By Sharon Mager, BCM/D Correspondent
GLEN BURNIE, Md.—I feel a little like a celebrity. I got to be part of a coveted group of fortunate people pictured in “Coffee and Me,” or is it “Coffee and Me Part 2?” Either way, I’m number 188 and it’s an honor. The Church at Severn Run’s Connections pastor, Earl Gray, has accumulated close to 200 pictures of himself and his friends, family, colleagues, pastors and baristas all snapped at Maryland Starbucks restaurants and he displays them on Facebook. It’s generally the same pose – Gray and his guests toasting their cups of coffee, or other drink of choice. Gray sets up his tripod, hits a timer and rushes over to get in the picture just in the nick of time.
That’s how Gray “connects.” As director of evangelism with Embrace Baltimore, he worked to help pastors engage their communities. As a “connections” pastor, he helps new members and visitors feel welcome and as a life coach he encourages people to discover and embrace their God-given dreams and aspirations. And he’s done most of it over simple cups of coffee or in Gray’s case – teas. His favorite? A tall, hot Tazo Zen.”
Gray found early on that a coffeehouse environment is a “safe,” comfortable meeting locale.
“I ask if they’d like to meet in a coffee shop or the office and 100% say the coffee shop. There’s an artificial dynamic in the office. One person is in the chair, the other behind a desk – there’s a wonderful anonymity and confidentiality in a public place.
“I’m convinced there’s an epidemic of invisibility,” Gray says. “Even people in public, pastors, people you see all the time don’t have a chance to be real, to just talk about stuff without being guarded.” Gray thinks that’s why in airports people open up sometimes – they’re dying to talk to someone.
He says the same thing happens on Facebook. People are reaching out wanting others to say, “Congratulations, happy birthday, great picture or pray for me.”
“Let them know they’re not invisible,” he says, sipping his tea. “It’s another way of connecting.”
One of Gray’s philosophies is to try to see the world through the eyes of Jesus, seeing the needs, the loneliness – letting people know they’re loved.
“Earl believes in people, and the way you know that is he believes in you. When he is with you, his agenda is your agenda. I have this belief that he’s always looking to find a way to be a blessing to others,” David Jackson, BCM/D church multiplication missionary, said. “He’s a joy to be around, because he’s always the same: solid, dependable, encouraging, committed…and I never, for even a second, doubt that he has my best at heart.”
It all really boils down to sitting with a friend at a little table with a cup in hand asking, “how are you?” and “what are you working on?” and meaning it. People begin to open up and a relationship is established. “There’s something relaxed about this, “ Gray gestures around the table.
He loves talking to pastors and helping them reach their communities. “We’ll throw ideas around then I’ll say, ‘Let’s go for a ride! I’ll drive. We’ll go through the community and you tell me what you see.’ When they look through Jesus’ eyes and see what breaks His heart and the simple ways to step in and make a difference, they jump all over it.”
That’s what makes Gray smile, when he sees the light going on in people’s heads and the ideas start flowing. “That’s how I measure effectiveness.” He knows he’s a catalyst and likes being in that role. Gray just connects people. “If someone’s stuck; I help them get unstuck.”
He has the coffee shop pattern down. He knows the best times at specific Starbucks locations to get a good table when it’s not too busy. He knows the staff and they know him.
In fact, Starbucks recently issued Gray a “gold card,” which he proudly shows. One shop even celebrated his birthday and the staff got in on an Earl Gray Starbucks Picture.
Gray laughs and says he always gets a kick out of it when someone is excited in being about one of his pictures. (I didn’t tell him I was).
So my daughter Shelley walks in and has a coffee with us. He gave her his gold card to use. Gray suggests his trademark picture and Shelley says, “Oh wow! I get to be in an Earl Gray picture!” and Gray just grins at me.