By Ted Maust
“Only the righteous are served at the [traditional church] supper, but all manner of sinners find their way to the coffee house. This situation is distressing to those who have forgotten that they, too, are sinners, essentially no different from the coffee house customers.”
“The theoretical goal of all coffee house programming is to raise questions, rather than give answers.”
—John D. Perry, Jr., The Coffee House Ministry (John Knox Press, 1966)
In the mid-1960s, when Americans of all backgrounds were publicly challenging widely held beliefs about racial segregation, consumer society, the Vietnam War and women’s rights, changes were also taking place within the two largest Mennonite denominations: the (old) Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference (GC) Mennonite Church. Many Mennonite youth were beginning to question church teachings about forms of service and personal expression.
Also during this decade, a Christian coffee house in Washington, D.C., named “The Potter’s House” was sparking a wave of imitators across the nation. In 1965, the National Council of Churches hired John D. Perry, Jr., to survey the phenomenon, and his report—The Coffee House Ministry—sparked even greater interest in the coffee house as mission. Eighty coffee houses had opened in the previous five years, and there would be 100 more by the end of the year. This was a time when many Christians felt that the non-church setting of a coffee house provided an informal, neutral ground in which to bridge the cultural chasms that existed in America.
In the winter of 1966, Professor Leland Harder led a Mennonite Biblical Seminary (MBS) class in Elkhart, Ind., using Perry’s study as a text. Harder’s students wanted to give the coffee house ministry model a try. They took part in discussions with representatives from several other churches and organizations in the community to assess the viability of such a venture. By May, this planning group filed to form an independent nonprofit organization—Elkhart Coffee House, Inc.—and in September they opened the Partly Dave Coffee House at 128 West Franklin Street in Elkhart.
A setting for dialogue
An Oct. 3, 1966, article in the Elkhart Truth reported, “Folk singers and actors barely found room to perform at the first opening weekend of Partly Dave Coffee House as the more than 300 teenagers and young adults crowded into the small café.”
The coffee house took its name from a 1964 short story by John Lennon: “Partly Dave” from In His Own Write.
“One way to think about it is that it’s Partly Dave, and partly you,” said Faye (last name not given), a Partly Dave staff attendant (Elkhart Truth article, May 20, 1967). “Or the idea that we are all only ‘partly’ until we’re in communication with each other.”
Although chosen somewhat randomly, the adverb “partly” came to represent the multifaceted goals for the enterprise. The introductory brochure described Partly Dave as, “Partly a place … where friends meet … where questions are asked … where opinions are heard … where God’s love is witnessed … where troubles are unloaded” and “where help is needed.”
“The primary purpose of the Coffee House,” began Partly Dave’s statement of purpose, “is to provide a relaxed, noncommercial setting for interpersonal dialogue about vital current and ultimate issues of life.”
Dialogue was the main goal of the early Partly Dave, facilitated by volunteer mediators who both listened and spoke from their own beliefs. Volunteers met for an hour before the evening’s program to prepare themselves to engage with anyone and everyone who showed up. Food and beverages were for sale, and there was usually a presentation, often music. Performances, however, were always curtailed to allow for discussions at 10-person tables.
In 1971, students in Leland Harder’s Methods of Social Research course at Goshen College conducted a study of Partly Dave based on responses to a questionnaire to identify the demographics of the coffee house’s patrons and their attendance patterns. When asked their main reason for attending Partly Dave, 31.6 percent of patrons answered “to rap with friends,” and only 5.2 percent cited scheduled entertainment. On this evidence, the students concluded that Partly Dave was succeeding in its effort to create a space for dialogue.
Congregations offer marginal support
The coffee house, operating on a shoestring budget, got most of its funding from the sales of coffee and snacks. Although congregations were invited to become institutional partners of Partly Dave for an annual contribution of $300, they were slow to back the ministry. After the initial round of recruitment, only four congregations signed on in any year before 1973: First Presbyterian, Hively Avenue Mennonite (a GC congregation), Fellowship of Hope (MC) and Southside Fellowship (MC/GC). Those who did so later offered perhaps too little, too late.
“One of the most disillusioning facts about this ministry,” wrote Howard Palmatier, president of the board, in 1968, “has been the inability of the majority of the churches to see this as Mission.”
John Kampen, manager of Partly Dave from 1968 to 1970, thought he knew why churches were reluctant to participate fully. After only one area congregation responded to a proposal for collaboration, he wrote, “Possibly the churches are not confident enough of themselves to enter into dialogue with those outside their walls, or they are so busy with internal programs that they do not have time to dialogue with the outside world.”
Partly Dave began to diversify to better engage a more varied clientele and to raise its own funds. A gift boutique, which began as a shelf inside Partly Dave, sold crafts made by patrons or brought from other countries by donors and friends of Partly Dave. Other initiatives over the years included an annual art fair, a poster shop for youth under age 16 (who were not allowed into the coffee house), the Peace Frog [Used-LP] Record Co-op, and a food co-op.
Manager Peter Stucky wrote in his April 20, 1971, annual report that “each quarter required some 30-40 volunteers for the coffee house, poster shop, [and] boutique.”
Evolving needs bring changes
Partly Dave was forced to vacate rental properties twice—in August 1969 to 114 South Main Street and in January 1973 to 201 South Main Street. Both relocations brought opportunities for new uses of space and different surroundings as well as a re-evaluation of the coffee house’s purpose.
For example, in 1970, Partly Dave’s board of directors added a live-in manager to provide administrative streamlining and to embrace a more around-the-clock presence. Partly Dave became a place where people in need could go, and the managers’ work with drug users, runaways and transients would grow to become a bigger facet of the ministry’s mission. With more volunteer and staff time devoted to rehabilitating individuals to function in mainstream society, some of the countercultural nature of Partly Dave was set aside.
“Is Partly Dave’s function to simply prepare persons to fit into American society more smoothly?” wondered Manager Peter Stucky. “The answer is no.”
Instead, Stucky felt “a need for some kind of ongoing contact between the values” of the volunteers and the patrons. “But [Partly Dave] has no congregation with which patrons can identify and continue their search and growth as persons,” he observed. While a few congregations were willing to donate money to Partly Dave’s cause, none was willing to integrate Partly Dave patrons into their congregation.
Partly Dave’s work with marginalized people, particularly drug users, may have affected the coffee house’s standing in the community.
“There are people in Elkhart who do not understand our program and are frightened by what they do know,” noted Kampen. Over the years, however, Partly Dave’s volunteers and resident staff nurtured valuable connections with other area agencies such as a crisis hotline and Oaklawn, a Mennonite-administered mental health facility in Goshen, Ind. (When the board began to look at closing Partly Dave in 1975, the hotline sent a petition of support for its continuance.)
“Looking at the records of Partly Dave, it seems that the organization was constantly re-examining itself to better determine how it could carry out its mission and meet the needs of a rapidly changing community,” noted Matthew Schuld, Elkhart County Historical Museum manager, in introducing the museum’s current exhibit on Partly Dave.
‘A self-feeding cycle’
In January 1973, with a wave of donations and a $16,000 loan from Church Extension Services, Inc., of the General Conference Mennonite Church, a permanent location for Partly Dave was purchased at 201 South Main Street.
Financial concerns stemming from the move loomed over Partly Dave, however, and the cultural context surrounding its ministry was changing drastically.
“[There has been] a shift of attitudes away from a self-conscious and focused alienation toward society and its values and toward a listless, self-centered alienation [within the youth culture],” wrote Manager Bob Charles in his 1973–74 report.
Decreased demand for Partly Dave led to financial collapse. Whereas weekend programs in 1970 had averaged 125 patrons, in 1974 the average was 40. Door fees totaled more than $4,000 in 1972 but dropped to $1,822 in 1973 and to $1,434 a year later.
Charles cited the questionnaire of four years earlier when reflecting on the decrease in attendance. “If persons come to be among people and rap with friends,” he wrote, “then the increasing absence of people and friends means a lack of motivation for coming. The cycle would seem to be a self-feeding one.”
On July 8, 1975, the board voted to shut down the ministry by a vote of six to one. Partly Dave’s mission had come to an end.
Though Partly Dave existed far longer than most coffee house ministries, many of which lasted mere months, it became a casualty of the very kinds of social upheaval that had brought it into being. It was put succinctly on the pro-con list to decide whether to shut down: “We have become an institution, and were never intended to last forever.”
Echoing how they had marked the coffee house’s 1973 move, the people of Partly Dave ended their ministry with a liturgy:
“The Partly Dave Coffee House opened its doors in September 1966 at 128 West Franklin,
And that was good.
There was not and never had been a place like Partly Dave in Elkhart. It was unique and exciting,
And that was good.
It was a people more than a building,
And that was good.
Partly Dave didn’t always know what it was doing but it had a direction it was heading,
And that was good.
And now Partly Dave is closing the doors of its last building; the city of Elkhart has been touched; the lives of hundreds of people have been touched,
And that is good.
Partly Dave will now live on in our lives.
We will continue to grow and experience; we will care and we will share; WE WILL LOVE!”
—Ted Maust is serving with Mennonite Voluntary Service at the Wisconsin State Historical Society Press in Madison.
—The information supplied for this article comes from Partly Dave Coffeehouse Records, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Elkhart, Ind., and from an Elkhart (Ind.) County Historical Museum exhibit with the same name as the title of this article.
The Partly Dave exhibit is on display at the Elkhart County Historical Museum at 304 W. Vistula (SR 120) in Bristol, Ind., through September 2014. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. There is no charge for admission; donations are accepted. See www.elkhartcountyhistory.org. The exhibit is a result of collaboration among the Elkhart County Historical Museum, the Mennonite Church USA Archives, the Elkhart County Parks Department, the Elkhart County Historical Society and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
See Partly Dave Coffee House images on Mennonite Church USA’s Flickr site:
High-resolution images available upon request.
Joe Landis, Robert Charles and Peter Stucky in front of the third Partly Dave location at 201 South Main Street. This grassroots organization worked to serve the needs of the Elkhart community during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. (Courtesy of AMBS)
“Give us your tired, your poor, your unlistened to, your different ones, and those yearning to be free in their expression.”—Howard Palmatier, Annual Meeting Report, May 20, 1968.
Partly Dave was founded within a context of disaffection toward church structures and as a countercultural movement. Shown here, in 1968, are (front/seated, l. to r.) Howard Palmatier, Ruth Burkholder, unknown woman, Dennis Stahly, Nathan Habegger. (back/standing, l. to r.) Dennis Hiebert, Lauren Friesen, unknown man, Judge Joe Grolimund. (Courtesy of AMBS)
Mealtime conversation at Partly Dave. (Courtesy of AMBS)
“[Patrons of Partly Dave] are not sheltered, coddled teen-agers with nothing more urgent to think about than what to wear to next week’s dance, but people who worry about the world they live in and how they function in it. They discuss with authority war, peace, religion or economics. Some are disoriented; some see the world differently from the way society sees it.”—South Bend Tribune article, “Ideas Exchanged at ‘Partly Dave,’” Feb. 23, 1969. (Courtesy of AMBS)
Thelma Farrell and Peter Stucky at Partly Dave’s boutique in 1973. (Courtesy of AMBS)
A poster from Partly Dave’s Peace Frog Record Co-op. (Courtesy of AMBS)
Partly Dave staff work on the sign of the second Partly Dave storefront on 114 South Main Street in 1972. (Courtesy of AMBS)
Peter Stucky and other staff, volunteers and patrons of Partly Dave hold a procession ceremony as they move to their new coffee house location at 201 S. Main Street in Elkhart, 1973. (Courtesy of AMBS)
Participants in Partly Dave’s 1973 move to the 201 S. Main Street location. (Courtesy of AMBS)
Partly Dave: Pleasure Fair Art Fair. (Courtesy of AMBS)