Andrew Epperson/Mustang News

Over the past four years, Front Porch, the free coffee house and study spot located on the edge of campus, has seen some drastic changes resulting in a sudden booming population.

The facility, which opened in 2004, has purposefully begun to brand itself as a space for all people, no matter their belief system.

Director of Front Porch and campus pastor Rev. Joel Drenckpohl explained that when he first began at Front Porch in January 2013 it was a Christian gathering area. He noticed that, though it had been open to non-Christians before, the space wasn’t actively trying to bring them in.

“They hired me, and I saw this place and I saw this potential here and I saw what they were trying to do,” he said. “It just seemed that with where it was located, and the amount of people who walked by every day, the thought that I had was, ‘Why couldn’t this place be more open to everyone?’”

So Drenckpohl began to push to make Front Porch more purposefully open to non-Christians. Doing so, he said, was the right Christian thing for him to do. By welcoming people from other walks of life, Drenckpohl hopes to spread the value of love and kindness.

“Front Porch should be a place where every single person walks by and they know that they are welcome there, that they are loved there, that they won’t be judged — whoever they are, regardless of their religious beliefs, or no religious beliefs at all, you know that you can be welcome in that place,” he said.

However, that seemingly small change of making a more open space required a lot of adjustments on the part of Front Porch, including changing how the staff talked about the facility and transforming some events, such as Porch Night, from centering around faith.

Drenckpohl said that events like Porch Night, a weekly free dinner offered by the facility, should be nondenominational to make sure that no one entering the space feels pressured to take in Christian teachings while they are there.

“I just heard this last night — someone told me that they walk in here, and it’s almost as if they step into a different world because there’s no expectations,” Drenckpohl said. “There’s nothing that they have to do to get what they receive here. All they have to do is walk in. And for me that’s beautifully articulated, what it is that we’re trying to accomplish here. We want people to be able to walk in and not feel like there’s anything that they have to do, there’s nothing that’s going to be done to them, they can just walk in here and enjoy the space and it’s theirs.”

Front Porch’s growth has been exponential, currently seeing 300-400 people on a daily basis, where it had held only about 30-45 a day in years past.

Barrett Floyd, an intern at Front Porch and a 2015 Cal Poly alumnus, explained that one of the largest changes that he’s seen has been the rapid growth, especially during Porch Night.

“I remember back in my freshman/sophomore year, there were like 30 students that would come,” Floyd said. “And now we have at least 200, which blows my mind.”

That growth is at least partially because of the “minor adjustments” done to Front Porch to make the space more accessible, including taking out the religious element to Porch Night. Previously, the meal had been accompanied by Christian worship songs and a 20-minute teaching, according to Drenckpohl.

While Drenckpohl said that he saw the value in incorporating religion with Porch Night, he also noticed that it was alienating non-Christians from joining the event.

“I saw a disconnect,” he said. “In that you’re doing a free meal, which is very much something that’s trying to bring people in, and then you’re doing something that’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. So we moved the singing and the teaching to a different night, and we said, ‘Let’s just make Wednesday a meal and make it a very nonthreatening environment for everyone to feel welcome.’”

Ultimately, Front Porch has had a longstanding intent of creating a sense of community for both Cal Poly and Cuesta College students, according to Floyd.

“There’s a lot going on in a college student’s life,” Floyd said. “If they’re away from home for the first time, they’re buying their own food, they’re making new friends for the first time and it’s all kind of confusing and crazy, and our goal here at Front Porch is to be a central hub for that community, and we think that one of the most unique ways in building and growing a community is through sharing a meal together.”

Porch Night, held every Wednesday at 6 p.m., fosters sharing by giving out free meals and a space to sit down and meet new people in an open environment. Group trivia and a discussion — generally about current events — have replaced the faith-based music and teaching.

At Porch Night, the weekly meals are put together by various volunteer groups who are mostly given free reign over what to make as long as they can serve the mass of students entrees, sides and salads.

The growth Front Porch has experienced in recent years has posed a few challenges. The expansion has congested the building, sometimes causing the Wi-Fi to crash and putting strains on the building’s machinery, kitchen and bathrooms, according to Floyd.

“One of the coolest parts about Front Porch is the growth, but it’s also the most challenging, in figuring out how to keep up with it,” he said.

Over the summer, Front Porch updated its kitchen to try to better meet the strains of growth and it is currently working on fixing the Wi-Fi, according to Floyd.

Drenckpohl agreed that keeping up with Front Porch’s sudden growth has been a challenge, because the group strives to keep its amenities free.

“I love that we can do it for free,” he said. “People walk in here and they’re just blown away, and they go, ‘Why is it for free?’ Or ‘why is the meal for free?’ And there’s nothing behind it. It just is. It’s for you and it’s free. And I think the challenge … is finding the money to keep this place going.”

But Front Porch hasn’t yet fallen into the red when it comes to budgeting, and Drenckpohl said he is optimistic that the facility will be able to stay afloat and keep the services free for some time.

However, there’s another lesser-known challenge that Drenckpohl worries could become a reality for Front Porch.

“I can see it very easily turning back into a place that’s just a Christian hangout,” he said. “And so I think that is going to consistently be a challenge,” he said. “So that’s something that I’m constantly pushing for — that this isn’t just for Christians.”

Drenckpohl explained that keeping Front Porch a space that is open to all people helps give everyone involved new perspectives, allowing them to experience their own belief system in a different way. He also said that he would love to see people take the idea of Front Porch and bring it to other areas of their lives, whether recreating something physically or simply taking the principle of being welcoming to all people and instilling it in whatever they do. 

Like Drenckpohl, Floyd looks forward to the growth of Front Porch and hopes the space will continue to positively influence students and bring them a sense of community, he said.

“My goal and my dream for Front Porch is just to see students continue to come in here and laugh and smile and cry and whatever — just be real with one another,” Floyd said. “I think that in the growth, the thing that will always stick with me is …  the love that people have for one another, even strangers. It’s a cool thing to see a group of people approach someone they don’t know and strike up a conversation and become friends with that person. That, above all the other things that go on here, is the most encouraging thing to me that I would love to see for years and years to come — that community and that relationship that has been so unique for me and others.”

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