Rev. Jeff Cowmeadow, senior pastor since 1988 at Calvary Baptist Church in south Minneapolis, and his wife, Randi, have had to be scrappy entrepreneurs to survive at what was once a declining business.

They remember shuttering the sanctuary in the winter because the congregation that had dwindled to about 50 members and families couldn’t afford to heat it.

They rented the kitchen to culinary entrepreneurs and joined with another church and nonprofit housing group on a related venture. They raised a little money for years running a Halloween haunted house. They still lease church space to a neighborhood day care and preschool. Jeff, 60, and Randi, 56, a part-time college Spanish teacher, long have considered Calvary’s mission, at 26th and Blaisdell Avenue, to be hospitable, inclusive and welcoming. To parishioners as well as strangers. It’s paid off in many ways. 

Several years ago, during a backpack drive for kids in the neighborhood, a friend of a Calvary member was so impressed with the outreach to needy neighbors that he donated $2 million to assist low-income families to a church-administered endowment.

Calvary is by no means flush. But the multicultural congregation today boasts 200-plus members and a focus on hospitality, walking with the disadvantaged, caring for neighbors, social justice and environmental stewardship.

Now, after 33 years at Calvary, the Cowmeadows, and their three adult daughters, have quietly opened “Prodigal Pub” a couple blocks away, on 26th Street, a few doors east of Nicollet Avenue, known as Whittier’s “Eat Street.”

The Cowmeadows met 35 years ago working in a Bloomington bar. They long wanted to open a pub, with a full bar and food, in proximity to the church.

“Our neighbors aren’t walking into a ‘Christian’ pub,’ ” said Randi Cowmeadow. “They’re walking into a pub run by people of Christian faith. It’s spiritual but definitely not preachy. We are about connecting with others, enjoying good food and singing …”

Calvary is not involved financially or legally. However, Jeff Cowmeadow has been granted a limited amount of time to be at the pub. Tending bar a bit, sweeping floors and networking. If it works, both the church and the pub could benefit.

“There is a correlation between a church that is hospitable and a pub that is hospitable,” Jeff Cowmeadow said. “We’ve been told that’s one of our gifts: hospitality. Hebrew scripture tells of welcoming friends as well as ‘the other,’ the stranger. The stranger becomes the neighbor. We need to talk more with each other.”

Randi Cowmeadow will oversee Prodigal Pub, which officially opens in May. It will feature music by local artists and a backroom for discussions about news of the day, faith, and whatever else moves the spirit and conversation.

One Cowmeadow daughter is a veteran bar manager and another a pastry chef. The third will handle promotions and social media.

Jeff Cowmeadow estimated that it has cost “less than $250,000” to get Prodigal remodeled, stocked, legal and open. He has an economical, two-year lease on the space that can seat 50.

“We have been the recipients of generosity of friends who believe in the mission,” Jeff Cowmeadow said. “We did a lot of the labor ourselves. We’ve collected stuff for years to decorate a pub.”

Of the Prodigal, Irish restaurateur Kieran Folliard, an acquaintance, has predicted that it won’t be the biggest or the best Irish pub, “but the best pub that truly welcomes people home,” according to the Southwest Journal.

The eclectic design includes a “memorial shelf’’ for folks to display reminiscences, including a radio owned by Jeff’s late father, a candle owned by his mother and his brother’s 1970 yearbook. There’s a photo from Auschwitz, a portrait of writer Maya Angelou, Picasso’s antiwar painting, “Guernica,” tributes to Prince and Bob Dylan and a Calvary Church sign from a century ago found in the church’s boiler room.

Artist friends created stained-glass windows. Others donated historic photos and artifacts, a sound system and popcorn machine.

“If we succeed, I am the boss,” Randi Cowmeadow said. “If we fail, Jeff is.”

The Prodigal Pub is named for the playboy son who leaves home and blows an inheritance. He has to take a backbreaking job at slave wages. It gives him empathy for the poor. He is enriched with humility. He goes home to a forgiving father and angry brother.

“I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders,” the dutiful brother who stayed on the farm complains to dad, according to the gospel of Luke. “But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!

“My son,” the father said, “We had to celebrate … this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.