Any Yelp-savvy person looking for a coffee shop in the midst of USC’s surrounding urban streets may be lured by extensive positive reviews and a four-and-a-half star-rating to a little café dozens of reviewers call “an oasis.” Located behind St. Agnes Korean Catholic Church, the Ignatius Café is very easy to miss. Near the bustling intersection of Adams Blvd. and Vermont Ave., the café is gated discreetly behind hedges, making it easy to understand why countless reviewers have described it as “a hidden gem.”
The Ignatius Café is housed in a beautifully preserved turn-of-the-century home, which stands before blossoming rose bushes, with tables and umbrellas situated under vine arches. Fresh flowers sit on every table of the warmly-decorated house. The overwhelming aroma of the café’s fair trade Ethiopian coffee beans envelope customers in warmth, as cheery volunteers bustle around tables with the most painstakingly-created foamed barista achievements. This is not your average coffee shop. To quote one USC student, “It’s like pressing the pause button on life. Over coffee.”
But the real reason this isn’t your average coffee shop is the patent missionary focus of the café: the statue of Mary standing in gardens as overseer of the café, the church bells ringing on the hour in the background and the visibility of its white-collared founder busily managing the café and greeting every visitor with a luminous smile: Father Robert Choi.
When Father Choi’s superior sent him from Korea to work as a pastor in Los Angeles in 2010, he brought with him an extensive background in coffee brewing. Pour-over coffee had recently been introduced by Japan to Korea and was quickly gaining in popularity. Father Choi received certification and training from the elite Coffee Quality Institute, getting technical training on producing sustainable, high quality coffee while enhancing the livelihoods of the growers. This training equipped Father Choi with a passion for the craftsmanship, social consciousness and esteemed quality for which his café is now known.
As a Korean-speaking pastor with a new parish in a foreign country, Father Choi needed a way to engage his new community in a language he could speak. That’s where his old passion for coffee came in. Coffee would be his simple, humble manner of communicating a grand mystical love that a language barrier impinged him from telling.
“The Church should be a place open for all and a method for connecting to the less fortunate. I created the Ignatius Café to fulfill this,” explained Father Choi, “I want it to be a place where anyone, regardless of their beliefs, can come and rest. I want it to be a physical manifestation of the act of practicing love.”
Communicating this message of love was something St. Agnes Parish was more than eager to do. With his parish supporting him, Father Choi said setting up the café was not difficult. They set it up to rely solely on volunteers and accept payment in the form of donations. All proceeds are given to charities that support disadvantaged groups, including Catholic Relief Services, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Sudan Relief Fund and many others. Interested parishioners go through a rigorous coffee education program and board exam. And then they go to work under the guiding mission of the café, inspired by its namesake, St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Find God in all things.”
It is this prayerful spirit that emanates from the café. You feel it in the deliberate and quiet contemplation of the elderly man hand-sorting coffee beans on the front porch of the café. It’s in the wee hours of every morning when Father Choi operates the café’s roaster. It’s in the sweat of the St. Agnes parishioner who painstakingly weeds the gardens. And it’s in the knowing compassion of a volunteer when a customer forgets their money.
“You can find faith within life and life within faith,” Father Choi said. “Christian life is not defined by finding God through exquisite works, but rather through ordinary instances.”
The “ordinary instances” that Father Choi created the café for have had an extraordinary impact. There have been café frequenters who became interested in Catholicism and were eventually baptized. There were lapsed Catholics who said the café played an integral role in restoring their faith. And the parish’s young adult community has steadily been growing inspired by the welcoming spot to meet. Most customers who come to the café, however, may not recognize the grand evangelizing mission, but may just remember it as a place where they felt at home, where they were loved.
“I love this place. The little ladies who work here are awesome!” one customer said. “You just feel so welcomed here! It feels like going to grandma’s house.”
USC students, professionals, coffee connoisseurs and parishioners alike are given a moment of love in a cup of coffee.
“Coffee is just a means. It’s a way for Father Choi to give people love,” one of the café’s volunteers, Jonathon Ko, said. “Love is what holds this place together. It’s the love the priest shows to the volunteers. And in turn the volunteers show love to the customers. And the customers’ donations impart love to the charity recipients.”
Father Choi has created a philosophy for the coffee creation process that he imparts to each one of his volunteers.
“There is a scientific aspect that cannot be ignored. But, ideally, we will integrate faith with science, prayer with skill and mind with theory,” said Father Choi. “One should approach life as they would for the extraction of a cup of coffee, unifying faith and life in one synonymous relationship.
“Every time I brew a cup of coffee,” he added, “I am able to thank God, bless the farmers who reaped the crops and provide peace to the individual who drinks it. With this sentiment I am able to see God in all things.”