Oak Lawn has a new neighbor coming to town! At 3705 Cedar Springs Rd. now sits Union, a community-oriented coffeeshop that offers sweet Onyx beans and a mean Matcha Mint that'll give you a run for your money. I had the opportunity to sit down in this new space with Mike Baughman, who is the founding pastor and community curator who spearheaded the entire initiative, and we discussed his intentions with Union and the potential the newfound coffeeshop holds.
LT: Thank you for making time to speak with me about Union’s opening! There’s been a lot of buzz around having a new coffeeshop to go to. My first question: why this location?
MB: There are a lot of reasons why this became the perfect space for us. One thing to mention is that we routinely hire folks who are part of the LGBTQ community because we want to make sure that we are a sanctuary space for people who have largely been burned and hurt by the church. That’s an obvious connection to this neighborhood. This neighborhood has an incredible history of sanctuary, but not just with folks who identify on the spectrum. As we did more and more research, we found that this neighborhood was the sanctuary for folks who were freed slaves after the Civil War. This was a sanctuary for folks who were sick. There’s a natural spring in Reverchon Park and folks believe in its natural healing properties, which is why the medical district is where it is. This was a place that people came to in order to find healing and as a place of sanctuary for immigrants, specifically Mexicans, as Little Mexico extended into this neighborhood for decades. And then it became a place of sanctuary for LGBTQ folks. And in the past 20 years or so, it's also been a sanctuary of sorts for unsheltered neighbors. And one of the things that really surprised me was that, unlike a lot of neighborhoods in Dallas, folks who are homeless aren't treated like a problem. They're treated like neighbors. I think a lot of that has to do with the history of this neighborhood consisting of people who know what it is to be an outsider. They find ways to welcome everyone. And that's been a big part of the Union story, that we've continually found ways to be a sanctuary for those who are threatened and on the margins and struggling. And then we start thinking about the actual physical location. Oak Lawn United Methodist Church has come to life over the past several years through claiming its identity as a reconciling congregation and I couldn't imagine better backdoor neighbors. On top of that, there's actually a lawn with oak trees. As far as I can tell, this is the only place in the whole neighborhood of Oak Lawn that has oak trees and a lawn. (laughs)
LT: (laughs) Definitely. Going back to the word “sanctuary,” that was obviously the theme in the construction of all this. That said, did Union members enjoy moving from place to place or did you find that they preferred having a go-to spot?
MB: When we learned that we were leaving the last location, we thought we would open this shop in six to nine months. We were all excited and quoting Thor: Ragnarok like, “We are a people, not a place!” We’re wandering around like, “The wilderness is good and we need to do this.” Then that six to nine months turned into eighteen months. And we realized it’s hard being on the road and being at the mercy of the availability of other groups and our people not always knowing where we are. And, for some folks especially, one of the things that we've learned is for a lot of people who find themselves as outsiders, reliability was really important for them to feel safe. We had a lot of folks withdraw from our community while we were on the road. But now I'm very excited that we have a physical sanctuary to go to along with this group of people who are so good at being a sanctuary for one another.
LT: That's beautiful. And in terms of functionality, you knew that you wanted to have a consistent location for Union members to gather together, but what was the thought process behind incorporating the conference rooms above?
MB: We kept hearing from people that there was a need for easily accessible and neutral meeting spaces. People who are not so churchy don't want to have a business meeting inside of a church building. Plus, it's generally hard to find your way inside. And how do you set it up? It's just not convenient. Plus, people love caffeine for their meetings. What was even better was just seeing the breadth of things that were happening in the conference rooms. There would be people hosting a board game one afternoon, and we saw friends connecting and laughing and having a blast another afternoon. Or it was Chipotle training, and it was great when they showed up because they would always give me a gift card. (laughs) And the same with Lululemon training, nonprofit startup companies, social enterprises, etc. So, the upstairs space was a way for us to truly invest in gathering from external parties and internal leadership development. Everything upstairs is built around that. We’re trying to find additional ways that we can support people, and we wanted to have a dedicated space for it.
LT: Do you have anything in the books for the rest of the summer at Union?
MB: Yes! One of the things that I absolutely adore is the Naked Stage. It’s our storytelling stage where people tell their narratives without notes, without prompts. To date, everyone has kept their clothes on. But who knows, it’s a new neighborhood. It's the summer. You never know what might happen. And the Naked Stage isn't just about how many people show up or how great the stories are. It's what happens afterwards: to watch people approach storytellers and say, “You know, your story reminds me of…” and they start their own storytelling process. That’s the real win. We have curated sets on the second Fridays of the month and we're doing open mic nights on the fourth Fridays of the month. One of the curated sets is “Spilling the Tea and Coffee” and it's all stories from baristas. We’ve got a themed open mic night entitled “Unfinished Business,” and I think we'll pull a lot of cool stories from that. We also want to tell the stories of the neighborhoods with a curated set called “Legacy of Love Stories from the Intersection of Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs.” We’re bringing in folks who can recall stories of growing up in this neighborhood when it was Little Mexico and bar owners who have been a part of things here and people who have been a part of activist movements here. We’ve got someone telling his story of experiences during the AIDS crisis and we want a bunch of stories about how this neighborhood has embodied love.
LT: And just to clarify, these events begin immediately after that June 27th opening?
MB: Yes. This Thursday night, we’ll have a big ol’ celebration and a ribbon ceremony. We’ll actually have some stories told onstage. We'll have a band playing. We have a bunch of giveaways that we're going to do. We're going to start adding more programs as we go through the summer and the fall. One thing that we're really interested in developing is an intentional conversation about race. One might be race and sexuality. It might be race and immigration. I think there's a lot of fatigue around having the same conversations around race again and again, so we wanted to take things to a deeper level and give people other topics to tie in. We also hope to start the Union Garden Club soon, so we need some people who have some skills there.
LT: And can any member from the community propose a program or an event? I just attended a user experience research workshop and the organizer asked for feedback regarding location. She wanted to make sure future workshops and meetups were accessible, so she asked for suggestions and I had Union in mind!
MB: Yeah, you can reserve our rooms through the app that we have. And if they want to host design conferences then they can contact us directly. Everything that we've ever done at Union has been something that came as an idea from a customer or Union member with the exception of the Naked Stage. People have ideas on ways they can use this space or make great things happen and we want to leverage that. For example, the conference rooms. We designed the space with linked screens on multiple walls so that you don't have to all face the same way to see what's up on the screen. We've got a big butcher paper roll and we’re going to keep our shelves stocked with blue tape, sticky notes, sharpies, and Legos; all the things you need for a really good brainstorming session are just going to be right there and ready for you.
Union opens this Thursday, June 27, at 3705 Cedar Springs Rd. You can learn more about the coffeeshop and all of its initiatives by downloading "Union Dallas Coffee" from the App Store.