|What downtown Carnegie needed four years ago, Andrew Clark remembers, wasn't an Adventist church but a café. In the wake of Hurricane Ivan, which flooded Carnegie in 2004, locals who waded it out petitioned businesses afterward to move downtown to help rejuvenate the area. Hoping to draw people downtown and jumpstart economic growth, they asked specifically for an establishment with comfortable seating and free Wi-Fi, says Clark, who directs Adventist Community Services of Greater Pittsburgh. With funding from the local church conference, Clark established a café with an attached used bookstore, expecting to attract twenty- and thirty-somethings looking for a good read and a cup of tea. Instead, local teenagers began frequenting Conscious Café, prompting Clark to redefine the now-thriving ministry.
|A group of local teenagers frequents Conscious Café, where manager Andrew Clark has opened his doors to young people seeking a safer alternative to street life. His ministry is part of a broader trend toward church-led projects tailored to a community's needs. [photos: courtesy Conscious Café]
||A local teen paints over graffiti in downtown Pittsburgh. Clark, who directs Adventist Community Services for the city, regularly recruits the teenagers who hang out at Conscious Café for community outreach projects.
"I remember the first three kids who came in," Clark says. "When I saw them, I thought, 'Great, this place is gonna go downhill.'" When the teenagers asked Clark if they could eat snacks they'd picked up at the dollar store in his café, Clark told them, "Fine," but remembers his eat-and-get-out attitude. Then he says God impressed him to let them stay: "He said, 'You know, this is My ministry, not yours.'"
When one volunteer called Clark "pastor" in front of the teenagers, they asked where his church was.
"'You're sitting in it,' I told him. And he said, 'Well, if this is a church, I'm coming back every day and I'm bringing my friends,'" Clark remembers.
He did, and Clark soon opened the store's second floor, which the teenagers christened "The Upper Room." They hang out, eat together, play games and help out with ACS community projects, such as housing rehabilitation. They follow their own list of rules, which include 'respect each other' and 'no cursing.'
"It's just somewhere I can go where I don't have to worry about people trying to pressure me to do things I don't want to do," says Jake Crawford, an Upper Room member. "I tell my friends, 'Hey, stop by. It's a cool place to hang out.'"
On average, Clark says about 20 teenagers come through the store -- some grab a drink, others stay for the day. Special events, including Saturday morning church-like programs, draw up to 50. "Pretty much whenever they show up, we open the doors," he says.
Clark, 31, overcame a drug addiction earlier in life and says sharing his testimony creates a trusting environment where the kids can open up. "It's not so much, 'I'm going through drug addictions too, can you help me?' as it is, 'Can you help me understand my parents?'"
Clark says the majority of the kids who hang out at Conscious Café are there because they want to get off the streets and away from drugs and other negative influences. Parents and community members appreciate the safe environment, he says.
After all, "they asked for it."
That underlying need is what propels the ministry, Clark says.
"When you look at our church's history, it really started on the basis of mingling with people, sympathizing with them, meeting their needs and winning their confidence, and then making them disciples, not the other way around," he says.
Ask Clark what the linchpin of successful ministry is, and he'll tell you, "Know why you're doing it. I've never seen a ministry start in genuine sincerity and not be successful."
Nothing throttles a ministry quicker than ulterior motives, Clark says. "If you're just trying to build a church, get recognition, or feel good about yourself, that's not in the interest of the community."
Such so-called "social evangelism" is anchoring a new wave of Adventist ministry, says Sung Kwon, who directs Adventist Community Service for the church in North America.
"Traditionally, Adventists have been very passive. We've tended to proclaim a 'come and see' attitude," Kwon says. "We are now learning to be more proactive, to 'go and help' instead."
Conscious Café is one example of this trend toward more engaged ministry, Kwon adds. "There are many ways, but I am convinced we have to meet people's needs. Jesus said, 'I came here to serve.' As Christians, what more can we do?"
Clark, too, says service should dovetail with Christian witness. "We need to plant more ministries and grow churches from them, not plant churches and think, 'Maybe ministry will happen.'"
For more information about Conscious Café and Adventist Community Services in Pittsburgh, the local humanitarian arm of the church, visit www.consciouscafe.com and www.acsgp.org.