By Sam Pierce
When Haley Jones first arrived at First United Methodist Church in downtown Little Rock more than a year ago, she felt like she didn’t have the appropriate space to meet the needs of the community.
“Our neighbors would come in and share the problems they may be facing, such as utilities or transportation, but it would be in and out, and see you later,” Jones said. “We wanted to slow down the process and get to know people, and we couldn’t do that upstairs in my office.
“Now, people come in downstairs, and they spread out in the café, and I can make the rounds and check in on people and find out who they are. This café has allowed us to have more of a community feel, and build better relationships, instead of a big scary red building.”
Jones, who serves as the pastor of community engagement for FUMC, said the church can assist with utilities for those in need, despite only having a certain amount of money. They can also help with birth certificates, prescriptions and the café offers coffee and snacks.
“We opened the café as a community experiment at our church,” Jones said. “We wanted to have a welcoming space, for guests to get out of the elements and enjoy a hot drink or a snack. We wanted a comfortable place to do that and for them to rest for a while.
“We had pretty good success with it, and we decided to keep it open longer. We offer a space where people are more willing to engage in conversation.”
Currently, the café doesn’t charge for any of the food, including the pastries and coffee. Jones said for those below the poverty line or those who are experiencing homelessness, “we ask that you take what you need and you leave the rest in love.”
“We can make some noodles for you or make some soup, but the rule is, you take only what you need, and you begin to care for each other,” Jones said.
“First Cup Community Café has cultivated relationships beyond our wildest dreams.
“Conversation has slowed, stories have been told, and needs have been met,” Jones said. “We are experiencing church in its fullest form.
“We have problem solved life situations, prayed together, battled the demons of mental health, and wiped away tears that we thought would never stop.”
First Cup Community Café is open Monday through Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and is located right in the heart of downtown Little Rock at 723 Center St., between the Simmons Bank building and Center Street.
“We offer a space for people who are willing to engage in conversation,” Jones said. “Our ultimate intention is to be able to swing open our doors and be a little more radical than in the past.”
In a statement, David Freeman, the lead pastor at First United Methodist Church, said the church is very excited about the café.
“Being in downtown is very important to us and being good neighbors is as well,” Freeman said. “We’ve always searched for ways to engage with our downtown neighbors and the café provides an easy way to meet our neighbors, build relationships, and provide a warm or cool spot to rest a while.
“It has been fun to have so much activity in our building in the afternoons and know that people feel welcome here.”
Freeman said the café allows the church to get to know their neighbors, learn their names and hear their stories.
“Jesus teaches us that loving God and loving our neighbors are inextricably tied together,” he said. “Yet, when your neighbors are experiencing homelessness or hungry, it can seem difficult.
“Sometimes, as churches, we try to be service providers that ‘fix’ their problem and send them on their way… (The café) is a way for us not just to serve our neighbors, but love them. And hopefully, as those relationships grow, we quit thinking of each other as ‘us’ or ‘them’ but true neighbors.”
Kyle Hendricks has been serving as a volunteer for the café since it opened.
“I enjoy the satisfaction of being able to help people get off the street and in where it is warm,” Hendricks said. “To sit and relax and have a conversation and not be hassled by a lot of other people.
“It is an opportunity to get to know the homeless community with a little more depth, and I think that is always helpful.”
Hendricks, who is a retired minister from Oklahoma, moved to Arkansas four years ago. He began volunteering while visiting his now wife, starting with The Van, a mobile aid center for unsheltered homeless people, and then Lucie’s Place, a shelter for young LGBTQ adults experiencing homelessness.
“When I was a pastor at First Christian Church, we had a program there that helped a population of people who had specific needs,” he said. “We would help with rent, clothing, food, anything like that.
“So I have been doing this kind of thing for years.”
As a volunteer at the café, Hendricks helps serve the coffee and sandwiches. He said he makes sure everything is stocked, including socks and toothbrushes.
“We have a few of those items that we can give to them, as well as cloth bags for them to carry items in,” Hendricks said. “Haley works with people for their other needs including transportation, help with utilities or food.
“(Me and the other volunteers) just kind of man the café for them.”
Kathy Blair, a member at FUMC, has been volunteering for a little over a year. She said she primarily helps to get the coffee going and greeting the folks when they come in.
“I think I enjoy being able to be there with the people,” she said. “And give them a smile and some words of encouragement.
“I’ll cook them some ramen noodles and serve them a glass of lemonade – wait on them a little and make them feel like they have a place to be and that somebody cares.”
Jones said First Cup Community Café is transitioning into a community space and is partnering with other programs within the church, including starting a kids’ day on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. for parents with kids at home to have coffee and pastries as well as connection and prayer.
“The gym will also be open,” Jones said. “We are looking at it from a wide angle, where anybody and everybody can get a little bit of something, or extra attention and care.
“This is the place, where our neighbors can feel comfortable to come to. That’s the general idea.”
She said the church does not set out for the café to serve as a witness ministry, but she said they did recently have a unique experience.
“One guy came in, desperate for a birth certificate because he was looking for housing, and he joined the church a couple of weeks ago,” Jones said. “I met him through the café. And we have some who come to the 11 a.m. service, who have also come to the café.
“We have built relationships with them, joked with them, which we weren’t able to do otherwise.”