"Cultural, community, coffee" 

The best club I ever belonged to met in a leaf fort. My brother and I were 10 and 11 and we built it with our friends down the street, stuffing crunchy leaves into a chain-link fence and balancing cardboard walls and a roof around it. We covered the cardboard with more leaves. As the autumn world got darker and colder, we met inside this damp hovel for no other reason than to be close and to forget that school had destroyed our lives once again.

As we grew, I hope we learned that utopia is better measured by the things you let in, than by the things you keep out. And of course, that there is no such thing as utopia. With that in mind, I’m checking out a different sort of clubhouse, new to Indianapolis. Though it’s not built of leaves or dirt, its collective creators call it Earth House. Members welcome the world to make music, art and connections.

Organic coffee, sustainable culture

The Earth House Café is housed in the Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church, at the intersection of New York and East streets. Set amid pricey brick Victorians, the church occupies prime real estate, walking distance to both the Massachusetts Avenue arts district and downtown offices. Legend has it that the expansive 2,000-square-foot café was once the 19th century congregation’s carriage house. It is now a trendy community center, furnished with café tables, sectional couches and retro bucket chairs. A low platform stage is lit warmly by six floor-to-ceiling stained-glass windows.

Kate Lamont, known best for the warm, jazzy vocals heard in Mab Lab and Blueprint Music, explains why the Earth House Collective is anchored by the city’s only 100 percent organic café. For the 30-year-old musician, other coffeehouses ruin organic coffee when they add refined sugar. So here, the sugar is unbleached and the cream steroid-free. As Lamont explains, choosing organics isn’t a fad, it’s a defense. “I hate that the food supply is so poisoned that I have to buy ‘organic’ to have food the way it should be.”

Earth House members strive to foster life, like coffee, as it should be. Working with her husband Joshua Strodtman, Lamont is rebuilding the unusual venue she helped form in 2002 “to put culture into the hands of the people.” For four years, United States of Mind hosted free open mic poetry readings, African drum circles, hip-hop dancing and all-age music shows. USOM drew a surprising mix of young and old, black and white, rich and poor to the back room of a Muslim bookstore in the southern tip of the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood.

Lamont met Strodtman there, where she marveled at the creative power of community. “People found music and poetry inside of themselves that they didn’t know was there.”

It wasn’t lack of money that closed USOM’s doors. It was lack of insurance. Strodtman, known also for his band Undefeatable Beats, still has the letter from the insurance underwriter. USOM had the money for insurance, but did not have the assets (i.e., property) to offset the apparently tremendous risk of staging hip-hop, rap and alternative rock under one roof. “It was validating to hear that our existence wasn’t legal,” recalls Strodtman with a laugh.

Since USOM’s eviction, Strodtman and Lamont have continued their musical lives at venues like Radio Radio and the Vogue. For 10 years, Strodtman has played at an all-black church every Sunday, where the minister greets the blond, bearded conga player as his “blue-eyed soul brother.” Strodtman, a master teacher of African drumming, has also visited hundreds of school auditoriums to demonstrate the link between hip-hop to West African drumming and the oldest culture in the world. If students want to learn more, he invites them to join his Saturday morning drum circle, now held at the Earth House.

“A teacher’s first job is to see greatness in people,” Strodtman says, sounding more like a spiritual leader than music instructor. “I have everyone put their hand on their heart. They have a heart beating in time. Their whole life is relying on that rhythm.” He admonishes his students, children and adults, to challenge the metronome. Strodtman says, “They are not in tune with the rhythms of nature.”

Nature’s rhythms take over in an indiscernible pattern at Earth House’s free, Friday night open mics. Future Freespeaker nights, as they are called, will have rotating hosts and, perhaps, more structure, but during my summer visit, an atmosphere of easygoing acceptance prevailed.

Freespeak and birthday cake

Café manager Seariyn ibn Tin Abdul-Hakim (called simply Teen), of the band iSociety, is training two teenage Earth House volunteers to brew tea for me, “three minutes only or it will become bitter.” At a picnic table, Earth House Volunteer Coordinator Becky Bickel cuts birthday cake for her partner, mom and kids. Closer to the stage, another family with three boys leans in to hear artist Raii Alkemi offer his poetic world views, accompanied by his 18-year-old son Ahmad’s (stage name V8) accomplished beat box. The mic is spontaneously passed to Freespeaker regular Elijah Chase, a soapbox orator raging in rhyme against war and poverty. When it seems that everyone has had his say, guitarist-singer Abdul-Hakim takes the stage with drummer Strodtman, to rock on a gentle reggae groove.

They made it look effortless, but I suspect that being this relaxed requires some prep work. In my world, for even the most casual party, the toilet must be cleaned.

Lamont confesses to cleaning the communal toilet frequently, washing down office walls and dusting off library shelves. But this is not just Lamont and Strodtman’s clubhouse. It is a growing collective of people and organizations pitching in time, supplies and money when available, to make the 19th century building a viable venue for art shows, film forums, musicians, social activism and church. The Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church is a founding and very active member of the Earth House Collective.

The coffeehouse dream was born of the church, when members were embroiled in conflict with their Lockerbie Square neighbors and each other. Though controversy threatened to destroy the congregation, instead it laid the foundation for ongoing community conversations, over coffee.

In the spring of 2007, the nearby Lighthouse Mission shut down, releasing about 200 homeless people, including some 60 paroled sex offenders. The number of homeless in Lockerbie Square increased again when police fenced in an abandoned building and shut out its unofficial residents. Centered around Christ, the nonprofit group that serves hot lunch to the homeless once a month from Lockerbie Central’s church kitchen went from serving 150 people one month to 400 the next. With a mandate to serve the least and the lost, Pastor Chad Abbott welcomed the homeless to worship and to sleep on the church’s steps.

Fear spread through the upscale neighborhood on rumors of rape, pedophilia and dropping home values. One of Lockerbie Central’s core families left the congregation. Angry neighbors demanded change.

“Probably the single most important thing I did in 10 years of pastoring,” Abbott recalls, “was sitting down with our neighbors: homeless neighbors, neighbors whose houses were worth 500 grand and people from Carmel and Broad Ripple.” In face-to-face talks, the community came together. The church recognized its failure to address problems like public defecation. Homeowners realized that, while keeping their community clean and safe, they wanted to address the poverty in their midst. They formed the Lockerbie Homeless Initiative.

Around that time, Abbott was touring the church with his trustees, noting needed repairs. It struck the group that the large first-floor room had the potential to bring church and community together. “Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a coffee shop in here?” they said. “We would have art on the walls and people from the neighborhood.”

Church volunteers tore down an oversized stage and peeled back layers of carpet, linoleum and plywood to reveal a soulfully rough hardwood floor. They had seed money for lighting and equipment from the sale of a former parsonage. A timely church donation from prominent Methodist and former Indiana first lady Judy O’Bannon arrived just in time to complete the coffee bar.

The way painting one room in your house convinces you to paint the next room and the next, the coffee shop led to the creation of a bookstore in the adjacent room. Empowered by their young pastor, the small, multigenerational church began a media collective and hosted a 2007 Fringe Festival art show and a film forum spotlighting environmental issues. They housed One Paycheck Away, a magazine written by homeless volunteers, and gave space to Off the Streets, a theater featuring the homeless.

Mixing the sacred with the secular

Lamont discovered this burgeoning arts and social justice scene last spring, when she was scouting for an office to promote her music. When she saw the church tower’s choir “green room,” she knew it would be a good office. When she saw the café, she knew she should call her husband.

United States of Mind had a new home.

Since then, Lamont and Strodtman have drawn more people to the collective concept, like the LAMP Fine Art Gallery and the Indianapolis Peace and Justice Center (see sidebar).

“As people join, they will find out their options and what their possibilities are,” Lamont says. “We’re building the infrastructure, so the collective can support itself.” To be an incubator for creativity and social justice, Earth House offices rent for as low as $100. Some Earth House members have only labor to give, in exchange for a place to teach yoga or to practice with their band. “If you don’t know what you have to offer, we know what needs to be done,” says Lamont, who is currently organizing volunteers to rip out more carpet.

A $15,000 donation from the Efroymson Family Fund will make it possible for the collective to refinish floors and upgrade the restrooms. In 2000, Jeremy Efroymson opened a visual arts center in another church building, now the independent nonprofit Harrison Center for the Arts, which enjoys a friendly symbiosis with landlord Redeemer Presbyterian.

The Earth House’s goal is to be self-sustaining, to make enough from rent, coffee sales and concert tickets to pay for utility bills and keep up the 100-plus-year-old building. The church needs that as much as they do.

Like so many old churches across the country, the Lockerbie Central congregation has been shrinking rapidly since the ’60s urban exodus to the suburbs and the advent of mega-churches. Forty church members can’t maintain the building or a full-time pastor. Abbott stepped down in July 2008. Recalling an American frontier Methodist tradition, Lockerbie Central is now a lay-led ministry.

“We’ve learned that there’s a big difference between going to church and being a church,” says Mike Oles, the church’s 31-year-old lay leader. Without a paid leader, a handful of church volunteers meet during the week to plan Sunday worship, often held in the café rather than the second floor’s traditional 300-seat sanctuary. They combine biblical readings with congregation piece poetry, videos, guest speakers and inspirational music, sometimes contributed by Lamont.

As Oles, a lifelong Methodist and former union organizer, settles into his role of sermon writer, he turns frequently, as Abbot did, to the teachings of the Hebrew prophet Micah, continually asking himself and his church, “What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, seek mercy and walk humbly with our God?”

By embracing politically charged issues such as poverty and peace, and handing church keys over to collective members, Lockerbie Central has drawn outside criticism from dissenters who see too much mixing of the sacred with the secular. The South Indiana Conference of United Methodist Churches, however, raves about the collaboration.

“My faith tells me that not just this congregation but the community of faith and all those involved in it are going to be a model for the future,” says Bob Walters, associate council director for the South Indiana Conference. “[They] have already filled the building with the kind of activities that link closely with the mission of the church. They all have the potential to feed the spiritual energy of the church.”

Walters, like everyone involved at Earth House, avows that the church does not dictate the content of collective events. Earth House events are managed by Earth House members. The church hosts its own Christian events, like a tongue-in-cheek revival meeting and the “Jesus for President” road show, whose crowd packed the sanctuary and café and overflowed onto the sidewalk.

“Two years ago, the doors were open two hours a week,” says 25-year-old church member Jordan Updike. “Now the space is alive and vibrant.” The graduate student, who was raised in a conservative evangelical church, joined Lockerbie Central and organizes the collective because he relishes openness, whether in biblical discussions or in the art on the café walls.

Will the church come into conflict over a work of art or Earth House event one day? “Possibly,” Walters says, and quickly amends it to “probably.” His goal is to create “as safe a place for as broad a community conversation as we can.”

Can Earth House revenue pay the bills and maintain the historic building? Not yet. What little revenue has been earned continues to be poured into coffee and collective infrastructure. To keep the energetic congregation in its current home, Earth House will have to sell more coffee and rent more space. The UMC hasn’t given them a deadline, but Walters admits, “We cannot go on with no end in sight. We’ve done that. That day is over.”

Earth House and the Lockerbie Central congregation are both counting on tangible results from a spiritual source: their community. With that, and some prime Indianapolis real estate, they have a shot. If anyone can bring on the next wave of cultural revolution in Indianapolis, perhaps it should be them.

Editors note: Josefa Beyer is a freelance writer in Indianapolis. Her husband Ross Beyer volunteers for Earth House Live events. To maintain journalistic integrity, and just to annoy him, she refused to interview him for this story.

The Earth House Collective’s Grand Opening
Friday and Saturday, Sept. 19 & 20
Friday, from 5 p.m.
Saturday, 9 a.m. - 11

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