Kabibi Bamuamba has become an expert in coffee. A native of Congo who immigrated to the U.S. from South Africa, Bamuamba can tell customers about how the beans that are ground and brewed at Café Cotidiano are sourced from Honduras and about which latte is most popular iced (The Southtown). But when the manager of the cafe gets a break to enjoy a drink of her own, she opts for anything other than java.
“I’m not a coffee drinker,” she says, smiling slightly at the irony of her role as manager of the coffee trailer, which the San Antonio Mennonite Church opened in late 2020. “But we make great hot chocolate and tea.”
Bamuamba arrived in San Antonio with her two teenagers a year-and-a-half ago and was referred to La Casa de Maria y Marta, a shelter and ministry of the church, because she and her kids didn’t have a sponsoring relative in the U.S. with whom they planned to live. Typically, families stay at La Casa de Maria y Marta just a few days or weeks, says Diane Garcia, family pastor for the church. But with the pandemic, the Bamuambas were among several families who found themselves more or less stuck in San Antonio and at La Casa for months.
Church leaders already had been discussing before COVID-19 hit ways to better connect the asylum seekers they serve with the community. The extended stays of families during the pandemic was just the push they needed to take action.
“We want this to be a place they can receive love and hospitality, but also give it to others,” Garcia says.
Coffee was not something the church’s leadership had expertise in, pastor John Garland says, but it kept coming up as an industry that volunteers thought they could learn. Plus, one of the asylum seekers the church served came from Honduras and had family who worked on a coffee farm. If they could purchase beans from them, they could help support asylum seekers in San Antonio and some of their relatives back home.
“The cafe is a beautiful place that provides coffee but it’s really just a representation of what we’re trying to achieve—holistic, healing hospitality at all stages,” Garcia says.
Sure, the parking lot where the trailer would sit was filled with trash when the idea for a café came about. But with its South St. Mary’s Street address, it was in a prime location, Garland says.
They got to work cleaning up the lot, painting the back fence a bright pink and adding the phrase “Keep Calm con Puro Amor” to the wood. A church member fixed up a used trailer for the kitchen and a donor purchased an upscale coffee maker, Garland says.
Now, they just needed to learn about coffee. Staff at Café Azteca down the street volunteered and worked with the church and asylum seekers to learn how to operate their coffee maker and about how to serve everything from a basic cup to a flavored latte.
Since opening, the trailer has provided several families each week a place to work, connect with neighbors and to practice English. Drinks are served at a suggested price and customers are asked to donate to cover their order.
All money goes to the church, which uses it to support the families at La Casa de Maria y Marta.
Bamuamba, who recently had a work permit approved, is now on staff at the church and serves as both the café manager and as a caseworker for other families. In South Africa, she spent most of her career in social services. “Jesus says blessed are those who care for the stranger,” she says. “The church does a great job of that—of seeing people as you would your family.”
Along with menu items named for San Antonio—an Americano is called Baja King William, a dulce de leche latte The Lonestar and a café de olla latte The Lavaca— the trailer offers daily breakfast specials made by its volunteers, from tacos to empanadas. Coffee beans also are available by the bag or through a subscription service.
Garcia says they recently opened a telehealth clinic for asylum seekers in conjunction with UT Health San Antonio, thanks in large part to coffee sales.
Bamuamba has built a roster of regular customers and Garcia says many of those people also have become volunteers who serve at La Casa de Maria y Marta.
“From a pile of trash, we have gotten community and love and support for people who have been told by the broader system that they are not important,” Garcia says. “We’re not just a coffee shop, in fact it’s not really about coffee, it’s really about supporting these families and showing them that they’re important and valued, and if you get a great cup of coffee, then that’s great, too.”
The Southtown (A Mexican vanilla latte)
The Bonham (Mexican hot chocolate)
Specialty food items inspired by asylum seekers’ home countries are available on Sundays