By QUINN BRENNEKE
At a table in The Electric Brew, Myron Bontrager sits at ease, surrounded by the hum of conversations and coffee sipping.
Bontrager wears blue jeans and leaves his wrist cuffs unbuttoned; anything formal would stand out in The Brew. As the owner, this is where he makes his living; but for now, he puts work aside.
He tells the new baristas: “It’s all about relationships. It’s not about coffee.” He observes how this philosophy is embraced around the room, pointing out clusters of conversations between patrons.
“Relationships help good things happen,” he says. “I expect my employees to have relationships with each other — good relationships.”
According to Bontrager, this philosophy is how he runs his coffee shop and also how he lives his life. However, even with a high regard for relationships, he recognizes the value of solitude.
Every fall, he goes on a weeklong camping trip to Pokagon State Park, alone, usually at the end of October when most campers have already left. He pitches a tent at the edge of the park, and spends the week reading and enjoying the outdoors. This year, he did something more ambitious.
“In place of that, I took six weeks off and walked in Spain,” he said, laughing.
Bontrager recently returned from taking a pilgrimage across Spain that is called the Camino de Santiago. For centuries, pilgrims have walked hundreds of miles to reach the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, which is believed to house the remains of the apostle St. James. The Camino de Santiago is also known as the Way of St. James.
“I love adventure, so I always like something new,” he said. After watching the movie, “The Way,” in which an American father travels to Spain to recover the body of his son, who was killed in a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago, and then reading books and articles about the pilgrimage, Bontrager decided to make the journey. He hoped to find peace in his life, which he said has been hectic in the past years.
“All the books I read said that I should articulate why I wanted to go,” said Bontrager, who admits that his goal was broad for a reason. He did not want to make a list of goals and return home disappointed if he only achieved a few of them.
Leaving his wife, two sons and grandchildren behind in the United States, he made the journey alone, but regularly called home and posted updates on his Facebook profile.
“I’d go again in a heartbeat,” he said, “but I’d make sure that heartbeat goes along with my wife.”
On the journey, Bontrager said he enjoyed the common humanity that every pilgrim shared.
“One of the phenomenons about the camino is that a bunch of people from around the world meet at a certain place randomly and within days they are bonded,” he said.
During the final days of the pilgrimage, Bontrager reconnected with another walker whom he had met earlier on the journey. The man ended his walk in the same place as Bontrager over the next two nights.
On the final night they saw each other, the man invited Bontrager to have dinner with him and a group.
“Hey! These two women I know said there is a great octopus place and we’re going to eat there tonight.” Bontrager decided to join the group with his acquaintance.
“They just packed us into one table,” said Bontrager. “There was a group of people that he knew; there was a group of people that his friends had invited and I knew him, and I knew almost nobody else.”
“This is unbelievable,” he said after looking around the table and counting seven countries represented. “It was almost a surreal moment.”
“Everybody was talking at least some kind of English, some better than others,” he said, also describing how people used their hands to communicate. “It was loud, it was noisy and I thought, ‘There is a real beauty there.’”
“It sort of said, ‘This is what it’s about.’”
Bontrager described the dinner as a metaphor for his whole trip. “It’s about people coming together, who have nothing in common except for this… let’s enjoy the company we bring to each other in this moment.”
Myron Bontrager on the Camino de Santiago
Even on a journey of solitude, Bontrager discovered the beauty of relationships, which he also sees at The Electric Brew. The other half of his career, ministry, is about relationships as well.
From an early age, Bontrager said that he “has felt a certain drawing to leadership in church ministry.” He has served in leadership roles in various churches, including a five-year term at a small church venture in Ecuador. Most recently, he has served as pastor at Downtown @ 808, which meets in the Goshen Theater.
“I’ve always said this: church isn’t a business — it’s a family,” he said. “Families are messy; families are dysfunctional. People with problems get together because they are family. And yeah, you fight together, but you defend each other, too.”
Bontrager admits that his way of leading church is not popular, but he believes that relationships are more important than “polished” programs and services.
“Nothing good happens outside of relationships,” he said. According to him, relationships between people give them permission to help each other.
“If you’re having a problem in your life, if you are doing something that’s harmful and destructive to your life and to other relationships,” he said, “the deeper the relationship I have with you, the more permission you give me to say something.”
Bontrager said that he has experienced the value in close relationships, especially during difficult times.
“A number of years ago, I went through a real crisis of faith,” he said. “It was like I didn’t know how to sort this stuff out.”
At the time, Bontrager was in a pastoral role at a church, and said that he decided that it would be best to offer his letter of resignation.
However, one of the women on the leadership team said, “No, I wouldn’t accept your resignation, because the place you found your wounding is also the place you can find your healing.”
Bontrager continued quoting her: “If you walk away now, you will leave as a bitter, disenfranchised ex-pastor that will never find healing. So we are willing to walk through that with you.”
“I think that’s the best example I have ever had of someone looking at me and accepting me, knowing the real crap in my life, and basically saying, ‘No, it’s OK, we want to be at your side through this because we care about you,’” he said.
“And that was huge for me.” Because of it, he said, “I’m a better person today.”
Bontrager says he is slowing down. Another person is helping with the pastoral responsibilities at Downtown @ 808 as Bontrager approaches retirement. He says that he plans to eventually retire at The Electric Brew, where he enjoys roasting coffee.
However, even when he is done roasting, he will certainly continue sipping this favorite roast, Bald Brothers, over a good conversation.