The Army’s First Café Ministry
In 1967, young people came from all over the country to enjoy the urban and bohemian culture of Greenwich Village in New York City. They sought adventure, social connection, and answers to the questions of life. Albert Ayler, a jazz saxophonist from Cleveland, Ohio, released an album entitled “Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village.” Recorded live, it touched the pulse of the youth flooding there and was hailed as his best album.
That same year, another young man, age 23, walked into “The Village” wearing a Salvation Army uniform. In the midst of the music, Captain Brian Figueroa greeted a group of “hippies.” Their conversation gradually segued from music to ministry, to the questions of life, and finally to the answer—Jesus Christ.
Soon after, Salvation Army leaders asked Captain Figueroa to start a youth ministry in The Village. On July 31, his 23rd birthday, he opened “The Answer” café, a storefront at 105 MacDougal Street. The 7 by 24–foot space that the Army had rented for $500–a–month quickly filled with teenagers looking for a cool place to hang out.
Yes, the coffeehouse was cool. And the young adults were free to adorn it with psychedelic art and even a huge poster of Army Founder William Booth. They talked, sipped soft drinks, played games, and recited poetry. They also enjoyed an open mike performance from anyone who wanted to play an instrument or sing. Figueroa began to dress in casual clothes, but by then, it was clear to everyone that “The Answer” was about Jesus.
Youth flocking to the café made it a spiritual oasis in a community filled with illegal drugs, alcohol, wanton sex, and secular music. Under the leadership of “Captain Brian” and his 23–year–old assistant, Ed Herzberg, The Answer held informal church services and “Bible time” and often took kids to nearby Salvation Army corps (churches).
By 1968, hundreds of teens had visited The Answer. The New York Times, the Village Voice, and other publications had written stories about it. Local and national TV also aired stories.
The Answer also attracted many youth who had run away from home. Figueroa, who had ministered to such kids in Providence, R.I., knew how to spot them and how to persuade them to call home. He sat with them in wooden folding chairs, or leaned against the graffiti–decorated walls, or in dimly candle–lit rooms to talk, sometimes for hours. He posted a bulletin board and covered it with notes from their friends and family, pleading with them to make that call themselves or give Figueroa permission to do so on their behalf. Here are just some of the messages.
“Hilary: Call home soon, please. Mom wants to talk to you. Please.” — Don
“Bobby Hopkins: Call dad.
Everything can be worked out.”
“Eleanor, We’re looking for you. Cops
are after you. We want to get you out
of here. We have money. Get in touch
with Audrey or call Zeena, collect.”
— Steve, Karen, Laurie, Zeena
The Army eventually opened a 10–room youth hostel. It was in its old Bowery Mission, complete with security and a Salvationist social worker.
In subsequent years, Figueroa received many letters of gratitude from people who had visited The Answer.
by Warren L. Maye