There are hundreds of thousands of church basements in America, but none are quite like the space beneath Saint Paul’s United Methodist Church’s auxiliary building in downtown State College.
That space, which is located on the corner of Locust Lane and Calder Way, is home to Abba Java Coffee House. Calling it just a coffee house doesn’t do the place justice, as it truly is much more than that.
The coffee house itself is a ministry of the Wesley Foundation, a campus ministry sponsored by the United Methodist Church that’s existed at Penn State for nearly 100 years. Often, people hear about Abba Java, but don’t realize that it is actually a part of a church.
It all started in 2003 when one of the church’s former pastors was a part of the doctoral program at Penn State. She wanted to think about “doing church differently – being church in the world versus traditional sitting in a pew,” explained Jen Gruendler, who is in her fifth year as campus minister and director of the Wesley Foundation at Penn State.
It was her dream that started the Abba Java Coffee House 15 years ago as a welcoming study haven for students. It would offer free coffee, tea, and snacks to all who came through the doors, but it’s really evolved over the past six years, and only became a hit with students in the past two years.
Even with all of the recent growth, the Abba Java Coffee House and Wesley Foundation have been able to stick to their shared vision statement: “Be fed. Be known. Be loved.”
Be fed, both literally by all of the food that Abba Java gives away and spiritually “in the sense of being cared for just for who you are,” coffee house manager Sue Justice explained.
Be known, because there are so many students on campus, and it’s nice to go somewhere that you feel personally welcomed. Gruendler and Justice do their best to get to know regulars themselves even though it’s been admittedly more difficult with how busy the coffee house has gotten. Still, the bottom line that Abba Java strives for is simple: You can leave there knowing that “someone actually looked at you, smiled at you, said hello, and actually cared today,” Justice said.
And be loved, in the Christian sense, which translates into Abba Java’s goal of being “ridiculously hospitable and generous.”
It’s a mission that starts with the administrators and trickles all the way down to the coffee house’s volunteers. The volunteer pool, which has grown with Abba Java, now consists of more than 40 congregation members and more than 40 students who give their time to make the coffee house a warm, welcoming home away from home.
Photo by Anthony Fiset | Onward State
Volunteers are essential to the operation because, as Gruendler jokes, it has a terrible business model.
The real key to keeping costs low also helps the greater good: food reclamation.
About six years ago, a volunteer at Abba Java also worked at Irving’s, and she realized how much food the bagel shop wasted every day. The volunteer asked Justice if she could bring it to the coffee house. Of course, she had to make sure it was okay with the Irving’s manager, so she drafted a letter explaining their cause to request donations.
Once Irving’s was on board with donating its leftovers, Abba Java went around to other businesses to ask for donations. Abba Java now receives food donations from Jimmy John’s, Weis Markets and Sowers Harvest Cafe.
The underground coffee shop also recently started working with the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which has acted as the liaison between Abba Java and Penn State’s sustainability office. This allows Abba Java to receive leftover prepared foods from the two Starbucks on campus twice a week. This commitment to food reclamation does more than just keep Abba Java’s costs low.
“When I was a student, I know there were kids that were dumpster diving,” Justice said.
Now the coffee house can prevent food from being thrown out and ensure that food that would have been wasted is safely handled and served to everyone — especially those who may be food insecure.
For Penn State student who have never been to Abba Java Coffee House, it’s the perfect spot to study for midterms or finals. Don’t let the fact that it is in a basement and/or a part of a church deter you.
“Part of what we do that’s really important is that there are no strings attached,” Gruendler said. “We’re not out with an agenda, we’re not trying to convert you. There really is no catch — except we want to be in students’ lives and be a good neighbor in our community.”
No matter who you are — Christian or non-Christian, good student or bad, local resident or not, from outside of Philadelphia or from outside of Pittsburgh — you are welcome at Abba Java. Even their wifi password is ‘you are welcome here’ — long before University Park Undergraduate Association coined the same slogan on banners downtown.