You’re welcome just as you are. Your thoughts are welcome. Your doubts are welcome. We’re all in this together. God is here, ready to connect with you in a fresh way.
With these words, conversations begin at area Lifetree Cafés throughout McHenry County.
Hosted at various locations in Marengo, Crystal Lake and Huntley so far, the cafés originated from a ministry effort that began about five years ago in Loveland, Colo.
They often are hosted through churches, but they’re meant to draw everyone, including those who don’t regularly attend church.
People are invited to come together at no cost to share “an hour of stories and conversations to feed your soul.”
They’ve talked about angels, Mormonism, spirituality versus religion, suicide, gay and lesbian marriage, hardships, anything and everything.
They’re topics people likely won’t talk about elsewhere, including the church.
“A lot of the churches feel that they need to do something in the community, but it’s no longer sufficient to sit inside your church and wait for people to come,” said the Rev. Keck Mowry, senior pastor of Marengo United Methodist Church, which began hosting a Lifetree Café at Flatlander Market about a year ago.
Another Lifetree hosted by the church is scheduled to begin Feb. 4 in Huntley.
Studies have shown negative attitudes toward churches in general, Mowry said.
“Lifetree is an effort of churches to engage the community, to start a conversation and build relationships,” he said.
“This is also an effort to get out and do something good for the community, to help people understand that the churches really do genuinely want to be friendly and care and reach out in a nonjudgemental way.”
Rekindling the art
A Christian publishing company, Group Publishing, tested the café concept for a couple of years before extending an invitation nationwide.
About 300 Lifetree branches exist across the country, and it is constantly expanding.
“It’s remarkable – we’re growing about two a day,” said Craig Cable, Lifetree national director.
Cafés are operating in Canada, and the group is piloting one in New Zealand, he said. The goal is to create a Lifetree in every community and at college campuses, he said.
When the concept began, organizers felt people had lost the art of conversation, Cable said.
“We were becoming more and more isolated, more lonely in our communities,” he said.
“It was an opportunity to bring people back out of their homes into physical communities, not online – a safe place where people were welcome,” he said.
Designed as intimate atmospheres to never draw more than 50 people at a time, the cafés average about 20 to 30 people, depending on the topic.
A recent “My Angel Saved Me,” discussion packed Flatlander Market in Marengo as those in attendance shared stories of encounters with the potentially supernatural.
Eric Vance of Union told of the time something made him stop in his tracks, turn around and fetch his motorcycle helmet he rarely wore. That day, he was in a motorcycle accident, the helmet and its face mask left extremely dented and scratched.
A regular at Lifetree, Vance said the cafés helped him get to know people he sees regularly. Instead of casual conversations, they’re learning more about one another.
“Sometimes, you walk away learning something about yourself,” he said.
Creating comfortable atmospheres
Willow Crystal Lake began its Lifetree about five years ago through the volunteer effort of Sheila Halasz, of Crystal Lake.
The church now hosts two different locations in Crystal Lake, with a special room renovated at Willow Creek into a coffee house atmosphere to make those who attend comfortable.
“It’s been such a neat outreach for people that just don’t have other avenues,” Halasz said. “They have a lot of spiritual questions or just want to be with people. This is just fitting a need no church can fit or no other group can fit.”
Started around the same time as Willow Creek’s, a Lifetree hosted by The Pointe in Crystal Lake also features a coffee house-like room refinished by the outreach center.
The cafés include videos featuring interviews created by national organizers in Loveland, followed by conversations.
Future Lifetree topics include the showing of “Schindler’s Youngest Survivor,” gun control, terrorism, “Is Marriage Obsolete?” and “The Art of Listening.”
The conversations end with Bible references, but the idea is not to force religion on those who attend.
“This is not where we want to sit down, open a Bible and say, ‘This is what you should believe,’ ” Pointe Director Bob Dorn said. “It’s about asking questions.”By JAMI KUNZER - firstname.lastname@example.org