Jacob’s Well interns are more than baristas. They’re helping Bellevue Reformed meet its neighbors.

By Sharon Scheenstra

We were in over our heads. How in the world could our little church, Bellevue Reformed, keep this newest venture afloat?

Just the act of opening our little neighborhood thrift store, Ruth’s Place, a few years ago had required all the faith and ingenuity we had. The number of decisions to make, conflicts to navigate, and anxieties to alleviate had surprised us. But somehow we found our stride. Ruth’s Place was flourishing now, and the neighbors we’d hoped to bless considered it their own.

So we dared a more daunting dream: a little café, a venue for interactions with even more depth and potential.

Soon this tiny seed of an idea had a name—Jacob’s Well—and a mission statement:

Jacob’s Well is a place where neighbors connect and gather—an oasis where stories are exchanged, questions explored, friendships forged, and needs linked to available resources. Some people may form support groups around common life challenges. Others may gather to talk about matters of spiritual or social concern in the spirit of Jesus. Music and art by ordinary people of all ages is welcomed and encouraged, as well as any inspiration or venture that contributes to the flourishing of this part of God’s world called the Bellevue neighborhood.

So we got to work. One of us had a flooring business; others knew how to drywall and tape. We had an electrician, an inspector who knew building codes, and a lot of opinions about paint.

Months of effort later we put out our sandwich board, opened the door, and started climbing the steep learning curve.

Take it from us: food service is not for sissies. Quite quickly physical and mental health issues thinned the ranks of our volunteers, and those who were left were wearing out. Clearly we didn’t have enough money or enough energy or enough volunteers with enough time.

But what we did have were some gutsy cash-strapped young adults who needed work experience.

And we had a what-if question: What if we applied for the Regional Synod of Albany Grant for Church Revitalization? What if we could offer internships to a few of those young adults?

From there, our what-ifs became reality. To date we’ve had five interns. Three have moved on to good full-time jobs. One of the three continues to volunteer at Jacob’s Well several hours every week. They’re doing well, and they’ve kept Jacob’s Well afloat.

Aliajah Thomas, a current intern, often walks to Jacob’s Well from his family’s apartment—a distance of more than two miles. With no father in his life, an older brother struggling with addiction, a younger brother on the autism spectrum, and a mother who works long hours, Aliajah’s situation presents the sorts of challenges that often keep young people in survival mode, unable to imagine or prepare for the future.

But Aliajah, who’s 21, has learned to face challenges head on. He completed his GED this year, an accomplishment that’s given him a great sense of satisfaction. “I used to be irresponsible,” he says, “but I’m growing up. If I have to be to work early, I’m starting to make myself go to bed early. I’ve learned to listen and to take advice. ”

Working the griddle has taught Aliajah to focus his attention. He’s learned how to cook and clean and stay with a task until it’s done and done well.

“I can tell I’m growing up,” he says, “because I think more about others now.”

Lisa, another intern who’s listening in, says, “That’s true! Last night, he told me to sit down and take a break, and he washed dishes.”

Aliajah has become a valuable team player, both at Jacob’s Well and at church. On Sundays, he plays drums on our music team. This summer, he team-taught Sunday school, where he discovered that he enjoys teaching and that kids love him!

“I’ve learned patience too,” he says. “I used to get really frustrated if I messed up, but I’ve learned not to rush myself and to try my best, even if I feel I can’t do it.”

Aliajah is loved, and he knows it. Kids and customers ask for him. His quirky humor, his on-the-spot raps, and his remarkable dance moves fill the place with fun. And at Jacob’s Well, we consider that a spiritual gift.

Sharon Scheenstra serves at Bellevue Reformed Church in Schenectady, New York, where her husband pastors.