Gettin' a Fix at Hope Caf?

by LeAnn Corn

The Hope Caf? in Akron, Ohio serves up hope to bikers, dopers, drunks and anyone else in need of a fix. This very unusual place gives new meaning to the phrase ?Hog Heaven?.

Dana Hughes turned his car onto East South Street in Akron and saw a line of motorcycles parked outside what he thought was one of the local beer joints.

"Hope Cafe." The lighted sign hovered over jeans-and-leather-clad patrons as they mingled on the sidewalk in front of the open door. Hughes thought he may as well go in and get something to drink, but he was sure he wouldn?t find any hope there.

A 30-year-old crack addict and alcoholic living in his car, Hughes had nearly given up on ever being able to turn his life around.

As soon as he walked through the door, Hughes noticed something was different about Hope Cafe. He spotted a "no smoking" sign instead of the typical beer signs and a menu for specialty coffees posted beside a Bible study schedule.

Harley-Davidson coffee mugs lined the shelves behind the counter along with mugs printed with the "Serenity Prayer." He heard people talking about motorcycles and Jesus, but they weren?t taking that name in vain as he was used to hearing.

A small band in the corner was playing what sounded like rock-n-roll, but the words were unfamiliar, something about Heaven maybe?

"Bikers hang out here?" Hughes thought incredulously to himself. "No way."

Then a man approached him and struck up a conversation. People here seemed genuinely interested and didn?t seem to judge him. He quickly learned Hope Cafe was a place where everyone is shown respect in the name of Christ. That was back in 1993, and Hughes hasn?t left yet.

In 1987 Akron Bible Church and the Revs. Lee Miller and Howard Duma started a drug and alcohol recovery outreach and a motorcycle ministry in this inner-city Akron neighborhood. In 1991 the church acquired the property at 335 E. South St., formerly a run-down pub, as a permanent home for the ministry?s new Hope Cafe.

The obscure coffeehouse has become a major hangout for Christian bikers who keep coming back for the fellowship and to subtly tell newcomers about how Christ has changed their lives. They may appear the stereotypical biker gangs, but a closer look reveals these men and women have only a Biblical high.

As part of the Hope Cafe ministry, Hope House and Hope Home, two residential properties, have also been opened to help homeless men with drug and alcohol addictions find healing by providing a safe place to live.

"Forget 12 steps," Hughes says. "We show these men the one-step program: Jesus Christ!"

Hughes knows first-hand, turning his life over to Jesus is the only thing that saved him from dying a drunken crack addict in the gutter.

"I spent more than 17 years as an addict," Hughes said. "Then God delivered me."

Hughes became an ordained minister and was named director of Hope Cafe in 1999.

He also met his wife, Anne-Marie, there, and they were married in 1995. They now have two young daughters, Britny and Beth, and recently purchased their first home.

He ended up finding hope in this unlikely place after all.

"Keep plugging away at it," Hughes told a young man who came in chatting about repairs needed to be done on his bike. He asked for some water, which Hughes provided along with a few encouraging words.

"I didn?t have to thump him over the head with a Bible or throw my testimony at him the first time he walked in," Hughes said. "But because he saw we weren?t going to judge him, I know he?ll be back."

When people come back ? leather, chains, tattoos and all ? Hughes and staff member Rev. Gary Brancho are able to develop personal relationships that point others to God.

Frank Smith had just been released from prison three years ago when a minister from Akron Bible Church recognized him on the street and invited him to Hope Cafe.

"I had already made up my mind I was tired of my drinking and carousing, but I had no real plan," Smith said. "Here they let me do my own thing but insisted I at least attend Bible studies. And they were real patient."

Smith was soon living at Hope House and was dealing with the fact that he had abused every kind of drug available for almost 40 years. He was also a notorious Akron drug lord much of that time.

"I kept to myself a lot that first year here," Smith said. "I?m in my 50s, I?m black, and I didn?t really think I had much in common with a bunch of bikers. But I gradually started filling in at the cafe and started talking with some of the guys."

Now Smith serves full-time as a night supervisor at Haven of Rest homeless shelter in Akron.

"I constantly come across that same self-defeated attitude that I once had. But I play hardball with them," Smith said. "I ran from the Lord as hard as I could for 36 years ... my father was a minister, my whole family was Christian, but I thought I was too smart for that.

"I want people to know, nothing anybody has done is any more despicable than what I?ve done. Saying you?re too bad to turn around is just an excuse. If you choose to call on the Lord, He?s waiting for you."

Ray and Melissa Kitchen found that to be true. They were on the verge of divorce when Ray began to stop by Hope Cafe. Night after night he saw God in the people there, and he wanted that life-changing peace. He started asking questions, and got answers without feeling shame or embarrassment. One night he called out to Jesus, and later his wife did the same. The Kitchens are now involved in a church ministry and rebuilding their marriage.

Another couple got off the bus from California with just the clothes on their backs. They saw the bikes out front, and curiosity led them into Hope Cafe. Hughes was able to help them find food and shelter as well as provide free Gospel concert tickets. They assured him they would be back.

The Rev. Earl Thomas of Community Fellowship Chapel is one of many Akron area ministers who stop by Hope Cafe regularly to chat with people like these couples.

"We don?t come here to preach but just to share openly of ourselves over a cup of coffee," Thomas said.

"A lot of Christians come down here just for fellowship," Hughes added. "Most of them are real down to-earth and are being used by God here."

When non-Christian bikers, streetwalkers, college students and others see the motorcycles lined up outside, they stop in just to see what this place is. That?s the staff?s chance to get to know them.

"Because I came from there (drug addiction), it?s very easy for me to share how God delivered me," Hughes said. "And because we?re in the inner city, we see very lost and very addicted people."

As Hope Cafe?s evening staff member, Brancho is another member of the crew able to really relate to people right where they are.

A former heroine addict, Brancho became a Christian in the 1970s while serving a long jail sentence. He was released from prison in 1999 and found employment and acceptance at Hope Cafe.

At the very least, visitors to Hope Cafe leave with a Gospel tract and a few words of encouragement.

"We just want to help people realize the only way they?re going to have a victorious life is if they accept Jesus Christ and apply the principles of: His Word to their lives," Hughes said. "It?s possible. I?m proof."

Hope Cafe is open every day of the week and is funded totally by faith. God has provided needs beyond what they could ever have imagined, so much that they hope to expand the Hope Cafe concept to cities worldwide.

"God has always been faithful to keep the doors open," Hughes said. "We not only are able to serve coffee and meals here, but the biggest thing is that we are a soul-winning station."

Being on the front lines of the ministry battlefield is not a walk in the park, though, Hughes confided. "I put my life on the line for Christ every day. We?re not just playing church down here, we?re in real spiritual warfare."C

If you or someone you know wants help to break the chains of alcohol or drug addiction, contact Gary Brancho.Call 1-300-253-HOPE