Diocesan News

New Williamsburg Cafe Serves Up Jesus With a Side of Free Coffee

A relaxing, fun-filled atmosphere is a great place in which to bring young adults like these closer to the Catholic faith, said SH NY Cafe organizers. (Photos: Paula Katinas)

WILLIAMSBURG — Here in the “hipster capital of the world,” coffee cafes abound. But there’s no place else quite like SH NY Space, where, along with cream and sugar, they pour faith into every cup of Joe. And the coffee is free!

SH NY, which stands for Shalom New York, is a cafe with a mission that had its grand opening on March 18. Open once a week on Saturdays, SH NY Space is run by missionaries from the Shalom Catholic Community and is located in the basement of their mission house at 21 Nassau Ave. on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

The Shalom Catholic Community’s work is centered at the San Damiano Mission Catholic Church, an evangelism facility next door to the cafe at the site of Holy Family Church. The Shalom missionaries work all over the world but have been in the Diocese of Brooklyn only since 2015. 

At that time, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio asked them to establish a mission specifically to evangelize in Williamsburg — a community that is rapidly gentrifying and attracting millennials and Gen Z young adults. The Shalom Catholic Community accepted Bishop DiMarzio’s invitation to set up shop there.

The diocese is also making an effort to evangelize in Williamsburg through the arts. The Emmaus Center, which opened in 2021, offers a wide variety of events, including concerts and art exhibitions.

The new cafe, which started welcoming guests even before its grand opening, is an extension of that evangelization mission, said Barbara Freitas, a lay missionary who serves as the cafe’s coordinator. “We offer free coffee to the people, and the idea is to attract them to this space and make them feel at home,” she explained. 

SH NY Space is starting off with a bang, according to Freitas, who said dozens of people heard about the place through word-of-mouth and are showing up for coffee. “We were very impressed with the number of people who came in. We were really amazed,” she added.

In addition to coffee, the mission also hosts karaoke nights and movie nights — all with the purpose of introducing young people to the Catholic faith or welcoming them back if they were baptized Catholic but have fallen away from religion. 

“This place is a place of encounter for young people. And here they can have an experience with a community,” Freitas said of the cafe and the mission church next door, which holds Masses, prayer services, and concerts.

Father Cristiano Pinheiro, a Shalom missionary and the administrator of San Damiano Mission Catholic, said the cafe is a great evangelization vehicle precisely because of its informal setting. 

“And when we talk about love and unity, communion, and friendship, everybody is thirsty for that. This is the power of community. The power of the living person Jesus Christ can reach any heart. Of course, some hearts will be walled, and some hearts will be unwalled,” he said.

Community is exactly what Chris Mathews has found at San Damiano Mission Catholic Church and at the new cafe. “I come here for the community, for the people, and I love the way we worship here. I love the friendships that I have formed here,” he explained.  Mathews is a practicing Catholic but admitted, “I had a period where I wasn’t close with my faith.” 

He started going to church again about 10 years ago and has been going to Mass ever since, most recently at the San Damiano Mission Catholic.

The Shalom missionaries are battling strong cultural headwinds. According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of Americans — nearly a third of the population — are “nones,” people who say they are not affiliated with any religion.

With each cup of coffee, the missionaries serve up a spoonful of faith. Fernanda Pinheiro served a lot of coffee on a recent day in the cafe.

Adam St. Laurent used to be a “none.” A native of Delaware, he moved to New York in 2010 and started coming to San Damiano Mission Church three years ago, not for Mass but to attend meetings held by a 12-step group. He said he had issues with drugs and alcohol in the past, and even though he was now clean and sober, he still went to the meetings because he found them comforting.

Attending the meetings gave St. Laurent the opportunity to meet Shalom missionaries because they unlocked the church to let everyone inside. He became intrigued and started coming to the church even on days when the 12-step meetings weren’t taking place.  

Looking back, he now realizes it was something deeper. “I had a calling to Christ, I believe. And slowly, through the missionaries and Father Cristiano, they brought me in and eventually brought me to the faith,” he recalled. He was baptized Catholic last year.

“Coming to faith is a personal experience, but I don’t think we do it alone. The conversations I have had through Shalom with the missionaries, members, and people who are around and prayer groups really guide me,” he explained.

St. Laurent, a  general contractor, converted the basement space in the mission house and turned it into a cafe.

The relaxed, informal atmosphere of SH NY is what Alexandra Medrano likes best. “And something Shalom has is that they combine a lot of art with a lot of joy to praise God. And I feel like that it’s really similar to who I am, my personality. I always feel like I’m at home when I come here,” she said.

The Shalom Catholic Community is a missionary organization founded in Brazil in 1982 which works directly with the Vatican. Shalom, which boasts some 70,000 members, including 10,000 missionaries, operates in 32 countries.

In many of those countries, the missionaries have opened coffee cafes to draw young people in. It’s a template that works, Freitas said.