GALAX, Va. -- Some days, it’s just easier for pastors to connect with people in a coffee shop than in a church building.
Two years ago on Christmas Day, a clergy couple opened a downtown coffee business with the prayer that it would fill the cups of their community in a fresh-roasted new way.
“This is what God put on our heart where people can talk and feel connected,” says the Rev. Elizabeth Hernandez. “All kinds of people you can meet here that won’t go to church. We try to be a friend to them.”
Hernandez, with her husband, the Rev. Javier Hernandez, are co-owners of StartBien. The coffee shop’s name is based on a guiding principle in Javier Hernandez’s life: “Start your day with hope.” Bien is the Spanish word for “well.”
The couple also serve as co-pastors of the oldest Hispanic church in Holston Conference. Iglesia Puerta del Cielo Metodista Unida (Door of Heaven United Methodist Church) was chartered in 2003. The Hernandezes have been appointed there since 2006.
Five years ago, the pastors felt led to “save all their money” to open a shop that would open the door to relationships with both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking people, Javier Hernandez said. “This is an extension of our ministry and a different way to show the love of God.”
They chose Christmas Day 2019 to open and were gratified when the shop was busy with customers. “There are a lot of people who don’t have a place to go when businesses are closed,” Elizabeth Hernandez explained. “We feel so blessed for all the support from the community.”
The coffee shop on Main Street in the small city of Galax thrived for a few months, until mid-March 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic closed businesses, StartBien struggled through the weeks, offering curbside service.
When businesses could cautiously open their doors again, the clergy couple rejoiced that they had a place to interact with people, when most United Methodist church buildings were still restricted out of concern for safety. Like other churches, Door of Heaven lost many regular worshipers when in-person services were suspended.
“Not everyone wants to go to a drive-in church,” Elizabeth Hernandez said. Poor internet connection in the area also limited Door of Heaven’s online outreach. “We feel like because of COVID, we could only have small groups at the church. This is our own coffee shop, so we can have our own rules.”
StartBien has become a place where people not only get a good start with a hot beverage and bagel or avocado toast. A recovery group of eight men meets weekly in the early morning before heading off to construction jobs. Another recovery group of women gathers at the shop on Tuesday morning. On Wednesday afternoon, a table is reserved for eight high school girls who meet for devotionals.
Suzie Ralph, a customer from Woodlawn, Virginia, said she was initially attracted to the coffee shop when it opened: “I saw they were Hispanic, and I wanted to see them succeed.” She then found StartBien to be a convenient place to use wifi and meet customers of her essential oils business.
“I loved the atmosphere of the coffee shop which is another reason I kept coming back,” Ralph said. “I recently did a workshop at the coffee shop on oils that were used in Biblical times and how we use them in modern times. I appreciate that they allow me to use the space.”
Sometimes, the customers ask for prayer, especially after they learn the owners are pastors. Javier Hernandez said he is glad when the shop is not too busy so he can “sit and pray” with people a while.
“The shop has become a welcoming, hospitable place for folks to gather with friends,” said the Rev. Terri Johnson Gregory, pastor at Gladeville United Methodist Church and Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, both in Galax. “Elizabeth and Javier are such great examples of sharing Christ outside the church.”
Two years into their venture, the Hernandezes have dreams on the horizon as well as frustrations that come with starting a business.
“I pray, ‘God, is this what you want for us? Look what has happened,'” Elizabeth Hernandez said. “He showed us this was his project, and it was just one day at a time.”
In August 2021, the couple traveled to their hometown – Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico – where they met with local coffee growers. Their plan is to partner with a grower to bring a signature coffee to roast and sell at StartBien.
“Maybe we can help them with an investment,” Elizabeth Hernandez said of the coffee growers in her hometown. “It is our prayer that God will lead us to the right person who needs it the most ... It’s amazing to see the green beans and the roasting process and then to have it in your cup. I want to know where my coffee comes from.”
The pastors also use their Main Street visibility and storage to help migrant workers who come to the area to work on pumpkin and Christmas tree farms. Concerned about the living conditions of the workers and their families, the Hernandezes and Door of Heaven United Methodist Church lead the community in collecting mattresses, blankets, clothing and food for the migrants. They also host holiday festivals for the families.
Among other goals, Javier Hernandez said he would like for StartBien to become a place where local people can seek help for legal issues, which can be especially daunting when English is not your first language or the United States is not your first home.
“God is guiding us,” Javier Hernandez says. “Sometimes we don’t know how, but he has guided us in mysterious ways.”
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Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
Read in English GALAX, Va. -- Algunos días, es más fácil para los pastores conectarse con la gente en una cafetería que en una iglesia. Hace dos años, el día de Navidad, una pareja de clérigos abrió un negocio de café en el centro con la esperanza...
GALAX, Va. (March 6, 2017) – Pastors Javier and Elizabeth Hernandez have led marriage seminars for five Holston congregations in recent years – and they believe couples need help with their relationships now more than ever. “If we have healthy ...