Heart Rock Café offers cream, sugar … and the gospel
By Scott Harrup
The lure of gold brought the first settlers to Sonora,
Calif., some 160 years ago. The town became a commercial, government and
cultural center for the region as the California Gold Rush gained momentum. But
it was a bumpy start, says Pat Perry, city historian.
“Like so many Gold Rush towns,” Perry notes, “Sonora had a
wild reputation in its early days. According to Frank Marryat, who wrote about
his 1851 experiences in Sonora, ‘No church bells here usher in the Sabbath … every
man carries arms, generally a Colt revolver, buckled behind, with no attempt at
The gold eventually gave out, but the town survived. Today,
visitors to Sonora are attracted to its vintage Western setting and the
wide-open spaces of nearby Yosemite National Park. And though it doesn’t sound
a bell to announce Sunday services, Christian Heights Church, a local
Assemblies of God congregation, is one of a growing number of houses of worship
intent on enriching local life.
Christian Heights’ presence isn’t limited to the church
building on 13711 Joshua Way.
Grab a cup of coffee at Heart Rock Café in the heart of
Sonora (pop. 4,596), and you’ll mingle with a cross-section of America. City
and county workers make the full-menu coffeehouse their lunch diner of choice.
Treated with just as much respect are homeless clients who come for a free
dinner on Wednesday night or the free lunch on Sunday.
Join patrons at the café on just about any night of the week
and you’ll discover one of the most popular community centers in rural Tuolumne
The café building includes an adjoining theater/auditorium.
One night finds a crowd cheering on contestants for “Sonora’s Got Talent.”
Other groups gather for a Bible study or widows’ support. The Court Reporters
Association uses the auditorium because it’s conveniently located across from
the courthouse. And Friday nights highlight a family activity — Christian
karaoke night, Family Movie Night, Nintendo Wii Challenge and Christian
concerts of every variety from bluegrass to rock.
For Pastor Craig Andrus and the families of Christian
Heights, Heart Rock Café is not so much an extension of the church as an
invitation for those outside the church to experience Jesus Christ in everyday
living. That’s why, even though the community newspaper once expressed doubt
when “a church bought the premier retail location in the city,” Andrus notes,
The Union Democrat celebrated the café’s 10-year anniversary this spring with a
“Tourists come to Sonora from all over the world to visit
Yosemite,” Andrus says, “and they ask us why our café is successful.
Coffeehouses come and go. Our answer is, from the very beginning the Lord
directed us to aim our coffeehouse at the unchurched. We did not build our
coffeehouse to attract Christians. We built it to be a Christian influence in
A decade ago, Andrus and a group from Christian Heights held
an informal summer night’s service in the town park. That’s when Andrus says
God gave him the idea for the café.
“I looked across the park at this empty café building,” he
remembers. “I felt like God spoke to me and said He’d give us that building if
we’d use it to help others.”
The building stood empty because a developer had skipped
town with investors’ money. Andrus and church leaders presented their proposal
for a community center to the congregation. Because the developer had been
imprisoned, the investors had an empty building on their hands. So church
leaders found a receptive ear to their offer of $250,000.
But even as Christian Heights raised funds for the café’s
down payment and furnishings, another need arose. A rescue mission in San
Francisco was about to forfeit its building. Christian Heights gave $5,000 to
help meet that need, even though that meant donating all the money that had
been raised toward the café at that point. The mission managed to purchase the
building in San Francisco. Just two months later, Christian Heights had raised
nearly $90,000. Additional gifts have since paid off Heart Rock Café.
Still, Andrus says, the café doesn’t make a profit. It
breaks even most months, and occasionally requires church funding to make up a
shortfall. And that’s the way Christian Heights wants it.
“We never wanted Heart Rock to be a big moneymaking
proposition,” Andrus says. “That is not why we opened it. We opened it to be a
presence in our downtown community.”
Chrystal Lamar, one of six on staff at the café, is adept at
creating an inviting presence for clients who see the café as an oasis in the
midst of a troubling day. She recognizes pain on a customer’s face because so
much of her life has been marked by addiction and hopelessness.
“I was a drug addict all my life,” Lamar says. “I’ve been
strung out on heroin and everything else you can think of — mostly meth
for over 40 years. I knew about God, but I wasn’t walking with Him. I’d been
through programs, but I turned it over to the Lord two years ago. Heart Rock
was the only place that would give me a chance and give me a job.”
Lamar makes everyone feel welcome at Heart Rock, from the
well-dressed city employee to the homeless wanderer who discovers the café’s
“All of us who work here, if somebody wants to talk we’ll
take the time to talk with them and pray with them,” she says. “There have been
so many people I’ve seen changed since I’ve been here.”
Heart Rock’s church connection is clearest on Sunday when
families gather for Café Church. It’s standing room only, informal, with free
doughnuts and coffee mingling with music and shared prayer before Andrus’ sermon
comes online live on a big-screen monitor. It concludes with a free lunch for
That ministry model is now expanding to two additional
satellite churches in nearby Tuolumne and Jamestown. Andrus is helping
organizers in those locations set up a drop-in center where people can come in
from the cold, have access to showers and even find protective housing in the
event of family violence.
The possibilities are as limitless as Sonora’s varied needs,
Andrus believes. And if it starts with a cup of coffee, that’s not too removed
from the simple gift of a cup of cold water Jesus once praised.
For Lamar, each day working at Heart Rock blesses her as
much as any client.
“My life is so overwhelmingly wonderful now that it scares
me,” she says. “I cannot believe this is my life now. Because a couple years
ago it was totally different. God has given me so much. My heart is in Heart
Rock. I feel like I’m coming to church every day. This is where I live. This is
what I do. I want to serve God.”
SCOTT HARRUP is senior associate editor of Today’s
Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Out There (sharrup.agblogger.org).
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