BY THE REV. CHRISTIE MELBY-GIBBONS |
Seven months of walking a couple-mile stretch, back and forth, peeking through dirty windows into boarded up storefronts in search of a home for our community cafe landed me on the corner of 45th St. & North Ave. in Milwaukee, WI. Our neighborhood is called Sherman Park. You may have heard of it on the news a few summers ago when the riots happened after a local police officer fatally shot our neighbor Sylville Smith. Those news stories played (and replayed) images of burning cars and angry people. While there was anger, and things were set on fire, those news stories didn’t mention that it’s a lovely neighborhood, comprised of lovely people. Or that the next morning, local faith communities and neighbors held a prayer service and neighborhood clean-up in the very spot where the flames and anger of the previous night had blazed.
Our area of the Sherman Park neighborhood is somewhat neglected by the City and lacks basic things, such as a grocery store. This is why we decided to occupy a storefront right there on 45th & North. In my months of searching for a space, I contacted several landlords and walked through many abandoned storefronts. All of them had a musty smell, animal droppings, litter, broken glass, years of dust, broken walls and floors. But the one we now occupy whispered to my spirit: “I am the one! There is peace in these walls.” I could see past the plywood shoddily air-nailed up over windows with gaps to the outdoors. I could see past the layers of chipping tile, concrete, and sticky tar to the stunning mosaic tiled floor intricately laid in the 1930s. I knew that sunshine would flood through the front windows for most of each day. I knew that we could practice resurrection in that space and turn the mustiness into warmth, the mess into beauty, in large part by uncovering the goodness of the place. We set to work doing just that in November 2015. One year later, we opened our doors as Tricklebee Cafe—Wisconsin’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant—and have been thriving ever since.
Most of our small staff and core group of volunteers reside in our neighborhood. Our cafe is a true community hub where people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and economic realities come together around the concept of a shared table. Our delicious menus are plant-based, differ daily, and are comprised of “rescued” food that is about to “expire” or be wasted. We’re in our third year of operating and we are bustling most days—feeding 50-60 people at lunchtime, and 10-20 people at our weekly Agape Meal on Thursday evenings. We have a snack program for youth in the neighborhood who are food insecure. We have a weekly gathering of artists in our space, to foster creativity and peace. We tend several garden plots on our block alongside teen gardening interns that we hire each growing season. We recently partnered with a local litter-pick-up business to clean our block. When the business owner first came into the cafe to meet me, he—a native of our block years ago—looked around in delight (and dismay). He was astounded at the transformation of the place. He then told me that our space was once the apartment where crack cocaine was dispensed to the neighborhood. He laughed as he said it was a “very popular” place back then, with people going in and out constantly.
The storefront that we are currently renting sat empty for about a decade before we moved in. I have a good relationship with the drug dealer who used to sell on our front step. When we began renovations, he politely moved to the street corner to continue his business, so we could get in and out the front door without hitting him. Now that we’re open, he pops in regularly for coffee or lemonade, and quesadillas and black bean chili when we make those. How ironic that people are going in and out of the place all the time again, but now for something more nourishing and life-giving.
Sometimes we find nourishment and life in the most unlikely places. An unlikely message came through the airwaves on Easter morning this year while my family tuned in the radio on our way to a potluck breakfast with the Lutheran congregation (Spirit of Peace) with whom we worship regularly. I was scanning through the pre-set stations (as I’m oft to do), and we landed on a local station that plays some pretty lewd hip hop. I was ready to scan on, but was in awe to hear some of the truest praise of Jesus through gospel singing that I have ever heard! I looked at my spouse in dismay (and delight), wondering at how a station which I can only stomach so long because of the obscene language and sexist portrayals of women could up and glorify Jesus Christ so directly and purely. I was suddenly sitting in a modern day parable. I knew in that moment, that THIS is what the kin(g)dom of heaven is like: praise where there was (and will be) the pornographic…glory where there was (and will be) scandal.
If our friend never lets his drug business go, moving onto more savory modes of income, he will still be an integral part of the kin(g)dom of heaven. I hope that the space which houses Tricklebee Cafe will never return to being a crack dispensary, but I know that even when it was such God’s Spirit was in these walls, whispering “Peace!” to those who entered and exited, however frequently.
We have hopes of buying the building which houses our cafe ministry. We want to renovate the 3 other units so we can provide sufficient housing to families in need of safety and warmth. Our prayer is that we can continue to be a place of lightness, grace, and welcome, for all people regardless of their past (or present) choices, or ability to buy a meal.
About the Author
The Rev. Christie Melby-Gibbons (an ordained minister in the Moravian Church) is the executive director of Tricklebee Cafe, an emerging ministry of the Moravian Church in America. Her undergraduate work was in Russian Language & Area Studies, as well as a self-designed major: Nature Theology, considering questions at the intersection of theological and environmental studies. As an artist, entrepreneur, spouse, and mother, she finds joy in simple living. Contact Christie at [email protected] or (414) 488-2477.