On any given day, you can walk into Urban Abbey Coffee Shop at 1026 Jackson and find children reading, students using the Wi-Fi to research homework, and friends meeting over a cup of hot, iced, or blended coffee. If you walk into the Urban Abbey coffee shop on a Sunday morning, however, you will discover a church service going on. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself staying for the sermon, surrounded by friendly, progressive people.
When Sunday services start, one of the first things the Rev. Debra McKnight mentions to the congregants scattered throughout the space in the Old Market is that someone might walk through the doors at any time “not realizing this is a bookstore/coffee shop/United Methodist Church.” She asks everyone to practice looking toward the door, smiling (with eyes, because everyone is masked) and welcoming the person, even beckoning them to come sit.
When the congregation practices waving and smiling Sunday mornings, most often it’s Sarah Comer they practice on because she’s usually posted at the door, handing out bulletins and welcoming people.
Comer is also director of the Campus and Young Adult Ministry. She found Urban Abbey after graduating from Iliff School of Theology in Denver with a master’s degree in social justice and ethics. She said she was looking for a church that offered a blending of progressive theology with civil rights issues, something that can be rare. “Some churches like to dance around it, offering occasional social-justice events like bringing in speakers and stuff like that,” she said.
While others may tread lightly around the issues, Urban Abbey dives right into a veritable mosh pit of social justice. Sermons are frank and current — and based in scripture.
“Expect a welcoming environment,” Comer said. “Expect to ask questions and to get questions. It’s a space that encourages learning and fosters individual expression. You can truly be yourself and put in the work to help build the community.”
While there are certainly challenges associated with hosting church services in a coffee shop, McKnight laughs and takes them in stride.
“It happens less now, but it used to be that at least once a month people would come in while we were having church, walk up to the counter and order a smoothie,” McKnight said. “Once a lady came in during service and wanted some coffee beans grinded.
“One evening we had the doors open during worship. A person popped in, took a bunch of pictures, and then left,” McKnight said.
“Another time someone yelled in, ‘Where’s the gay section?’ but they left before we could answer. What we would have said was, ‘Everywhere!’”
When people realize the coffee shop is also a church, there are mixed reactions. Sometimes the font is mistaken for a bird bath. But when visitors to the Abbey begin glancing at the book selection, it quickly becomes obvious this is a faith-based space. And when people realize this faith-based coffee shop is progressive, things can get a little dicey.
McKnight says some customers buy coffee, and then upon realizing the coffee shop is a church with progressive leanings, ask for their money back. “This has happened many times. We just give them back their money and say, ‘Have a nice day!’” One instance McKnight remembers is when a customer saw a PFLAG sign displayed and immediately demanded a refund.
Because of its partnership with the Nebraska AIDS Project, the Abbey has free condoms available to customers. “The condoms have received negative attention from some folks,” McKnight said. “One woman was ‘aghast’ that we had condoms in a church — at least, that was the word she used in her email to us.”
But for many progressive Christians in the Omaha area, the Urban Abbey is a safe space to not only grab a coffee and treat, but also to worship. “One person told us, ‘I wanted to go to the exact opposite of Chick-fil-A, so I came here,’” McKnight said.
The menu at Urban Abbey is standard fare for a coffee shop. Creative seasonal drinks, signature lattes, teas, hot cocoa and blended drinks pair nicely with the small-bites selection. Oatmeal, yogurt, scones, muffins and biscotti are sure to satisfy a sweet tooth. Urban Abbey sets aside 10% of purchases for local nonprofit community partners. Previous partners included the Women’s Fund of Omaha, Nebraska Appleseed, the Circle Theatre and the Old Market Association.
When Urban Abbey started around ten years ago, McKnight didn’t drink coffee, but instead was a tea drinker. After having her daughter, she learned the benefits of coffee’s caffeination. Her favorite drink from the coffee shop is the Peppermint Mocha. “I know it isn’t a coffee drink, but I like it,” she said with a laugh. Comer’s favorite drink at the Abbey? The Smashing the Patriarchy a Latte.
From marching in the Pride parade to leading the call for social justice to leading clean-up efforts in and around the Old Market, Urban Abbey is so much more than a coffee shop. It’s a place where people can grab a cup and be themselves – and maybe even discover or strengthen their faith.
Urban Abbey Coffee Shop
1026 Jackson St.
Monday – Saturday: 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday: noon – 5 p.m.
Sunday services: 9 a.m. & 11 a.m. (in-person and online)