Lifetree Cafe’s weekly gatherings offer food for thought for participants

By Elise Zwicky for Chronicle Media

From left, Jeff Shoumaker, Dr. Gail Williamson and Katie Lunzman participate in a small group discussion about domestic violence at a recent Lifetree Café meeting in Peoria. Lifetree meets at 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays at Pizza Ranch and tackles a different topic each week. (Photo by Elise Zwicky / for Chronicle Media)

A Lifetree Café meeting at a pizza place might conjure thoughts of cheese and pepperoni, but the main entreé at these events is actually food for thought.

“Lifetree is a conversation café,” Dr. Gail Williamson told a group of about 15 people who gathered in a side room at Peoria’s Pizza Ranch on a recent Thursday for the weekly event. Williamson, a Pekin physician, was the moderator for that week’s gathering, which focused on the issue of domestic violence.

The free hour-long Lifetree Café events are sponsored by the Peoria Redeemer Lutheran Church and are designed to be a comfortable, safe place to meet people and share thoughts about a variety of topics that affect the community, some light-hearted and some more hard-hitting.

Recent topics have ranged from “The Church and Gays: One Pastor’s Dilemma” to “What’s Your Pet Trying to Tell You?”

“Lifetree kind of came out of a small group session we had at our church about reaching out to your community and your neighborhood,” said coordinator Clarence Carr.

The Lifetree Café program is organized by Group Publishing, a Colorado-based Christian publishing company. The company provides the weekly topics, along with short videos and a script designed to facilitate conversation. Churches around the country pay a monthly fee to Group Publishing for the materials, but there’s no charge to attend the meetings.

“More than anything, the goal or mission is to have an outreach and to get people talking together,” Carr said. “The topics aren’t going to interest everybody every week, so we expect to have kind of a changing group.”

Since starting in May, the local Lifetree group has averaged about 17 participants each week, ranging in age from early 20s to retirees. Pizza Ranch lets the group meet there for free, and participants may order dinner or drinks at their own cost if they choose to do so.

Clarence Carr (right), coordinator of a Lifetree Café group in Peoria, talks with other participants about domestic violence at a recent meeting. The Lifetree Café program is organized by a Colorado-based Christian publishing company and is designed to encourage conversations about a variety of topics. (Photo by Elise Zwicky / for Chronicle Media)

So far mostly women have participated, but Carr said the local organizers are hoping to reach out to more men.

“One of the things we emphasize at the beginning is if you want to participate with the conversation, you’re welcome and that’s fantastic. If you want to sit and listen and not speak, that’s fine, too. You’re welcome just as you are,” Carr said.

While the discussions can get lively at times, he said the atmosphere is always respectful.

One topic that has generated passionate conversation so far was about the church’s stance regarding same-sex attraction on June 8.

“That was the one with our largest turnout so far. We had 21 people,” Carr said. “Everyone had a connection to the topic somehow through family or friends. They had questions they wanted to ask or things they wanted to say. It was a very positive conversation, but it was lively.”

Another topic that inspired animated conversation was on the issue of hoarding on June 15.

“We had about 16 or 17 people at that session. I was amazed at the information people had and the conversations that went on,” Carr said. “More than anything, there were people that truly understood that hoarding is a real thing and that it’s something people have a difficult time controlling.”

Participants at a recent Lifetree Café split into small groups and talked in between video clips of an interview with a domestic violence victim about questions such as how they or someone they know would relate to the woman’s story and where was God in the abusive household.

“Smaller groups makes for easier conversation,” Carr said. “Anytime we get in a large group, the conversation tends to be more difficult. But with the small groups it seems to take off.”

Participants were given pertinent Bible verses and a list of resources in case they or someone they know is a victim of domestic violence.

“For me, personally, I think we’ve lost a lot of the faith-based direction we’ve had as a culture. For us to be able to provide that to the people is extremely important. We’re soft in what we sell on the religious side, but there are an awful lot of people out there who are hurting and don’t know where to turn or how to get information or even how to start learning about what the issue is,” Carr said.

Marjorie Kidd, who’s attended several of the Lifetree Café events, said the religious side of the meetings is what attracted her, but she thinks Lifetree offers a “nice balance without being preachy.”

“Some of the topics apply to me, and some don’t,” Kidd added. “I’ve noticed that if the topic is not specific enough, people don’t come out. It has to be something that’s personal and maybe difficult to talk about.”

Upcoming topics include “Getting Unstuck: Practical Ways to Improve Your Life” on Aug. 3,  “Science and Religion” on Aug. 10, “Coping with Grief” on Aug. 17 and “They Hijacked my Life (Identity Theft) on Aug. 24.

The meetings begin at 6:30 p.m. and end promptly at 7:30, though participants are welcome to stay longer to continue the conversation, Carr said.

For more information, visit the Lifetree Café Peoria page on Facebook or




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