Thursday, March 30, 2006

Most people wouldn’t think of going to church to get a cup of gourmet coffee and a bite to eat, read the newspaper and chat with friends.

One local church is hoping to change that, though patrons may never realize they are in a church building.

The National Community Church, a Capitol Hill nondenominational Christian church, opened Ebenezers Coffeehouse at Second and F streets Northeast this month to further its mission to live in and serve the community where members work, live and shop.

“If Jesus were living in our culture, he would probably hang out in coffeehouses,” said the Rev. Mark Batterson, lead pastor at National Community and the leader of the coffeehouse’s development. “The coffeehouse is an extension and expression of who we’ve been the past nine years.”

National Community Church was founded in 1996 and gathers for worship services in the AMC Theatres at Union Station and the Regal Cinemas at Ballston Common Mall. Church members view operating a coffee shop in a formerly run-down area, one block east of Union Station, as a way to improve their neighborhood.

“This is a $2.5 million investment in our community,” Mr. Batterson said. “We serve the people who live and work in our neighborhood.”

The coffeehouse will do business as a for-profit organization, paying taxes on all sales. But all profits will go toward the church’s community outreach work, Mr. Batterson said, including an Easter egg hunt next month.

National Community Church gathered funds to purchase the property four years ago for $325,000. The building was constructed in 1908 as a restaurant serving butter and eggs to train passengers. But over the past 20 years, the building became an eyesore that attracted drug dealers, Mr. Batterson said.

The church and its members — nearly three-quarters of which are single twenty-somethings — poured $2 million more into renovating the space around two of the original walls that historic preservationists said must remain.

Today, the 6,500-square-foot building has traditional coffeehouse seating on the first floor. The second floor houses church offices, and the basement handles overflow coffeehouse seating. On Saturday evenings, the basement is converted into space for worship services and other community events. During the summer, Ebenezers also will have outdoor seating.

Neighbors have welcomed development in the area east of Union Station. Station Place, a 1.5 million-square-foot office building, also recently opened at Second and F streets Northeast. Senate Square, a $245 million condominium with 480 units, is under construction at Third and H streets Northeast.

“They have a whole captive audience with Station Place employees … and a good crowd in the neighborhood,” said Patty Brosmer, executive director of the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District. “I think it will do well.”

Mr. Batterson said the group is optimistic about the shop’s potential.

“I have no idea what to expect,” he said. “I do know that you couldn’t have a much better location for a coffeehouse.”

Mr. Batterson said the shop and its employees won’t mix religious talk with its coffee.

“We’re doing it pretty low key,” Mr. Batterson said of advertising the coffeehouse’s church connection.

He expects most people to support the idea that any profits will be returned to the community through service work.

“Some people will wildly embrace it. There’s always going to be a person who would not go into a store because they are Christian or not Christian,” he said.

Sabine Neumann and Andreas Zierold didn’t notice the coffeehouse’s religious affiliation when they stopped in for some coffee last week and weren’t bothered by it when they found out about the shop’s owners.

“If it’s for a worthwhile cause, why not?” Mr. Zierold said.

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