In the late 1980s, a for-profit company showed us how coffee can be used to establish what urban sociologists called “third places” – places that are not your home or your office, but somewhere different and special.
Now a nonprofit is taking this “third place” idea to an entirely new level. Here, coffee isn’t the mission. It’s a means to many ends: to community-building, to job-training, to peace-making, to language-teaching … to barrier-demolishing, opportunity-providing, and love-sharing community. It may be the most welcoming place in the Atlanta Metro area, and it all started when one couple decided to move to Clarkston, Georgia and see what it could mean to just be friends and neighbors to a group of people God says he loves.
They named their space “Refuge Coffee”
Third places, according to the man who made the term known, must meet a few criteria. They must be accessible, neutral-ground, leveling places where conversation is the main activity and the mood is playful. In them, people are free to become “regulars,” because it is comfortable and safe there. Everyone is welcome.
But the regulars you see in this third place are probably unlike you’ve seen anywhere else. They are an eclectic and beautiful mix of people of varying colors, languages, customs, skill sets, and styles of dress – from all around the world. And all of them are celebrated for who they are. Many are bound by a similar story. They fled here.
Most of the people here are refugees.
One small “yes”
It’s not just one culture here, says Kitti Murray, Refuge Coffee’s founder. “It’s many cultures who’ve had the shared experience of trauma, of leaving home, and the shared experience of kind of a heroic survival.”
Kitti and her husband, Bill, didn’t know exactly what they were getting into when they first started, but it seemed clear God was leading them. Bill came to Kitti one night and told her he was disturbed by something he was seeing in Scripture.
“My husband has a PhD in theology, and he’s also not very disturbed … ever.” She knew what he had to say was going to be important.
Bill asked, “Why is it when the Bible talks about widows, aliens, and orphans… [it’s at the] top of God’s mind because they’re bottom of everybody else’s mind? I’ve been wondering … if those people are so important to God, why don’t we have any friends who fit that description?”
Kitti wasn’t sure how to respond. She pointed out that they’d given money to support ministries that helped widows and orphans. They’d taken mission trips. They’d met widows and orphans.
“No,” Bill answered. “That’s not the same thing as friendships. We don’t have friends who fit that description.”
So that same night, they made a decision to buy a home where they would live out the rest of their days, and it would be where these people – these sometimes forgotten people God loved and was calling them to – lived.
Immediately after making this decision, they looked at each other and said, “Where is that?” They realized neither of them knew how to find widows, orphans, and refugees.
“I remember we said, ‘Well, we’ll have to pray about it’ because we don’t know where that is or what that’s going to look like,” Kitti recalls.
“The landscape of our city is changing all the time, and we just didn’t know,” Kitti says. But they decided to be obedient and make the first in a series of agreements with God that would lead them to where they are today. “It was this small ‘yes’ to God we didn’t even know how to follow through on.”
“It was this small ‘yes’ to God we didn’t even know how to follow through on.”
Never mind that they didn’t know how; God led the way. Within two weeks of that decision, a friend called and offered to sell them a house – new construction that wasn’t quite finished but that fell within their budget and was right in the middle of what has been referred to as the most diverse square mile in Georgia, maybe even in America.
“The thing I realized is that you make this little ‘yes’ to God,” Kitti says. “And he is in charge of the follow through. Of course we have to continue to make those ‘yeses’ as we move forward, but there was no question that God paved the way for us to be here.” So six months later they moved into a house in the center of Clarkston and planted a sign in front of their door: “Refugees welcome here.”
Once they were settled in, Kitti was ready to jump into action, but Bill asked her to take six months to get to know the community. They went out and met people, invited families into their home, and visited refugees in their homes. Kitti says she fell in love with the Clarkston community.
“As I got to know our neighbors and love them, I wanted other people to know them. I’m a networker by nature, and I wanted people to know these people that I knew.”
Coffee and jobs
The idea of a coffee shop was shaped by Kitti’s hope of establishing a “place to bring the world together.” But in community prayer groups, the thing that kept coming to mind as the biggest need in her new community was jobs. “The jobs refugees are offered are typically not great; they just don’t lead to flourishing,” she says. Refugees often take jobs that are far from home and further isolate them. Kitti wanted to create jobs that would help them learn to speak English, understand culture, and reduce isolation. So they prayed.
The idea of a coffee shop was shaped by Kitti’s hope of establishing a “place to bring the world together.”
But she still really believed the area needed a coffee shop, a place for community. Then one day it hit her. She thought, “What if we put these together? What if we provided jobs? And then, what if we included job training to prepare people for better jobs in the future?”
The idea for another “small yes” was born, and that leading brought support from people who had skill in business and could help her develop a business model. Now Refuge Coffee provides full-time, living-wage jobs, which includes on-the-job training and some classroom training too.
Kitti’s husband Bill says “God made the wave; Kitti just got on the surfboard.” And “this is what it’s felt like all along,” Kitti says, though she points out that sometimes it feels more like a mechanical bull than a surfboard! It’s a little bit scary, but exhilarating. I think faith and a God who provides makes it more of an adventure than frightening.”
Someone wise recommended they start with a coffee truck, so they did. Their coffee catering business expanded to two trucks and coffee carts that now travel all over the Atlanta area.
Today, they also have a shop in Clarkston that has become that third place, “a kind of town center,” Kitti says. She’s not kidding. People from many countries are on the premises each day, selling items they make, meeting for coffee, using the space to work, coming to practice their English, or just to people watch.
And events are held at Refuge often, highlighting the cultures that live in the Clarkston community. Traditional African dancers perform alongside Americans breakdancing in a building where Chinese and Lebanese art pieces hang on the wall. One day, you can visit Refuge and learn a little Arabic. Another day, you can stop by and learn to make authentic chai. A missionary from England reads books to refugee children. An open mic night invites women storytellers to speak what is on their hearts. You will be hard pressed to find this many diverse people smiling at one another anywhere else.
“With” not “for”
“It’s a space we’ve created that is agenda-less and safe and welcoming. And everything we do – the job training, the space here in Clarkston and the events we do and the welcoming of people, and the catering – we do it all with the refugee community, not for the community.” Kitti says she’s learned that nuance is important.
And people who come have the opportunity to get to know refugees and learn what these vulnerable but resilient people are like. “They’re some of the most vulnerable people on the planet,” she says, “not terrorists.”
“They have run away from terrorism,” Kitti says. Her passion is evident when she begins to talk about this. “They are not drains on our economy. Within six months, they have to start paying back their plane tickets…. They get very little federal aid … less than $1,000 per person … ever.”
And they bring with them a desire to share their culture and give back to our community. Kitti says refugees are some of the most grateful people she has ever met. And there is a shared sense of awe of the generosity of others.
“It’s been really neat to have our team, some of whom have not really been in this space of seeing what generosity can do, be just in awe of how God provides. And even … our trainees who might or might not be followers of Jesus are blown away when people give to us.” Kitti says.
One of the job trainees came up with an idea that, when someone gives a gift, they sing a spontaneous, joyful “thank-you” song, record it on video and then ask Kitti to text the video to the giver of the gift. And it’s not just the gift they’re thanking the giver for. “It’s the gift of generosity,” she says.
When someone gives a gift, they sing a spontaneous, joyful “thank you” song, record it on video and then ask Kitti to text the video to the giver of the gift.
The refugees Kitti knows love generosity and are very generous themselves. “They don’t have much when they first arrive, but they give whatever they have.”
This is one of the things you can learn if you visit this third place. Or you might learn a few words of a language you’ve never heard before, or try a new food you’ve never tasted. But you will always be welcome.
“I think my job here on earth is to be to other people who God is to me.” God is a welcoming God, she explains. “He says, ‘Come unto me,’ and he doesn’t qualify it. He just says, ‘Come.’” Kitti sees God inviting people into his arms all through Scripture.
“People are valuable to God. They deserve that welcome,” she points out. “We’re stamped with the Imago Dei…. It implies we need to welcome each other. And if we can start there, in our communities, in our churches, in our homes even, I think the world would be a different place.”