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Second cup

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 concealment.’ ”

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 County.

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 full feature.

“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 our city.”

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 open door.

“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 all.

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 (

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