Beloved Cafe seeks new model for spiritual community

Beloved Cafe seeks new model for spiritual community

'Not all Unitarian Universalism has to happen at church,' say Bay Area entrepreneurs.

A group of people from Beloved Cafe

Members of the Beloved Café team and supportive friends include: (from left) Monet Allard, Emily Ann Hartnett Webb (core team), Michele Salami, Marcus Liefert (core team), the Rev. Dara Olandt (core team), Peter Olandt (kneeling, core team), Richie LeDonne, Christian Chandler, Eline Leemans, Veronica Moscoso. Two core team members not pictured are Francis Prévot and Elizabeth Swett.

© Francis Prévot


Unitarian Universalism has changed a lot in the past 50 years, embracing wide-ranging beliefs and practices. What hasn’t changed as much is the form it takes. By and large, Unitarian Universalists gather in sanctuaries for Sunday morning worship and organize themselves as congregations.

A group in California is trying to figure out a new form for a religious community, asking what it would look like if the variety of UU gatherings mirrored the diversity of the theology.

The setting they’re creating is a blend of familiar ingredients mixed together to make something entirely new in UU circles. It has elements of a coffee shop, a community center, a classroom, a yoga studio, a meditation center, a bookstore, a place to organize for social justice, and a sanctuary. It’s called the Beloved Café.

The creators of the café are raising money and searching for space in the Bay Area. They hope the Beloved Café will open its doors by the end of this year.

A typical day at the café might include Buddhist meditation in the morning, a yoga class in the afternoon, and an evening reading by a Beacon Press author, according to Marcus Liefert, one of the café’s founders and a community ministry intern with the UU Church of Berkeley in Kensington. In addition to creating a vision for the café, he is working, along with Peter Olandt, on the café’s business model.

So far, the founders have raised about $25,000 from donations, a grant from the UU Funding Program, and an Indiegogo campaign. In July, it will incorporate as a “benefit corporation,” an emerging corporate model that allows profit-making entities to factor environmental concerns, justice issues, and public benefit into their decision-making.

The UU Church of Berkeley is a financial sponsor. And the café’s organizers have established relationships with a Bay Area synagogue, the Oakland Peace Center, and a local branch of Interfaith Worker Justice.

The Rev. Harlan Limpert, the UUA’s vice president of Ministries and Congregational Support, said he appreciates the connections the nascent spiritual community has already built. “I've been impressed with the way the leaders of Beloved Café have reached out to others, seeking practical advice, to augment their idealism in building a new sort of community.”

The founders consider Beloved Café to be grounded in Unitarian Universalism, but not exclusively UU. “UU values infuse the program, but UU identity is not a requirement,” said Emily Ann Hartnett Webb, a co-founder and intern minister at First UU Church of San Diego. The organization has an intentionally multireligious mission. According to the Beloved Café website, “We are multicultural, multifaceted, multitasking people. Multireligious means that we affirm, accept, and honor the many faith traditions and spiritual experiences present in the world.”

The website also sums up the café’s mission in a simple equation: “Community + Spirituality + Social Justice + Great Coffee = Beloved Café.” A video completed in April asks viewers to “imagine a place in your neighborhood where faith, community, and justice meet to share a cup of coffee.”

While the founders of Beloved Café do not define it as exclusively UU, they do hope to create a space that can allow Unitarian Universalism to flourish outside a typical church and on every day of the week. “Not all Unitarian Universalism has to happen at church. We’re experimenting with different forms,” said Webb. “We’re not trying to replace congregations. We see ourselves in relation to congregations and offering something different.”

The founders are still developing the café’s financial model, but they imagine its main income will be coffee, with users paying à la carte for workshops and classes. Another option is to structure the café like a gym membership, allowing members to pay by the month for a range of activities.

Other denominations have experimented with the idea of creating alternative ways of gathering in religious community. A December article in the New York Times describes efforts by several evangelical churches to create small gathering spaces that blend religious conversation with everyday activities.

A seminar at this year’s General Assembly in Louisville, Ky., will explore what some new UU communities might look like. Webb and the Rev. Dara Olandt, developers of the Beloved Café, will present the workshop along with two members of the Lucy Stone Cooperative, a cooperative living space created by UU young adults in Boston.

Liefert said that both the Beloved Café and Lucy Stone Coop grow out of the same UU youth and young adult tradition. “They both have the seed of the different worship culture of YRUU or camps and conferences,” he said.

Tandi Rogers, the UUA’s growth strategies specialist, admires the way the founders have organized the café from its earliest moments. “I really appreciate how relational Beloved Café has been from the very beginning,” she said. “They represent a renewed expression of our congregational polity—radical, joyful interdependence. From their inception, they reached out to Unitarian Universalists both in congregations and beyond congregations and strategized to make everyone stronger, more related to each other, and more connected to our faith.”

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Correction 6.3.13: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the organizers of Beloved Café as “young adults.” The organizers are not all young adults.