PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Much of Seth Hoffman’s life is lived in Market Square, the center of the downtown business district. Geographically and metaphorically, it puts him in the middle of the community.
Hoffman is a pastor at New Frontiers Church, a 10-year-old community parish that rents space in the 1712 North Church, a city landmark. There is a Starbucks across the street, where Hoffman used to work as a barista and shift manager.
As he explains it, one job prepared him for another.
“When you work in a café in a town like Portsmouth, you get to know half the city of Portsmouth,” Hoffman said. “You know their names, and learn about people from the full spectrum of life. There would be business people coming in, and also the homeless. So, I got to meet a real cross-section of people.”
On a recent Friday, Hoffman, 28, was drinking coffee at Breaking New Grounds, another coffee shop in the square. As he left, a young girl, a member of his church, stopped to say hello to him. Nearby are his church offices and his small company, Catchfire Creative, which provides websites and creative work. Hoffman started his company after developing the website for the church (newfrontierschurch.com). He lives in Portsmouth with his wife and two young children.
It’s a good life for a former drug addict whose future changed when he got busted at the end of his senior year of high school.
“I celebrated my 19th birthday in rehab,” Hoffman said.
In retrospect, Tom Hoffman, now retired as regional sales manager for a textbook publisher, said he probably enabled the son he cheered on through Exeter High School, a career that included academic and athletic success and the student senate, and was capped by five months of delinquent behavior.
“He was Mr. Everything, but inside he wasn’t, to himself,” said Tom Hoffman, who lives in York, Maine. “Midway through his senior year, there were some obvious signs. Some challenges. No one knew what was going on inside of Seth. He wasn’t feeling as positive about himself as the rest of the world was.”
Beginning in January of his senior year, he “discovered every seacoast police department,” his father said. “Because he was such a nice kid, everybody wanted to help him. He never got in trouble twice with the same town, so he just went from situation to situation.”
“I was living a double life,” Seth recalled. “I wanted people to think really well of me, and it drove me insane. I was really unhappy. I was getting into a lot of trouble on the side and no one really knew about it and then, kind of, the mask came off.”
His drug use led to arrests for breaking and entering, stealing a car (“and a bunch of other items”), and drug possession.
His drug of choice?
“Whatever went around,” he said. “I just didn’t want to be myself.”
Stealing the car, he said, was done for the rush.
“I wanted to do anything that would make me feel fully alive,” he said. “Risk really made me feel that way, in the same way that faith does now.”
His parents sent him to a rehab facility in Minnesota for 28 days, followed by a three-month stay at a halfway house in Wisconsin. At the halfway house, he was given a Bible.
“I had all these presumptions about what it meant to be a Christian, and they were totally wrong,” said Hoffman, who grew up in a house that was not religious. “I just didn’t know what I was talking about. I’d been an atheist up until then. Jesus blew my mind, that he was interested in someone like me who had messed up my life so bad. That’s what drew me to faith.”
In 2003 back in New Hampshire, Hoffman began working at the Starbucks at Barnes & Noble, and later moved to the downtown Portsmouth Starbucks location. He studied social work at the University of New Hampshire, and joined the Harbor Church, which in 2012 merged with its sister church, Christ the King Church of Dover, to become the New Frontiers Church. He made friends, and talked about his faith.
“I definitely wasn’t a Bible thumper when I worked there, because it was not my job,” Hoffman said of working at Starbucks. “I was there to make people’s coffee and help them along their day. But seeing people every day and talking to them, I built relationships with them. I didn’t do a lot of sharing my faith on the job, but it was more building relationships, and then having people over for dinner or going out.”
Some of those he befriended were drug addicts and/or homeless, in need of help and community. Others were business leaders or otherwise materially successful. Many from both camps have joined the church, or support its outreach and charitable programs.
“Portsmouth is a wealthy town, and there are a lot of people who want to give back,” said Hoffman, who is working on a three-year theology program online (trilogyproject.org) and has received on-the-job training through New Frontiers.
The church has services every Sunday at 1:30 p.m.. The afternoon time slot lends itself to a congregation largely made up of 30-somethings, though Hoffman admitted that attendance sometimes slips during Patriots season.
Ian Ashby, lead pastor for the church, said that Hoffman made an impact from the beginning, when a mutual friend told the church about a young man from Starbucks who was befriending the homeless and others downtown.
“He’s a very impressive young man, how he has matured and grown in the short time I’ve known him,” said Ashby. “He’s quite remarkable. He’s an initiator, and he’s always been a leader. He has the capacity to take on a lot, running his own business and essentially working two full-time jobs.
“If you saw him when he worked at Starbucks, he was a perfect fit, because he knows everyone through working there and they all love him. Even today if he walks into Starbucks, everyone loves him. He’s a sociable, friendly, outgoing guy, and he’s able to make friends with people across all kinds of social strata.”
Every couple of months, more than a decade removed from a parent’s nightmare, Tom Hoffman goes to Portsmouth and sit in on a service. It is not for spiritual fulfillment, but to observe the man his son has become.
“I’m a proud parent,” Tom Hoffman said. “I look at him and see the leader on the soccer field or the basketball court. He’s the leader in the church.”