Hop on the rug with us...and get to know how pastor and coffee-maker John Onwuchekwa lives life well.
John Onwuchekwa never used to drink coffee. To him, it was like all other hot drinks, akin to bath water or soup, and not meant for enjoyment as a beverage of choice. But one day, deep in the commitments of life as a pastor and marriage counselor who wakes up at 4am daily, he needed something to help keep him focused. “I got to a place where my life was just overrun by obligations,” he says. “I said to my wife, Shawndra, ‘I need some caffeine, so can you please make me some coffee – and make it as good as you can?’” All they had in the house was a tin of Folgers left by his parents. Shawndra made a cup – with lots of sugar, giving Onwuchekwa not just the energy he needed to get through the days, but a new passion he’d soon pursue.
“I don’t have a dimmer switch. The light is either off or it's on,” says the 37-year-old pastor. When something interests the Houston-native, he dives in, full-on. It’s a little like how he became a pastor. Born to Nigerian immigrant parents who settled in Texas, Onwuchekwa was immersed in gospel and, inspired by his parents’ authentic expressions of their faith, he went into ministering, studying at Dallas Theological Seminary, and breathing life into Cornerstone Church in the Historic West End. His devotion to being of service – and his magnetic way with words – made him a natural.
A coffee evangelist
It was early on in his career, about 11 years ago, while traveling to various speaking gigs, that Onwuchekwa started getting more familiar with coffee. He’d seek out the best coffee shops, crowdsourcing on Twitter as he went. “In LA, in Phoenix, in Memphis, in Philly, in Chicago,” he says. “People would tell me where to go, and so I'd walk into all these spots, and the one common thread that I noticed in all these specialty shops, all across the place, was they all look the same on the inside. They all had the same aesthetic. And the racial makeup of the people on the inside was the same. They were all predominantly white. There weren't people that look like me, that talk like me, there. And so I just kind of felt like the odd man out: ‘Do I belong here? Do I fit in here?’”
Determined to establish a network of Black people in coffee, Onwuchekwa researched more, and, to his surprise, discovered that coffee came from Ethiopia. “1200 years ago – and it didn't even make its way to Europe until 400 to 500 years after that,” he says, still amazed by this fact.
It blew his mind. “I had a picture of what coffee was, and who it was for, and as soon as my picture of that changed; as soon as the portrait in my mind changed, my experience with the drink changed as well,” he says. From drinking his coffee with sugar, he moved onto drinking it black, and learning about the flavors and notes in the different profiles. In other words, turning the light switch all the way on.
“I started to become an evangelist for coffee. So I had friends who were like, ‘Yo, I don't really like coffee.’ And I’d say, ‘No, no, you haven't really had coffee, if the only thing that comes to your mind is Starbucks and bitterness. Let me expose you to something else, something different.’” One by one, he started to convert others into coffee-lovers.
Beyond the cup
More than the pleasurable experience it brought to him and his friends, Onwuchekwa soon found coffee was an unexpected platform to have meaningful and rich conversations. He wrote a book called We Go On, in which he elaborated more on his thoughts about coffee as a metaphor for life. “People tend to look at life and they say, ‘I don't want bad things to go on. I don't want the bitterness of life. I only want things that are sweet.’ So they do all that they can to flavor their lives with possessions and money that they think will provide them security, but they really don't enjoy life like they think that they should,” he says.
“Coffee is something that's unique and that coffee is bitter, that's the reality, right? There's parts of it that are," he continues. "However, if you don't try to mask it, if you just embrace it and lean into it, then you experience the sweetness that comes from it. That sweetness is only reserved for the people that will lean in, embrace it – as it is – not how they think that it should be. And the more that you lean in, the more that you start to notice the subtleties that you don't get a chance to taste, if you try to mask all the parts that you, quote unquote, don't like.”
Making true on the light-switch analogy of his devotion, Onwuchekwa co-founded Portrait Coffee in 2019, a company based out of Atlanta's West-End, that seeks to pour a new narrative around coffee. It takes its inspiration from people Onwuchekwa and his team believe deserve the honor of having a bag of the finest beans named after them – like Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins (“well-balanced, sweet”) and novelist Toni Morrison (“savory and smooth and unapologetically chocolate”).
Through Portrait Coffee, together with his podcast (aptly named 4 in the Morning) and his ministry work, Onwuchekwa keeps the important conversations – and the coffee – flowing.
Images courtesy of Portrait Coffee.