The events leading up to a Des Moines coffee shop’s firing of employees who hung up a Black Lives Matter sign was contentious, said the shop’s general manager—one of many let go after the incident.
Eric Posthuma, the shop’s general manager for about a year, detailed a series of divisive meetings and “spiritual manipulation” in late June in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, leading up to the firings and the temporary closure of Freedom Blend Coffee—part of a fast-growing Christian nonprofit organization, Freedom for Youth. The shop is one of fourteen sites around Iowa and harnesses the support of over sixty partnering churches, the majority in or around the Des Moines metro area.
Freedom for Youth’s ministries mission statements reads that they empower “youth across Iowa, through the love of Jesus Christ, to break out of their current bondage, discover their God-given talents, and lead transformed lives” with a core mission to “Love all people unconditionally as Christ did without regard to race, history, or current condition.”
Until recently, the board of directors was all white and mostly men, while Posthuma’s shop employs a diverse staff.
About a week after the Minneapolis killing, Posthuma and other staff members decided to have a small community gathering where they spent time in prayer and had a nine-minute period of silence symbolizing the time the police officer had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck that resulted in his death.
They also made a Black Lives Matter banner where participants could write scriptures and supporting messages. According to Posthuma, many attendees wrote uplifting messages that meant a lot to his diverse staff. The Freedom for Youth Executive Director and founder, Mark Nelson, even shared a few words.
“For me, being a general manager at a diverse coffee shop in a diverse community, I was like, how can we do something to show support for our community and neighborhood?” Posthuma said in an interview with Starting Line. “Most importantly, how can we show support for the people of color in my staff and different minority groups?”
Days later, the banner was displayed at the shop. Soon after, Posthuma received notification from one of the board members and from Nelson saying that they should not display it because it could be seeing as politically charged or taking a political stand.
“We really struggled with that but followed their instructions and took it down for a day, but we met with the entire staff deciding that this was not right,” Posthuma said.
They complied with Nelson, and the board member’s wishes for a while before putting the banner back up and purchasing BLM shirts to wear as their uniform. Posthuma said the staff also sent a “respectfully written letter” to the Nelson informing him of their actions.
“We needed to show support for all people of color and for the Black Lives Matter movement, which is designed to support them.”
Posthuma said he felt the letter was well-received when the response from the director said that they understood and would work through that situation. In the letter, Posthuma, Freedom Blend Coffee’s store manager and a supervisor were invited to attend Freedom for Youth’s next board meeting.
At the board meeting, Posthuma said his staff advocated for BLM and what supporting the movement meant to them—pointing to biblical scriptures to demonstrate it would be harmful not to support BLM. The board’s response was that they felt that they did not want to be politically aligned with BLM as a whole. The plan was to take some time and reconvene.
Posthuma said that a couple of days later, he, his boss, a store manager, a board member and another woman were included in a coordinated prayer with Nelson and one of his spiritual advisors.
The meeting was predicated on discussing how Freedom for Youth could support the community, Posthuma said, though it did not go that way.
Posthuma said the meeting was instead aggressive.
“It was very aggressive, a lot of demands made by the African American woman named Thalia who stated they need to pray to God and ask forgiveness for holding a sinful event (which was the initial event). Using the Bible to shame us and said the BLM banner was wrong,” he explained.
The meeting went on for about five hours, Posthuma said, and that he felt extremely uncomfortable or subject to spiritual manipulation.
“It was so intense that I can almost use the term traumatic”, said Posthuma, saying he decided to walk out of the meeting because he felt insulted and was not allowed to speak at all.
He said that every time he or any member of his group attempted to say something, Thalia would say, “Shh” and point saying “You can’t talk.”
The setup of the meeting was also concerning given the coronavirus pandemic, Posthuma added.
“At the prayer meeting with the spiritual advisor, we were forced to hold hands with everyone in the group for a long period of time (over 30 minutes) and also forced to sit in a very close proximity. Thalia said, ‘God will protect us from the plague,'” he explained.
The woman described Freedom Blend Coffee’s initial prayer event as “sinful” and on different occasions, she told Posthuma that the Holy Spirit told her that he was a very divisive person and liked to start controversy a lot.
One of Freedom for Youth’s value is to claim each participant is a “leader.”
The day after, management from Freedom Blend and Freedom for Youth held a meeting where Nelson again told Posthuma’s boss that they needed to take the sign down and change their BLM t-shirts.
Freedom Blend staff again pushed back, requesting another meeting. There, Nelson explained that having the BLM banner was not “Christ-like.” Posthuma said a couple of the employees walked out of the meeting, others burst into tears and the executive director stormed out.
“It was a very emotional and hard event,” he said.
The following morning, all the Freedom Blend locks had been changed—none of the staff could access the building. The following Monday, management was fired and escorted out with no further explanation. After the firings, nearly all other staff walked out of the job. Freedom Blend then announced on Facebook that they were temporarily closing.
“As a black male, I felt betrayed by the organization because I totally believed in them and their mission. I love what they are doing, I grew up in the same community and know kids that attend Freedom, but with their recent decisions, they showed that their actions need to match their mission,” said Joe Mabior, a former supervisor who worked at the Freedom Blend for about a year and a half.
Mabior was called to go back to work now that the organization is talking about reopening the shop, but he declined to return.
“At the end of the day, I am a black male who knows how it feels to be discriminated, and I wasn’t talking just to talk,” said Mabior.
Nelson has responded to the incident, saying Freedom for Youth shares the Black Lives Matter goal of racial justice reform, but not the rest of the movement, as it “supports behavior that is counter to the Biblical truths we claim, including God’s perfect design for sex, gender, the family, and marriage. BLM’s core beliefs are antithetical to God’s Word from the beginning.”
“This was NOT a case of silencing our employees’ hearts or voices,” Nelson wrote in an email to supporters, Caffeinated Thoughts reported. “Yes, the banner was the tip of an iceberg that caused an unexpected storm of controversy despite our good intentions to honor the black community we so deeply love and care for. As many of the news reports and Facebook comments have indicated, many in the community are disappointed and angry that the banner came down. It was never our intention to put the banner up inside the coffee shop…not with that specific language.”
Nelson said the ministry has learned from the controversy and that they will take steps to respond. This includes hanging a banner on the outside of Freedom Blend Coffee that says, “Black lives matter to Freedom,” seek input from the community on how to serve the community in staff and volunteer roles better (Nelson said that civil rights leader and author John Perkins will also serve as an advisor) and launch a Freedom for Youth graduate task force to help re-launch Freedom Blend Coffee by finding ways to better reflect and serve the community.
On June 26, Nelson also announced that two new board of directors will be appointed—they will be people of color.
by Claudia Thrane
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