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Stirring up change; A new coffeehouse at Lord of Life Church in Depew turns out to be a spiritual Oasis for young members

As Scripture tells us, there are many gifts but the same spirit. Some high school and college students who are spiritually inclined might find themselves singing in a church choir. Others might lead prayers or play worship music.

Ashlin and Damian Liszka, siblings who attend Lord of Life, a Lutheran church in Depew, have found themselves with a new ministry.

They are baristas.

Their church, located at 1025 Borden Road, has a new coffeehouse. And every Sunday, before services, that is where the Liszkas and other young members of the church can be found, behind the counter, serving up fancy, frothy drinks.

Ashlin, 20, works at Teavana in the Galleria Mall in addition to attending Buffalo State College as a theater major.

Coffee, she laughs, is a new experience.

"It's different," she says. "Tea, it's very relaxed. It takes five minutes for your tea to be ready. Coffee is -- I feel it's a little more fun. You get to be creative, mixing syrups inside the coffee, that kind of stuff.

"Every month we have a specialty drink. Last month it was a raspberry one. Before that, we did our spin on the Shamrock Shake. We did it as an espresso latte."

Damian, who is 23 and works at Gamestop, is enjoying his new volunteer gig at Oasis. One thing he enjoys is scouting out syrups at Sam's Club.

"We get a bunch of them," he says. "We got banana and blueberry. If we find a weird one, we'll pick it up."

The coffeehouse is a change for Lord of Life. The adventure began a couple of months ago, when Dave Miller stopped by.

Miller, who attends the Chapel at Crosspoint, has a unique personal mission. He helps churches install coffeehouses.

"He goes around to help congregations start hospitality ministries," is how the Rev. Debi Turley, pastor of Lord of Life, explains it. "We had a room behind the sanctuary. We renovated it.

"He trained youth to be baristas. It's entirely their ministry."

Aided and abetted by Miller, the folks at Lord of Life threw out their tired old urns and bought a shiny new espresso machine. They gave their coffeehouse a name, Oasis.

"That was their idea," Miller beams.

Oasis is open every Sunday before church, and on other special occasions. It's working out great, says Turley.
"People are coming much earlier to church to have their coffee," she says. "The point wasn't to have better coffee for the congregation. It was to build relationships. To show that we value the people who come through the doors."

Now, the coffeehouse is taking on a life of its own.

Turley was so happy with what Miller did that she wanted to pay him. Miller said no.

However, he said, he has a blues band available, the Crossroads Blues Project. The all-volunteer group, all good players from local bands, are interested in playing the blues with a Christian slant, and are making plans to get into prison ministry.

Would Turley be interested in sponsoring a show?

Lord of Life jumped at the chance.

And so, on Friday night, Oasis will be playing host to some blues in the night -- classic, and then Christian.

"We're a contemporary church. We have chairs, not pews," says Turley. "They're going to come in and take the entire sanctuary apart -- rearrange all the seats into groupings with tables. It should be pretty cool."

It may be an unusual vision -- coffeehouses, baristas, churches, the blues. But Miller says it came together quickly.

"I'm mostly the band's manager, although I play harmonica, blues harp," he says. "I've loved the blues for a long time, and three years ago, I wanted to start a Christian blues band."

Christian blues band is not a term that would have been heard several decades ago. To Miller's way of thinking, though, it makes sense.

"This is the interesting thing about the blues," he says. "The blues is actually based in the old gospel music movement. In the late 1800s, up to the 1920s and '30s. If you look at where the music came from, it came from a gospel background. It kind of went off in different directions."

Crossroads Blues Project wears look-alike outfits -- Blues Brothers shades, white shirts and skinny ties.

Musically, the band takes its cue mainly from a couple of great harp players. One is Slim Harpo, the New Orleans talent who inspired the Blues Brothers. Another is Chicago bluesman Little Walter, a rough-living harmonica virtuoso who died in a fight.

The music can be gritty, but then, so can life.

"If you're not authentic, you can't sell the message," Miller says.

There is a true-life aspect to the show. Joining the musicians on stage is a speaker, Miller's friend Kevin Cheek, who gives what Turley describes as a "brief witness talk." That is, he tells about his life.

Which has been rough.

Cheek, Miller explains, did serious time in prison for robbery, assault and drug running. "A bad dude," Miller says. "God turned him around."

In prison, Cheek found his faith, and he shares this story on stage. "He literally tells the story of how his life changed," Miller says. "He's part and parcel of the whole experience."

His story will resonate, Miller says.

"We're all on a journey. We're struggling in life. We need to understand that. We need to figure out who we are, and where we need to end up."

It's a tough message to swallow, but that's where the music comes in.

And the coffee, too.

Damian Liszka is going to be playing music on Friday, as part of Lord of Life's worship music group, before the blues show starts. But his mind is half on Oasis. Like an espresso machine, his thoughts are already whirring.

The April special at Oasis was Raspberry Rabbit, involving raspberry syrup, whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles. Turley, an avowed chocoholic, loved that one.

For the May special, Liszka is thinking about blues. Blueberry muffins, blueberry syrup, perhaps a blues coffee drink.

"I'm thinking of making the Blues Brother," he says.

"Something different."