Coffee & missions blend in Macedonia tourist town

Baptist Press
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Posted: Aug 24, 2011 4:52 PM
Coffee & missions blend in Macedonia tourist town
OHRID, Macedonia (BP)--It didn't take much to sell Ginna Caldwell and Hannah Gilstrap on their current jobs.

Make coffee. Drink coffee. Talk to people.

Get up the next day and do it again.

Perfect.

The two were working as baristas in Alabama when they said "yes" to running a coffeehouse in Ohrid, Macedonia, for a couple of years as International Mission Board journeymen.

"A friend told me once, 'You can't spend your whole life in a coffeehouse, Ginna.' I beg to differ," Caldwell said with a grin. "I love the coffee culture -- sitting, having conversations, getting to know people. Discipleship happens over a cup of coffee."

In the summer, the little city of Ohrid is crawling with vacationers. Businesspeople in the Balkans flock there to eat fish and ajvar (a salad made of red bell peppers) next to a calm, clear lake.

"I have peace in my heart there by the lake," one tourist said.

But Gilstrap likes it best when the summer is over and all the tourists fade back into the urban grind they came from. That's when the real peace comes, she said.

"The people of Ohrid come into the coffeehouse and hang out for hours playing chess, having conversations and talking about spiritual things," Gilstrap said. "I love creating community, and something like this coffeehouse does that."

The coffeehouse, named Ima Vreme (Macedonian for "there is time"), sits tucked in a side street just off city center, perfect positioning for locals to pass by often, drop in and stay.

"We have long talks and we listen with the intent of speaking the truth of Christ into their lives," Caldwell said.

That's the heart of Ima Vreme, said Brian Davis, who serves as a church planter in Ohrid through the International Mission Board with his wife Mandy.

On warm nights, as Caldwell and Gilstrap make iced coffee and chat with regulars, Davis sits at a table just outside the open door of the coffeehouse, engaging a few men in deep conversations about faith and God.

"It's not a business. We aren't out to just make great coffee and have a lot of traffic," Davis said. "We want to plant house churches, and the coffeehouse gives us a reason to talk. We want to do everything we do with intentionality and have a constant trickle of people that's going somewhere."

And it is going somewhere. Three Bible studies have started from conversations at Ima Vreme in its four years of existence, and the soon-to-be pastor of one of Davis' house churches came to faith because he came through the coffeehouse.

"It's just a coffeehouse -- we don't use it as a church meeting place or anything else. But people know it represents something bigger," Davis said.

The neutral location affords a lot of creativity in how to bring people through the doors and make friends who will come back for more conversations, he said. "Twice a month we try to have something special, from PlayStation tournaments and karaoke nights to art exhibits and cooking classes."

A band from William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss., even came once to do a concert series, and other teams have helped distribute school supplies from the coffeehouse.

"If we try it and it flops, it's OK," Davis said. "We do what we can to bring people in, meet them and build relationships, and then we put a lot of effort into follow up."

Caldwell and Gilstrap -- in addition to studying the Macedonian language -- spend a lot of time preparing English lessons to teach at the coffeehouse. The intensive classes taught there are packed with people.

Caldwell also is investing time in translating a women's Bible study on Ruth into Macedonian.

"When I was in college, I heard a lot of missionaries' stories and began to realize that no matter what I do with my life, I needed to be doing it with the intent of building relationships and sharing the Gospel," Caldwell said. "And right now, this couldn't be more perfect -- for both of us."

Gilstrap agreed, though she said it's completely different from what she once pictured missionaries doing.

"Growing up in GAs , I heard about missionaries, and I never had any desire to be one or move out of Alabama," Gilstrap said. "But in college, I started learning more about missions -- that it's not extra-holy people out there being missionaries; it's just normal believers in Christ who are getting out there doing what we are all called to do."

Ava Thomas is a writer/editor for the International Mission Board in Europe. To learn more about taking a volunteer team to help with the coffeehouse ministry in Ohrid, email Brian Davis at brianandmandy@gmail.com. For information about the journeyman program and other ways to serve overseas, visit www.imb.org.

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