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.

Christianity hasn't always cottoned to coffee. In her aptly titled book, "Coffee," Claudia Rosen explains that 16th-century priests wanted Pope Clement VIII to ban "the devil's drink." They insisted that Satan had forbidden his followers--Muslims--from drinking wine because it was used in Holy Communion. Instead, the devil provided this "hellish black brew."

The elixir made from coffee beans does in fact have a long history in Islamic regions. African tribes mixed the crushed beans with animal fat and molded them into balls to eat as a stimulant before battle. Arabs made the first hot coffee beverage, in 1000 A.D. Dervishes--mystic devotees of Islam's Sufi sect--consumed coffee at all-night ceremonies as fuel for achieving religious ecstasy. Arabs also invented the ibrik, or coffee broiler. As coffee lost it's strictly religious significance, the first coffee houses appeared in Mecca.

Coffee may have remained a Middle-Eastern exotic had not Clement VIII decided to put it to the taste test before banning it. "Why, this Satan's drink is so delicious," he declared, "that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptizing it."

In 1683, a Franciscan friar named Marciano d'Aviano stopped a Turkish invasion of Austria, and along the way, some claim, invented cappuccino. The retreating Turks left behind bags of coffee beans, historians say, which the Viennese found so bitter that they added milk and sugar, creating a frothy, sweet beverage. Legend says the word "cappuccino" comes from d'Aviano's Capuchin order, so named for their brown robes. Pope John Paul II, himself an avowed coffee lover, beatified Marciano d'Aviano this spring (citing other, presumably decaffeinated, miracles he performed).

Still, in mid- to late-18th century Europe, coffee was viewed with mistrust. Johann Sebastian Bach, an avid coffee drinker and devout Lutheran, composed his "Coffee Cantata" in 1732. In this satirical operetta, a stern father forbids his daughter to touch the evil drink, vowing not to let her marry if she continues drinking it. She pleads: "Father, don't be so severe! If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat." She refuses to marry any man who does not promise, in their written marriage contract, to let her "make myself coffee whenever I want."

Today, it is sometimes more proper to be a coffee believer than a Christian one. In Salt Lake City last year, Southern Baptist missionaries ran a coffeehouse as part of their ministry at the Winter Olympics. The outreach pamphlets on the tables were the only clue that the place was a Christian outpost. Most Christian coffeehouses are more upfront. Their purpose is two-fold: to provide believers a place outside church to hangout with other evangelicals, and to attract nonbelievers who avoid church so they'll hear the evangelical message. HisMusic.com, a New Orleans guide to Christian coffeehouses, offers instructions on how to start a Christian coffeehouse.

These days they can hear much else. Christian rock bands commonly play the coffeehouse circuit as a way of building an audience. For years, Jars of Clay included in their concerts a paean to coffee--perhaps the only song in their repertoire that praised an entity other than God--usually introduced by Dan Haseltine's dead-on imitation of the rude whorling sound of a barista steaming milk for cappuccino.

Many young evangelical Christians frequent coffeehouses because they are looking for a place to congregate that is not a bar. They have that in common with recovering alcoholics. Coffee has been a staple at A.A. meetings since the nondenominational group's formation in 1935. While its high is relatively benign, coffee is nearly as effective a social lubricant as alcohol. In "Dry," Augusten Burroughs' recent darkly humorous rehab memoir, a woman announces at a meeting that Starbucks is her higher power. "People laugh," writes Burroughs. "Starbucks owes every alcoholic in America a few free rounds."

Some faiths are too pure even for coffee. Mormons drink Postum, the cereal-based coffee substitute that made C.W. Post a fortune at the turn of the century, after he smeared coffee as unhealthy in an aggressive ad campaign. One strident End-Times Christian ministry sees coffee as a symbol of what ails today's complacent, modern Christian. In a section called "What's Wrong with Christians" the site says, "Christians everywhere drink coffee, are workaholics, and are stimulant-obsessed and energy-obsessed just like the non-believing world.. More and more churches have become breeding grounds for zombie-like spirituality, where one must always be 'high' on God, filled with euphoria.." Their message: Put down the damn mug, for the end is nigh.

If you can't put it down, others say, put it to good use. The Presbyterian Coffee Project offers "a new way to help people in need while enjoying fellowship and an excellent cup of coffee." Like the Presbyterians, the Lutheran World Relief Coffee Project orders its joe through Equal Exchange, a company that purchases all coffee from small farmers according to fair trade standards.

But few church coffee drinkers consider that coffee may be the least Christian drink of all. "I pay four dollars for a latte," said Christ and Trinity's "coffee cop," Maryetta Anschutz. "I should put the money I spend on coffee everyday into my United Thank Offering box and send it sub-Saharan Africa. Did you know that a grande latte only costs Starbucks 11 cents to make and 22 cents in overhead?

"It's appalling," she said, "and yet I still go in and buy them."

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