On a rainy Monday evening a small group of people gather at Chairs Coffee on West Indiana Avenue. With full coffee mugs and French presses they sit around tables in the front of the café, cautiously eyeing each other.
Promptly at 7 p.m. Miranda DuMarce stands up and welcomes everyone to Lifetree Café.
A board behind her reads: “God is here and ready to connect with you in a fresh way.”
It’s DuMarce’s first try at leading Lifetree Café, an hourlong guided conversational experience founded in Christianity.
“It’s about community and about providing an opportunity for people to be listened to,” said Nora Williams, who’s the Spokane Lifetree Café director. “We do have a biblical view we present for each topic, but there is no pressing anyone to change their beliefs and everyone is welcome no matter their belief system.”
Lifetree Café is a national organization with almost 300 groups. It has been active in Spokane since September. The curriculum comes ready to use, and Williams and her husband, Mason Williams, purchase it for $500 a month.
“I always wanted a conversational coffee house,” Williams said. “We pay for it ourselves. Coffee house ministry is that important to us.”
The program begins with a video about Viola’s Huge Heart Foundation, a San Antonio-based nonprofit organization that gives scholarships to low-income youth. It was formed in memory of restaurateur, immigrant and matriarch Viola Barrios, who was killed during a burglary. The burglar set the house on fire, hoping to destroy evidence, but was caught very quickly. It turned out he lived next door, and he couldn’t afford a defense attorney. In an unusual act of forgiveness Barrios’ family paid for their mother’s murderer’s lawyer.
The evening’s topic is “Forgiving the Unforgivable,” and as the short video ends, people look at each other and wonder out loud: Could they do that? Could they pay for the legal defense of someone who killed one of their family members?
Slowly, conversations begin to percolate as people warm up to one another. DuMarce asks for someone to share with the big group.
“Forgiveness is about not being trapped in a situation,” said Shawn MacKay. “It’s about saying, ‘You will not ruin my life,’ to the person who hurt you.”
People mumble agreement.
Several mention Louis Barrios’ statement that forgiveness is not an emotion, it’s a decision. And, just like playing the piano, it has to be practiced many times before a person gets good at it.
“That resonates with me,” said Charleen Carr, who has attended Spokane’s Lifetree Café since the beginning. “And I like coming here because you can talk about things and reflect on them.”
MacKay said the format of Lifetree Café allows for a better exchange of perspectives than a normal sermon.
“In church you are not always encouraged to speak up,” MacKay said. “Here, it’s the other way around. The assumption is that we can learn from one another.”
Both said Lifetree Café doesn’t replace or take away from traditional Christian church.
“It adds to it,” MacKay said.
Joe Goderre said he appreciates that different viewpoints are welcome.
“We had a Muslim man here, and it was very interesting to hear his perspective on things,” Goderre said.
Toward the end of the program DuMarce asks the group to think of someone who’s hurt them, imagine that person sitting in the chair next to them – and forgiving them and letting them go.
“This may be asking too much of you. It’s an invitation to try,” DuMarce said, her voice trembling with emotion. Her invitation is followed by silence and the sound of Kleenex packages opening as some wipe their eyes.
The program ends with a prayer, but people don’t leave right away.
They stand around and chat, exchanging Facebook accounts and cellphone numbers.
“It’s been a great group for me,” MacKay said. “I don’t think I want it to be much bigger than this. I would feel drowned out. People really want to be heard.”