From academia to nonprofit, creating a unique sanctuary

When Steve Gerali was teaching practical theology at Azusa Pacific University, he had a revealing go-to exercise.

He would ask his students if they could wake up each morning and invent a job, what would it be?

“They’d say, ‘I’d play basketball and get paid for it,’ or whatever. And one day, one of the guys turned it on me and said, ‘What would you do?’ And I said ‘I’d get up every day and drink coffee and talk to people.’ So I thought, I’m gonna do that!”

Consider it done.

Sanctuary Coffee opened its doors in Claremont recently, and among the myriad duties involved with opening a new business, Mr. Gerali, the non-profit’s executive director, is doing just that.

Sanctuary is a 501c3 non-profit that donates 100 percent of its earnings to charity. In addition, it mobilizes volunteers to help their charitable partners and other community needs.

“Coffee becomes the front for us to reconcile some social injustices and heal some social concerns in our community,” Mr. Gerali said. “We’re kind of like an undercover coffee shop. The coffee shop is the front to do all this great stuff.”

Sanctuary opens every day at 6 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. However, during the busy school year, it may be open as late as 1 a.m., Mr. Gerali said, depending on demand. The late hours “will be unique in Claremont,” he added. “That’s a college town coffee shop.”

As a nod to its faith-based status, Sanctuary is closed from 3 to 6 p.m. every Sunday to allow employees and friends to attend a 4:30 p.m. worship service at nearby St. Ambrose Church.

The coffee shop’s clean, sleek and comfortable interior was built out with more than $80,000 in donated materials from local churches, businesses and individuals, and countless hours of labor. And the altruism has also spread to its suppliers. Sanctuary’s beans come from Redlands-based Wild Goose Coffee, which donates 10 pounds of food to a local food bank for every pound of coffee it sells to the Claremont shop.

The upshot of all the donations means that Sanctuary will be viable much sooner than it would be otherwise, and that’s good news for its beneficiaries.

“If we start in the black, then we give more,” Mr. Gerali said. “Immediately, this year, we’ll make a contribution, instead of waiting three years until we’re running a profit.”     

Sanctuary’s profits will support three charities—Inland Valley Hope Partners, a Pomona-based nonprofit offering food, shelter and support to low- and no-income families and individuals; Every One Free, a Pomona-based group dedicated to eliminating human trafficking; and AbilityFirst, which offers a variety of services to children and adults with disabilities right here in Claremont.

“Unlike other coffee shops and the chains, 100 percent of our profit goes to these charities. People can see that, and hold us accountable to it,” Mr. Gerali said. “All our finances are public record.”

Sanctuary is definitely a faith-based concern, but customers who may not be of the same mindset need not worry about feeling uncomfortable.

“It goes back to mentoring as a critical part of it,” Mr. Gerali said. “But we’re not going to badger people. We’re not on that wavelength. We had a guy come and outright announce, ‘I’m an atheist.’ We said, ‘Congratulations, and what’s your name?’ He’s becoming a great friend because he’s finding that we really mean what we’re saying.”

Also, for the coffee shop-as-office crowd—and a look at the chains around town any mid-day will confirm there are many—Sanctuary offers a “bottomless cup of coffee.” You heard that right. For an additional 50 cents, your coffee becomes an all-day cup.

“You don’t even have to buy coffee,” Mr. Gerali added. “If you you need a quiet place and you just want to sit, then that’s fine. We want people to succeed. We really just want a place where people can relax and do their work and have great conversations. We’re not about the buck.”

Sanctuary is incorporated as an independent, inter-denominational Christian church.

“We do all the things a church does. What we do here is the work of the church in the community—the goodwill, the giving back,” Mr. Gerali said.

Part of the business plan involves synthesizing recent research that shows people are leaving the church in increasing numbers.

“Most of [the researchers] say the church is majoring in minor issues,” he said. “So we’ve taken all of our pastors out of their offices, and made them baristas.”

Programming is also non-traditional, Mr. Gerali said.

“We believe our programming exists in the community. And the thing that we want to do is to mobilize volunteers. We’ve come to understand that people aren’t apathetic like a lot of organizations think they are. People want to volunteer, they just don’t know how, and they don’t know where they can do it.”

The hope is to inspire volunteerism at Sanctuary’s three partners as well as in the community at large. Mr. Gerali has met with Claremont Mayor Larry Schroeder to let the city know it is a volunteer force, and Sanctuary employees and friends have already helped fill sandbags during the rainy season. The shop will soon post local single-day volunteer opportunities on its bulletin board.

“We’ll give them free coffee and take them out and volunteer,” Mr Gerali said. “It’s kind of fun.”

In September, the coffee shop will offer live acoustic music seven nights a week. A local church has even donated a portable stage. 

For the upcoming Father’s Day holiday, Sanctuary will offer a free, equal-value coffee drink for each one purchased. And recent grads that present a school ID will receive a 20 percent discount all summer.

“We’re in this community and we want to know this community,” Mr. Gerali said. “Because that’s what a coffee shop does, it accelerates community. We want to be friends with the people around here, and we really don’t care what their affiliation is. We’re non-judgmental. We want to be known as the loving place in town. And that’s how it works.”

As Mr. Gerali sat among the bright, hopeful surroundings at his dream job, he related that he hoped to soon be availing himself to Sanctuary’s free Wi-Fi and comfortable leather chairs. As soon as Sanctuary is up and running, Mr. Gerali said he is going to become a customer and sit in the shop to write his next novel.

“That’s my spot, right there,” he said, pointing to a quiet corner.

Sanctuary Coffee is at 994 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont. More info is at

—Mick Rhodes


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