by Taylore Miller
The Abbey is a coffeehouse church located in a free-standing storefront beside Beloved Community Church. It is located at 131 41st Street South in the Avondale area of Birmingham. Along this street, which runs from the Norfolk Southern’s Alabama Great Southern Railroad to the entrance of Avondale Park, the Abbey is on the end closer to the railroad tracks. This fact is important to this discussion because there is a stigma that the closer you get to the railroad tracks, and, surely, as you cross them, the more ‘unsafe’ you are. Crossing the railroad tracks and driving a little further down places you in the ‘projects,’ officially known as Tom Brown Village.
As the area surrounding 41st Street South undergoes increasing gentrification, the Abbey caters to those who are homeless, underserved, ignored, and increasingly pushed out from an area that was once their home. With a location that situates it just beyond the train tracks and further from hipster places like Melt, Cookie Dough Magic, and Saturn, the Abbey attracts those living and suffering within the Avondale community while people from ‘over the mountain’–a term used to describe those who live in the more affluent areas of Birmingham south of Red Mountain–find it less appealing. The Abbey’s small congregation is important to our understanding of the history of Birmingham. In it two groups of people intersect. Here one can see that the effects of gentrification reach religious communities too, possibly causing leaders to choose the main population they will serve.
The Abbey opened in February of 2015 as a non-profit project of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. It leases its space from Beloved Community Church which had renovated the building in 2006. This coffeehouse church was a dramatically new venture for Alabama Episcopalians. Historically, Episcopalians were primarily affluent and powerful. The Reverend Katie Nakamura Rengers had a heart for the marginalized, and she led the creation of the Abbey as a coffeehouse church. Inspiration for the project came from a variety of Emerging Church congregations, including the House for all Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. The idea was to minister to young people who are “dechurched” or “unchurched… people whom the traditional church has marginalized or ignored” (Rengers 2019). With this audience in mind, Rengers wanted the Abbey to be a “neutral space but [a] holy space” as well (Rengers 2019). This divide is pictured in the set-up of the interior of the Abbey. When you walk into the front door, there are wooden pews, a piano, and an altar in a distinctly holy space at the front. Above this area, there is even a sign that attests that this is holy space.
As you go deeper into the Abbey, you run into an area that has tables and chairs lined up against the wall as well as an area with couches at the back of the building. The coffee counter with the kitchen and dish area behind it is directly next to the table and couch area, set up in an open way to invite conversation with patrons and for a more fluid relation between those working and those being served. During the week, the Abbey operated as a coffee shop. On Sundays, the worshipping community met at the Abbey from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Initially the coffee shop was supported by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where Rengers was associate rector for young adults. The goal was to develop the Abbey into a self-financially supported business.
Over time, however, the staff at the Abbey discovered that they faced a problem. They sought to serve those marginalized and ignored. However, many of the marginalized and ignored brought with them empty bellies and empty pockets. Rengers and her staff had to navigate how to serve paying customers, minister to the hungry – spiritually and physically – create a safe environment, and avoid stepping on anyone’s toes in the process, all while keeping the business side of the coffeehouse-church afloat. The staff made a few decisions that defined the business. First, the staff were to be vessels of Christian hospitality to both paying and non-paying customers. As Rengers explained, “I tell our baristas and our worshipping community that the assumption we make is that every person who walks in here is a beloved child of God, whether they are Christian or not, whether they can pay or not” (Rengers 2019). Second, non-paying customers were to sign a membership card. This card included rules such as maintaining the cleanliness of the bathroom, avoiding loitering, and helping the staff with tasks such as bringing boxes in or taking the trash out. With their membership card, non-paying patrons were allowed one ‘in-house’ cup of coffee and/or a PB&J or grilled cheese sandwich every day for free. Third, the staff at the Abbey did not only serve the marginalized but they hired them also. Rengers sought to hire the homeless, the drug and alcohol recoverees, and those not defined by traditional age, race, gender identity, and sexual orientation categories.
The Abbey succeeded at serving and ministering to the marginalized, but failed to produce a self-sustaining business. In the summer of 2019, the Abbey experienced a lot of changes and ceased coffee sales. The Episcopal Diocese of Alabama cut funding for a priest at the Abbey, the deacon retired, and the staff changed. Anyone continuing to work at the Abbey agreed to do so on a volunteer basis. Rengers said she learned that it is hard for Christian love and fellowship to coexist with business.
The worshipping community still meets at the Abbey every Sunday from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. This congregation has about twenty-five people, primarily from the Avondale and Crestwood areas of Birmingham. A quarter of the congregation identifies as LGBTQ. The Reverend Katie Rengers still runs the Abbey, equipping volunteers and serving weekday coffee and breakfast to the people without homes and the less wealthy of the community from 8 to 9 am. The Abbey also has an Education for Ministry program that meets on Wednesday nights.
As a religious community in a rapidly gentrifying area of Birmingham the changes that the Abbey has undergone in the past four years illustrate the possible effects of gentrification on a religious community. The Abbey continues to choose to serve those who are marginalized, ignored, and affected by gentrification. The Abbey serves a population on one side of gentrification–the sufferers. In doing this, the Abbey garners less interest from those on the other side of gentrification–the beneficiaries.
Address: 131 41st St S, Birmingham, AL 35222
Affiliation: The Episcopal Church
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Poe, Kelly. 2014. “Coffee, Saints and Sinners: The Abbey to open in Avondale as a coffee shop and a church.” AL.com. Last modified December 9, 2014. https://www.al.com/business/2014/12/coffee_saints_and_sinners_the.html
Rengers, Katie Nakamura. 2019. Interview by David Bains, Samford University, September 3, 2019.
–––. 2019. Interview by Taylore Miller, Birmingham, Alabama, September 6, 2019.
–––. 2019. “Traveling Light.” https://revkatierengers.home.blog/2019/07/09/traveling-light/
“The Abbey.” Accessed October 22, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/theabbeybham/
“What is the Abbey?” Accessed October 22, 2019. http://www.theabbeybham.com/
Published October 30, 2019