee urn at Gustaf Adolph Lutheran Church in New Sweden, Maine this spring, killing the 78-year-old head usher and hospitalizing 15 others, parishioners drank coffee for the TV cameras the following Sunday to demonstrate that the hallowed tradition would persevere. Bishop Margaret Payne even showed up to take the symbolic first sip. "I just wanted to make it clear that this isn't a place where you have to be afraid of drinking coffee," she said on CBS News.

As with many Christian practices, there is a whiff of the pagan at coffee hour's root. The preparation of coffee has a timeless alchemy about it--grind beans (crush wing of bat), steam milk (boil cauldron), add cinnamon (toss in eye of newt), followed by ritual incantation: "How do you take it?" "Cream and sugar?" "One lump or two?" And though not as strong as the Native American's peyote or the Norsemen's mushrooms, coffee contains a drug--albeit the one drug Ned Flanders can take without feeling guilty.

Caffeine also does what Christian fellowship is supposed to do. It's uplifting; the drink itself is warm and inviting. Coffee hour offers a "level-playing field," notes Anschutz. "It's not the yacht club. Anyone can come and mingle freely. Even if you don't discuss your faith, something in a sermon may draw you into a meaningful discussion about God and life." And those who indulge regularly find that abstaining from either church or coffee produces anxiety and irritability.

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