Billy Kangas’ love for truth, God and a good pour led him to serve others in a way he never expected

YPSILANTI — Coffee grinders screaming, glasses of ales being poured, people fumbling through their wallets for cash and cards.

Another busy day at Cultivate Coffee in Ypsilanti.

The hustle and bustle is replicated at just about every other coffee shop and alehouse in the country. But what makes Cultivate unique is its mission: a mission of community service and corporate responsibility.

Cultivate is more than a place to grab an espresso or a stout. It’s where book clubs meet, community issues are discussed, and people find a safe space for support.

It’s busy, it’s messy, it’s hip, it’s needed. And it’s where Billy Kangas, co-founder and at-large member of the board of directors, finds Jesus Christ in the day-to-day, how the customers are served, the employees are treated and community around him benefits.

“There are a lot of ways you can evangelize, and I never intentionally avoid using Christ’s name, but when you fully embody your life in your faith, I think Christ becomes so rooted in who you are that that reality flows out of you, and you will always find a way to serve Christ,” said Kangas, a former Protestant minster turned Catholic, whose journey has taken him from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to Ypsilanti.

Billy Kangas mingles with customers at Cultivate Coffee in Ypsilanti in January. Kangas' journey to the Catholic faith inspired his entrepreneurial spirit, with a heart for community service. (Photos by Naomi Vrazo | Detroit Catholic)

Kangas’ work of serving Christ and the community has continued at his next project, as director of community engagement at the Hope Clinic in Ypsilanti, a community center where the underprivileged can receive free medical and dental care, along with food assistance and help navigating social services.

“Discipleship, at its root, is following a rabbi. It’s not uniquely a Christian idea; it’s rooted in first-century Palestine. But to be a disciple of a rabbi doesn’t mean you read all of the scrolls or show up at all of their lectures, but you follow their life.”

As with Cultivate, Kangas wants everyone who walks into the Hope Clinic to experience the love of Christ, leveraging community engagement and a list of partners to form a network of support for people who need assistance.

“That vision of ministering to people’s souls is key,” Kangas said. “Discipleship, at its root, is following a rabbi. It’s not uniquely a Christian idea; it’s rooted in first-century Palestine. But to be a disciple of a rabbi doesn’t mean you read all of the scrolls or show up at all of their lectures, but you follow their life. For me, discipleship is when I go from inviting God into my life, to me actively seeking where God is already in my life.”

Entering the 'theological cathedral'

Seeking where God was in his life wasn’t new to Kangas. Growing up in the Ann Arbor area in a Lutheran family, Kangas said his parents taught him the faith at an early age and were part of an ecumenical community that included Catholics.

“I grew up in a community with a lot of Catholics, and there were a lot of great Catholic examples in my life, people who were deeply rooted in their faith who were passionate followers of Jesus Christ,” Kangas said.

Besides a great place to get a cup of coffee or a tall, frothy pilsner, Cultivate Coffee seeks to serve the community by being a place where volunteerism and social consciousness can thrive.

“But raised as a good Lutheran, I understood there we some issues; we looked with a degree of suspicion at a lot of things Catholics did. Even though I was exposed to Catholics at a young age, I also developed ‘anti-bodies’ to what I conceived were theological deviations.”

Kangas earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies at Regent University in Virginia and was working as a youth pastor at a local congregation in the Ann Arbor area. He knew he wanted to become a pastor at a young age, starting his seminary studies in Chicago to train to become a Protestant minister.

But during his studies, he came across something he at first considered troubling.

“I had this laundry list of maybe 100 things where I disagreed with the Catholic Church, but during my studies, that list began to get challenged,” Kangas said. “As I started to immerse myself in Church history, I began to realize that there were a few problems with the faith as I constructed it. The No. 1 issue being that the faith of the early fathers, the worship they had, didn’t really reflect the Protestantism I had. In truth, it looked more like the worship and practices of my Catholic brothers and sisters.”

“In Catholicism, there is a polyvalence to the communicant. You become immersed in God’s mystery, in many different forms. It’s almost entering into a theological cathedral where your voice is joined with the voices of Christians throughout history; their perspectives enrich my perspective.”

Kangas kept studying to be a Protestant minister. He was married and working as a pastor in the Chicagoland area, but that nagging feeling about Catholicism didn’t go away.

“There were a number of things I thought were very compelling about Catholicism, No. 1 being the depth of Catholic theology and spirituality,” Kangas said. “In many Protestant churches, the pedagogy present is somewhat one-dimensional. You go to Protestant service and they tell you, ‘Here is what I want you to learn.’ In Catholicism, there is a polyvalence to the communicant. You become immersed in God’s mystery, in many different forms. It’s almost entering into a theological cathedral where your voice is joined with the voices of Christians throughout history; their perspectives enrich my perspective.”

A voice and a difficult decision

By 2012, Kangas’ objections to Catholicism became less theological and more practical one can’t be a married Protestant minister and be Catholic. In addition to the obvious practical problems, Kangas still had a problem with the notion of the papacy and the pope being St. Peter’s successor.

Billy Kangas is interviewed in the food pantry at the Hope Clinic in Ypsilanti, where he serves as a board member at large. The clinic offers medical and dental care, food assistance and help with social services.

It was around Easter 2012 when Kangas was reading Fr. John Hardon’s “Catholic Catechism,” where Fr. Hardon quoted Matthew 24:14, in which Jesus says the Gospel will be preached throughout the world to all nations.

“Fr. Hardon’s book said that if Jesus has the audacity to give a mission to 12 guys, and he expects that to continue to the whole world, until the end of the age, then he expects the mission to continue beyond the mission of these 12 guys,” Kangas said. “So how do we know we’re part of that mission? Really, there has to be a center of unity, the Church.”

Kangas thought about the explanation, and when it was time for the Easter vigil, Kangas went to Mass.

“During the exsultet at the Easter vigil, I was just overcome by the beauty of the vigil,” Kangas said. “I had this moment, a near audible voice of God, saying, ‘You need to become Catholic.’ I started thinking, ‘No, are you out of your mind? I’ve been trying to push this off for a long time.’ It would be total career suicide.”

“Career suicide,” is one way to put it. A married youth minister at a Protestant congregation in the Chicagoland area, Kangas realized his repulsion from the Catholic faith was really about practicality.  

“I had this moment, a near audible voice of God, saying, ‘You need to become Catholic.’ I started thinking, ‘No, are you out of your mind? I’ve been trying to push this off for a long time.’ It would be total career suicide.”

After vising family in Michigan, Kangas and his wife returned to Chicago, where he went outside to do some praying.

“I grabbed my Bible and wandered out to this path near our apartment, right near the Chicago River,” Kangas said. “I’m thumbing through the Bible, making poor theological choices while playing ‘Bible roulette,’ when this younger guy running around the corner looks at me and goes, ‘Is that a Bible?’ I say, ‘Yeah it’s a Bible,’ and he goes, ‘Read to me Matthew 24:14.’ So, I read it to him and realized, this is the passage Fr. Harden had used in his argument on the papacy. And this guy says, ‘Thanks,’ and runs down the path. At that point, I just stood in silence.”

From God's house to coffee house

Panicked, worried, and not sure what to do, Kangas emailed a friend who was a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, who advised him to get a spiritual director.

His spiritual director advised him to look into the Catholic faith for a one year: the prayers, the liturgy of the hours and the devotions.  

“I spent a year doing that, and by the time I got done, I said, ‘That’s it, I can’t go back,’” Kangas said. “When I told my wife, she wasn’t surprised. She said, ‘Yeah, I saw this coming.’ She been incredibly supportive; I’m really blessed to have a wife who is this supportive.”

“There are a lot of ways you can evangelize, and I never intentionally avoid using Christ’s name,” Kangas said. “But when you fully embody your life in your faith, I think Christ becomes so rooted in who you are that that reality flows out of you, and you will always find a way to serve Christ.”

Kangas still wanted to serve the Church, but had to do so as a layman. He enrolled in the liturgy and sacred theology program at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., beginning three years of coursework to obtain his doctorate. During that time, he found a new calling to help support his academic efforts.

“In the midst of all, I think, I developed a deep love of the coffee shop culture,” Kangas said. “Coffee shops are a great place to go when you are doing ministry, and sometimes you need to pay the bills.”

During his studies and while working as a minister, Kangas made extra money taking shifts at coffee shops and become a bit of a “coffee guy,” brewing his own coffee. Soon, he wanted to open his own coffee house.

“So, a guy named Ryan Wallace, one of the co-founders of Cultivate, had this idea, and so we sat down,” Kangas said. “We chatted through this idea of a coffee and tap house. I told him all the ways it would be bad, and we saw some models that would be successful the industry. I shared what I’d like to see if we did something like that. At that point, we decided what we wanted.”

Wallace and Kangas wanted Cultivate to be more than just another coffeehouse, but a place with a mission.

“We launched Cultivate three years ago as a nonprofit coffee and tap house, oriented around creating solutions for hunger in the community,” Kangas said. “We’d sell high-quality and craft beer and create a community space that is open for people to use. It’s a model we haven’t seen done, but it became incredibly successful. It was about year when I transitioned off day-to-day work in the coffee shop, and now I’m a board member at large so I can be full time at Hope Clinic.”

Going where the Spirit leads

Kangas said the mission behind Cultivate was to be a tool to empower the community. The coffee shop serves a meeting space for groups to discuss wider community issues such as affordable housing or access to food.

A year into Cultivate’s existence, the coffee and tap house undertook an initiative to evaluate the ecosystem of care and human services in Washtenaw County, identifying 12 key areas that needed further investment, and later identifying partners to tackle those key areas.

Billy Kangas is always ready to offer a smiling face to customers at Cultivate Coffee.
A brightly colored sign welcomes visitors to the Hope Clinic.

One of those partnership was the Hope Clinic, which is why Kangas just as he moved on from being an aspiring Protestant minster to a Catholic pursuing a Ph.D. transitioned from Cultivate to step into his current role.

“There is a huge crossover, I think, from what I was doing at Cultivate what I would call social entrepreneurship and what I’m doing here at Hope Clinic,” Kangas said. “What I bring here is the experience in creating good systems and balanced business into a nonprofit setting. Both of them are rooted in a unified vision, leveraging community resources to improve the lives of people in the community.”

That empowering drive to improve the community, improving the lives of the people with whom he comes into contact, is the same drive that powered Kangas’ conversion. Kangas said his study of Catholicism taught him to look for where God is already in his life, as opposed for looking for God in some distant spiritual sense.

“What I do every day is examine, look at my day and ask where the Spirit is moving me, and that I respond positively to wherever the Spirit is leading me,” Kangas said. “And where the Spirit leads you is different for every person. But I challenge myself each day, and it doesn’t have to be super spiritual, but super faithful. So, when I’m changing a diaper, I’m not necessarily saying the Lord’s Prayer, but I do know that I’m following God will, because I’m caring for the person who’s in need before me.

“That’s what it means to be truly rooted in the Gospel,” Kangas said. “Not that we look spiritual on the outside, but we are spiritually rooted, producing fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, knowledge, wisdom, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. As it says in Galatians 5, if you are not seeing this fruit, it means we need to turn, repent and say, ‘God, I need your grace for today; I need to walk in great holiness.’”

“I hope everyone who walks in the doors here experiences that they are welcomed with open arms,” Kangas said. “I'm not walking alone; I'm trying to walk intently in the footsteps of God, who is Love and who has created me.”

Kangas acknowledges that walking in great holiness is a difficult walk, one that takes you from place to place, career to career, and journey to journey. What began as his journey to learn more about God and His Church turned into an inward reflection of learning about himself and what God wants from him. 

“I hope everyone who walks in the doors here experiences that they are welcomed with open arms,” Kangas said of Cultivate. “There are many ways we can serve Christ, witness who Christ is, without telling people the theological truth about Him. It starts with, ‘How can I give witness with my service?’ and, ‘How can I witness with my love?’

“For me, being a missionary disciple has never been about making people have a conversation about Jesus; but it’s about wanting to live a life that is so saturated with God’s love that they become interested in walking alongside me, and they found out who I am,” Kangas continued. “I'm not walking alone; I'm trying to walk intently in the footsteps of God, who is Love and who has created me. He showed me to be the most tangible in the things He has given me. Even if I was never looking for them in the first place, they were always there, ready for me to discover them.”


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