Nurturing a Mustard Seed

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As a resident of Aliquippa and faculty advisor for the spring break team, I wanted the café to have the blessing of Geneva student workers. I wanted the students to experience the rich learning opportunity of working alongside John Stanley and becoming a part of his vision for this community. I want Aliquippa to be healed in the name of Jesus Christ.

To some white, middle-class, suburban church-goers, the prospect of driving down the main street of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania can be daunting.

In the wake of the 1985 pull-out of Jones and Laughlin Steel-the massive corporation that built this city and set it up to be industry- and bar- dependent-Aliquippa′s economy began to decline and Franklin Ave. was eventually invaded by the drug trade. Last year′s flash flood that submerged the street and buildings in waist-high water and sludge only made things worse.

As onlookers from across the country watched what was happening to Aliquippa, many found it easy to pass judgment. Some even suggested God was giving the city what it deserved. But as a mission team of Geneva College students found out during a recent spring break trip, what Aliquippa deserves is a closer look. Beneath the effects of economic depression, natural disaster and moral decline, they discovered the individuality, the sparkling life, and the subversive, zesty, grass-roots renewal at the heart of this city.

Shaped by the unique geography of the landscape, Franklin Ave. slices down a narrow chasm eastward toward the mighty Ohio River. No room being left over for neighborhoods, residents must climb steep ascents to reach the "bedrooms" of this city: Linmar Terrace, Plan 11, Plan 12, McDonald Heights, Plan 6 and Valley Terrace. Aliquippa High School crouches impressively on the crest of a bluff, while tight clusters of houses cling to the edges of others.

Wonderful humanity bubbles up everywhere on Franklin Ave. in the B.F. Jones Memorial Library, where Saturday afternoon finds neighborhood children celebrating Dr. Seuss′s birthday; in the modest row of houses that comprise the Community of Celebration; in In His Hands Day Care Center; in a tiny family-run convenience store near the Route 51 access; in the traffic that continually pours up and down Franklin Ave.; and along sidewalks lined with the cutest blue street lamps you′ll ever see, each with a banner jauntily announcing, "Welcome to Aliquippa."

Decked out in gaudily inviting green, orange and blue, Uncommon Grounds Café is the place to join subversive, zesty, grass-roots city renewal in Aliquippa. An outreach of the Episcopal Church Army USA, the café is the unfolding vision of Australian missionary Capt. John Stanley.

Not only is the café a 2007 Cool Space award-winning coffee shop, but it is also the hub of a burgeoning multi-pronged complex of programs to prompt emotional and economic renewal in Aliquippa. The café hosts 12-step training, skill and resume building community service, care houses, a city park, an ice cream shop, a venue for the graphic and musical arts, and a base for city efforts such as community flood relief.

Stanley knows and cares about his neighbors up and down Franklin Ave. and he′s always listening-to the city and its people. As he interacts with individuals from all walks of life, Stanley asks them to imagine "what would it look like, concretely, if the kingdom of heaven came to Franklin Ave.?"

As this group of Geneva students spent their spring break working with Stanley at Uncommon Grounds Café, they had the chance to put classroom principles into tangible, meaningful practice. At Geneva, students learn that the good news of the redemption of Jesus Christ has the power to redeem and transform not just individuals, but culture and societies. The vibrant art, viable employment, structural justice and environmental care promoted by the café are part and parcel of Christ-imitating redemptive efforts.

As students caught Stanley′s vision and jumped into life on Franklin Ave., they soon found ways to use their own knowledge and gifts for the good of the mission.

Team member David Ketter designed a Web log for patrons and developed a whole new perspective on the power of the gospel. "For me the best thing about this trip was seeing what a holistic mission/ministry looks like-an example of how the gospel can transform a community."

Tony Domanik brought carpentry skills to the mission effort. He and a few others designed and built two large wooden side-walk menu signs. "Whether it′s carpentry or the Bible, I love teaching people anything I know," he says.

Before having the chance to witness them first-hand, many students were unaware of the grim realities Aliquippa residents deal with every day. For Justin Rohrbaugh, a student from farm country in Somerset County, this realization came during a tour of Aliquippa the group took during their first day. "I didn′t realize that now-well after the civil rights movement-places of oppression like this were still around."

Justin and other students helped a flood victim, as well as the owner of a nearby hair salon, plaster fresh drywall. They also worked together to plan and execute two community meals: a Mexican dinner for the café′s weekly Thursday Open Mic Night, and an Indian meal for Friday Family Night.

"This week has definitely opened up a new perspective on how the church should run and how it can interface with the community," Justin said. "It′s shaping my worldview on our purpose as Christians-we are not meant to remain all clumped up in our church buildings. I kind of knew this before, but the café has made it real for me."

As spring break drew to a close and the time came for the Geneva team to leave Franklin Ave., everyone found themselves wishing they could stay.

"John would be okay if I just show up and volunteer a day from time to time, wouldn′t he?" asked Andrea Hensen, a graduate student at Geneva. Other students repeated the refrain: "I want to find a way to come back."

The trip concluded with a celebrative breakfast at Panera Bread Company in Monaca. But the team discovered that their eyes had been opened to something more colorful, more alive with the work of God-a unique place where they went behind the counter and produced everything from hot chocolate to the best Mexican salsa they had ever had. In contrast to these memories, Panera looked rather dim and impersonal. The team found themselves longing for Franklin Ave. in Aliquippa, and the zesty, subversive renewal alive and growing there.

If your church would like to catch John Stanley′s vision and become a part of the work unfolding in Aliquippa, visit the café′s Web site at