Maybe it was the smell of coffee hanging in the air, soaking into the walls and the brown leather couches grouped together in corners. Maybe it was the murmur of voices not quite drowned out by the sound of guitars and violins playing in the next room. Maybe it was the Christmas lights strung through the rafters in the ceiling, or the locally-made art covering the whitewashed walls.

Or maybe, it was the friendly smiles of everyone I happened to make eye contact with.

Whatever it was that caught my attention, I was seeing for the first time all the millions of details that were the reasons I would come to love the Lighthouse Coffee Bar.

UMMM...A COFFEE?

It was a Tuesday night—Bluegrass night. A local group of musicians had been meeting here to play for as long as anyone could seem to remember, sitting in a big, lopsided circle of wooden chairs in the main room. They would play a song, talk and laugh for a minute, and then strike up another tune. Around the melody that was just a notch above the level of background music, couples sat around tables sipping hot drinks, students hunched over their laptops, and little kids ran squealing between groups of people.

It was the kind of place that seemed noisy, busy, and content with itself. I felt, in comparison, small and quiet.

I made my way to the counter and tried to make sense of the menu. It was printed on a series of muted-toned wooden blocks on the wall, forming an earthy, artsy rainbow. I managed to find the drinks section, but it didn’t make much sense. Names like Chocolate Rhapsody, The Blushing Penguin, and the Sinatra stood out.

What was even in those?

“What’ll it be,” asked the barista. He was tall and thin, with a friendly smile on his face. His finger was poised over the iPad, or, more commonly known as a cash register.

“Umm…” I had to pick something. Didn’t they have anything that resembled a latte? My eye alighted on one that looked promising. Lots of caramel, chocolate, and espresso. Perfect. “Can I get a Galaxy, please? Medium, hot.”

I got my drink and made my way to a table. It was delicious, but no one warned me about the sheer amount of espresso in it—I would be up all night. Not that I minded — I was happy to stay here as late as I could. I loved the voices and the music around me. It was almost a relief to just sit on the edge of the room and be not quite part of it.

LOVE AT FIRST SIP

The Lighthouse is a place where people go to be together. It’s where couples go on first dates, where local musicians play at open-mic night, and where families go for an after-dinner treat.

Customers walking into the front door are greeted with a large main room scattered with wooden tables and chairs, and a sign proclaiming in bold, yellow lettering, “LIGHTHOUSE COFFEE: Community, Art, Eats, Drinks.”

Tables and chairs are scattered every few feet, and a small stage sits in a corner. A small side-room with red walls is filled with couches, perfect for family gatherings or study groups. Upstairs is a small loft, good for getting away from noise when downstairs gets too crowded.

The Lighthouse Coffeeshop neighbors a church of the same name: the two buildings are so close to each other that they can share a parking lot. Part of the space between the two is taken up by the coffeeshop’s back patio, containing a few wire tables and chairs, a small forest of potted plants, and a large wooden stage. If you sit on the right side of the patio, you can see the gas station and the car repair shop next door through the steel-bar fence, but most people are too busy working or reading or talking to pay much attention to those.

People meet for Bible studies in the upstairs loft, have birthday parties in the side-room, and even get married on the back patio. At the Lighthouse, it’s perfectly acceptable to turn to the stranger next to you and strike up a conversation or invite a staff member to sit with you on their break.

If you lose your wallet there, it’s almost certain someone will return it to you. If you stay for long enough, you might make a lifelong friend.

This was the first of many evenings I would spend at the Lighthouse. Nowadays, my friends there don’t usually believe me when I say I used to be quiet when I was there. My first several months as a regular were spent keeping to myself, hunched over a table getting homework done and then, when there was no more work to do, reading a book. I was too shy to talk to anyone, except to order my usual Galaxy.

GROWING TOGETHER

There were a lot of things that kept me to myself, and homework was only one of them. There was a certain fear in introducing myself to new people — an anxiety that started in my stomach and worked its way up my throat.

Sitting at my little table, I would look around at the couples leaning toward each other over their coffee, or the groups of friends who met here to spend time together. Everyone here had someone else to be with. How could I be brave enough to interrupt that? It was easier to just keep to myself, with my Galaxy for company. I was out of the house and around people, so I felt like that should have been enough.

I’m not sure what first got me to come out of my shell. Maybe it was the children who would sometimes run up to my table and ask what I was doing. I didn’t mind talking with them for a few minutes before they were called away by apologetic parents. Once, a six-year-old boy ran up to me as soon as I started eating my dinner, laying his hand on my shoulder and asking for a bite.

Maybe what got me to open up was the familiar faces behind the counter — it’s hard to avoid talking to people when you’re always there during their shift. Donovan the barista was my first real friend there, and that was only because he started interrupting my work every once in a while to talk. I don’t remember what exactly the cause was, but at some point, I began to notice that both the Lighthouse and I were changing. We were starting to open up to each other.

The Lighthouse wasn’t always the bustling, hole-in-the-wall place it is today. In fact, it used to be the opposite—a washed-out burger joint and then a pawnshop, run-down and dirty. That is, until the Lighthouse Church purchased it.

Most would have just had this eyesore of a building demolished, but Dan, one of the church’s pastors, had other ideas. After a small-scale coffee bar had outgrown its space and been shut down, they needed something to replace it. Dan looked at the popcorn ceiling, peeling floor, and dark, closed-up rooms of this old building next door, and saw ways to make it better.

“He had a vision from the very beginning,” said Debbie, one of the managers. “And he thought to himself that church members were going to think he was crazy.”

That didn’t stop him, though, and soon the dilapidated old pawn shop was theirs. It took over two years of renovations and volunteer work, but eventually, the Lighthouse came into being. It would never have happened if someone hadn’t looked at something dark, closed-off, and hopeless, and seen potential in it.

The Lighthouse wasn’t done growing, though, as I have seen it change quite a bit just in the years I’ve been going there. It felt smaller somehow when I first started spending time there. The decorations were sparse, and the staff was only there for the paychecks.

Now, the building feels big and full and open. Lights are strung up in the rafters, potted plants and flowers grace almost every tabletop, and doors and windows are left open on cool days to let the breeze in. People talk to each other, sometimes so loudly you can hardly hear the background music. And the staff talk to each other like they’re a family. They know they can ask each other for help and support whether it’s with a problem at work or in their personal lives. They give each other rides to work, help each other move, and make runs to Walmart when the coffeeshop’s inventory is getting low.

Whatever they need, someone will help them out.

As I started to get more comfortable around the Lighthouse, Friday evenings doing homework at my table eventually turned into nights talking with the people whom I encountered and was starting to recognize. Between the staff and the other regulars, I had a lot of new friends. I began spending entire afternoons curled up on the big, worn-out leather couch by the window. My homework was forgotten; I was too busy getting to know everyone.

A CUP OF HOPE

After Donovan, there was Matthew, whose arms were covered in tattoos and who always used just a little more syrup than everyone else in the coffee. Then they hired Aaron and Warren, who always asked me how I was doing when I placed an order. As the Lighthouse grew and changed, the original staff began to move on to other jobs, and a stream of new faces began to appear.

I don’t remember exactly when Amy started working there, but she quickly became one of my closest friends. She has a sweet, heart-shaped face, and a personality to match. I can find her sitting at a table on her breaks filling a sketchbook with doodles of the details she sees around her, and the coffee she makes always tastes sweeter than everyone else’s.

Stephen is Amy’s best friend and appeared at the Lighthouse soon after she did. He can fix just about anything that breaks around the coffee shop, from blenders to ceiling fans to door hinges.

It felt like, every time I went there, I made a new friend. I do not know exactly when it happened, but one day I looked around at this tiny, hole-in-the-wall coffeehouse and realized it was one of my favorite places to be.

At some point, I began to look back and realized that the Lighthouse did for me the exact same thing someone else did for it.

I walked in the front doors for the first time feeling closed-off, content to be left alone. But the people there pulled me in and put in the time and work to be my friend. We listened to each other; we opened up.

When they found something broken, they listened and helped until it was fixed. I couldn’t stay in the dark for very long—eventually, the light began to shine through. At some point, the Lighthouse and I both came to life. Over the years, we’ve seen each other get louder, friendlier, and more confident. We encouraged each other to grow.

The Lighthouse is a ministry to far more of its community members than just me. Since it first opened, it’s done everything from paying part of college students’ tuition to ministering to grieving parents who have lost a child. They’ve even ministered to recovering drug addicts, providing counseling and a safe place to be on a day when they have nowhere else to go.

“People come here looking for hope,” Debbie said. “It’s a place they can be comfortable without being preached at.”

Not that faith isn’t an important part of the Lighthouse. Several staff members double as pastors at the Lighthouse Church, and anytime I’m struggling with anything to do with faith, they can always help me sort it out. Stephen was the first person at the Lighthouse to hear my testimony, and Amy has given me advice on everything from prayer to finding God in a difficult situation. It’s hard not to love God when you spend so much time with people who talk about Him so much. When I walk into the Lighthouse, I can feel God there. When I need to hear Him speak, that’s where I go to wait for it. I’m not the only one—people host worship services there, meet to pray with friends, or just to spend quiet time by themselves with their Bible. If the church is a place where people go to be with God, then the Lighthouse is its own kind of church.

Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the Lighthouse is the art you encounter there. From paintings on the walls to the chalkboard art displaying parts of the menu, to songs played by local musicians on open mic nights, the Lighthouse wants to give people the chance to express themselves. It’s an open project, and everyone gets to contribute.

Whatever talent anyone can bring to the table, its welcome—community, after all, is meant to create.

One of the best nights I spent there was the swing dance. There was talk among the staff about hosting one every month, but as far as I know the one I went to several months ago was the most recent to actually happen. I didn’t have a dress, or a date, or any idea how to swing dance—but nothing in the world could have kept me from showing up.

I had never seen the back patio look as beautiful as it did that night. Christmas lights were strung up around the wooden stage, forming a makeshift dance floor with a few tables and chairs on the edges. Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble floated on the evening wind. The sun was just beginning to set, casting a gentle glow on the small circle of partygoers that started out the night. I had been planning on sitting most of the dance out, but Amy and Stephen had other ideas.

Despite my protestations, I set my mug of coffee down on a nearby table and let myself be pulled into a crash course in swing dancing. Stephen was a patient teacher, no matter how many times I managed to step on his feet.

The night wore on and the sun set, leaving the glow of Christmas lights to illuminate my steps as I alternating between dancing and sitting off to the side, talking to the staff and regulars.

My coffee grew cold as I met Stephen’s roommate Zach, swapped stories of classes student life, and even heard one regular’s story of how Stephen and Amy had saved his life on a cliff-diving adventure gone wrong. As the night went on, I lost myself in a whirlwind of lights, smiling faces, and jazzy Frank Sinatra numbers. Around eleven, the lights were turned off and everyone started getting ready to go home, but I could have danced for another hour at least.

It was a very different evening than my usual time spent curled up on the couch reading, but the Lighthouse was doing the same work on me—it made it impossible for me to be shy; I was too busy laughing and dancing. I couldn’t stay closed-off when I was sweaty and out of breath and smiling from ear to ear.

My friends made it impossible to keep to myself.

At the end of the day, what’s the goal?

The people, Debbie says.

“It’s not about money, it’s about ministry,” she added.

The Lighthouse is the kind of place you can find staff members sitting down to talk with people when they have a slow business day, and customers joke with the baristas while they’re placing an order.

As long as they’re reaching out to someone who needs it, it’s considered a good day. If someone needs prayer, or a friend, or just a cup of hot coffee, the Lighthouse is the place to go. I’ve seen it grow into a place that feels more like home than a business, and I know it isn’t stopping there. The people at the Lighthouse is here to make a difference, and they’re only getting better at it.

And me? I’m at the same place I’ve always been, sitting at my little table with a hot, medium Galaxy to drink.

This place looks so much brighter than it did the first time I was here—or maybe I’m just seeing it with brighter eyes. Everything here holds a memory and a lesson in how to open up. The Lighthouse and I have both been so good for each other, and we’ve both grown since we met. From a scared, lonely girl and a worn-out pawnshop to a friend and a beautiful coffee shop—and I can’t wait to see where we go next.