Faith Holmes was around 6 years old when her mother took her to a black church for a teachable moment. After services, the children were invited to attend Sunday school, but Holmes resisted. As the only white child, she recalls telling her mother she felt different. Her mother replied, "Good. Now you know what it feels like."
Then she told her young daughter to remember that feeling whenever there was an opportunity to be kind to someone who might feel like an outcast.
It is in that spirit that Holmes dedicated her 20s to race relations work in Los Angeles, forming a nonprofit with a Grammy Award-winning music producer and acting as personal assistant to a renowned African American author. And it is how she now runs her community cafe in a gentrified Washington neighborhood near the famous U Street Corridor, once a major hub for African American music and business.
On a freezing predawn morning, the sidewalk scattered with salt in anticipation of snow, Holmes, now 44, unlocked the door of her small business, Love 'n Faith Cafe. Nestled between a high-priced gym, a boutique grocery store and underneath apartments where a one bedroom rents for around $3,000 a month, the cafe is meant to be a place where everyone, regardless of race or class, is welcome.
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Inside, a glass case is filled with Holmes' muffins and scones, and there is a liquid nitrogen ice cream machine. It's a coffee shop, a bakery, an ice cream shop, a smoothie bar, a sandwich place - it's a bit unfocused, but it's trying to be a little bit of everything for everyone, which is fitting.
There are square wooden tables each etched with two quotes, one about love and one about faith. "I have decided to stick to love . . . Hate is too great a burden to bear," reads one quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "Ya gotta have faith! faith! faith!" reads another from the George Michael song. The art pieces on the wall are graphic images of cultural icons like King and Mother Teresa as well as modern day inspirational figures like Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, and Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to be a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.
Holmes welcomes local activists to hold community meetings in the cafe. On any given afternoon, neighborhood schoolchildren careen through the door, and Holmes' staff knows that each, if they say please and thank you, can have a free ice cream sample.
"Sometimes it's disruptive to the customers, but my whole feeling is I want [the kids] to feel welcome," she said in an interview last week. "This is their neighborhood, their families have lived here for the past 40 years. I don't want to be another place where they don't feel welcome."
The current political climate and the racial discord it has engendered makes Holmes feel like a space like hers is more vital than ever. Already on every Martin Luther King Day she holds a unity event for patrons to come and have a discussion about race in America. She'll be holding one again Jan. 16 - a week that begins with the federal holiday for the civil rights leader and ends with the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. She plans to continue these dialogues on Monday nights throughout 2017.
"We can talk about the dirt, the hardship, but we have to come together with the thought of understanding and upliftment," she said. "What can we do to make it better? What are we doing?"
Community and food
Holmes was raised in the Bahai faith, a religion that promotes racial equality and believes "racism is the most vital and challenging issue facing America." Her upbringing led her to major in African American studies and psychology in college.
During a religious pilgrimage in Haifa, Israel, in the early 1990s, she had an idea to create a dialogue about race through music just as Michael Jackson's "We Are The World" raised social consciousness about famine in Africa. She pitched the idea to producer KC Porter, a fellow Bahai, who worked with artists like Santana and Ricky Martin. Together they launched the Oneness Project, a nonprofit described by Billboard magazine in 2000 as an "organization devoted to promoting racial unity through music." Their idea was to bring together a cross section of A-list artists on an album, pairing for example, a country singer with a rapper, to highlight that there is more that connects us than separates us. They hoped it would spark such a conversation. The money raised would support awareness campaigns, educational programs, as well as grants and scholarships, all around race relations.
"If I can use whatever I have for something great, I'm there," Porter said in the Billboard piece. "I'm all for it. I think everyone in life longs to find something that can give to humanity. The principal fact that we are all part of one global family is one that I hold very dear to my heart."
Meanwhile, Holmes also worked as a personal assistant for Joy DeGruy, the author of the book, "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome," traveling the country with her for lectures and seminars. Often, Holmes was the only white person in the room.
She dropped out of college a few credits shy of graduating to work on Oneness, but despite sign-on from various big-name artists and support from megastars like Michael Jackson, the album never came to fruition. Her work with DeGruy also came to an end. Holmes had always dreamed of working in the food business - at 14 she thought she'd be a caterer - so she accepted a job in Washington, D.C., running a food kiosk at the downtown convention center. She parlayed that into her own stand, Faithfully Sweet, where she sold liquid nitrogen ice cream and other sweets during events.
Then, in 2014, she created her brick-and-mortar venture, Love 'n Faith, which merged her two passions: community outreach and food service.
"I wanted my place to be a beacon of light; I wanted it to be a place where people when they come in they feel the love," she said. "I wanted it to be a source of inspiration because society right now is really dark."
On this early morning, two young women are sipping freshly squeezed apple, carrot and ginger juices. Others cycle through with orders for lattes or breakfast paninis. Holmes greets each with a lively hello and a big smile. She knows her regulars by name and how they like their coffee. She's chatty, engaging every customer on a personal level and thanking them warmly.
Robert Herndon, 74, a black man who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1960s, walks in, and Holmes gives him her cheery welcome. She gets him his small coffee before he settles into a corner arm chair. About 30 minutes later, as he prepares to leave, Holmes calls out, "Bye, love, thanks for coming in."
He turns and smiles. "Keep the faith," he says.