Monday, January 12, 2009

The Nite Cafe

I haven't (so far) written that much on this blog that relates directly to my ministry in Bolton. But it is worth talking here about our Nite Cafe project, because it is an example of the kind of radical missional ministry inside-out-church thinking that I' trying to promote here.

The following article appears in the most recent edition of The Inquirer.

There are two sides to Bolton town centre. There is the daytime side – when the streets are full of people shopping and when many businesses and shops are in operation. And then there is the night time Bolton. This is a very different beast. Like many other cities and towns all over the UK, Bolton town centre has a thriving night life – what is usually referred to by the town council as the “Night Time Economy.”

At Bank Street Unitarian Chapel we had spent more time thinking about the daytime Bolton than the night time Bolton. We have a café on Thursday mornings that many people drop in to; as a member of Christians Together in Bolton Town Centre we participated in events such as carol singing at Christmas in the town, and, also along with CTBTC, we have supported the Town Centre Chaplaincy. But there was a whole side of Bolton we were ignoring: on Friday and Saturday nights the town centre streets are throbbing with people enjoying Bolton’s nightlife. How were we relating to these people?

This was a question we began to ask ourselves as a group of diverse Christian churches in the town centre of Bolton. We felt that our faith called us to be alongside people, serving them, and we wanted to have a Christian presence in Bolton’s nightlife. But what were the needs we could address as a group of churches?

In fact the needs are great. As in any other town, Bolton’s night time economy has its share of problems. Many people overindulge in drinking, or take drugs, fights break out, people get separated from their friends, have arguments and get upset, and some people have their drinks spiked with drugs. The police do what they can, and the town also employs two “Night-Time Ambassadors” that help to deal with many difficult situations, but there was still a great need for something to be done to help with these problems.

What was needed was a safe space, a place where people could sober up, have a cup of coffee, wait for a friend, or speak to someone who was prepared to listen. What was needed was a “Night Café.” But where could such a café be situated? The answer was obvious. It had to be Bank Street Chapel. Our location is the closest to the main strip of bars through the town centre.

So after a long period of planning the Night Café finally launched for a pilot scheme last July. Based in Bank Street’s hall, the café was staffed with volunteers from Bank Street and other churches and was open from 10pm to 3am every Saturday night.

Our experience over the summer has shown us that this ministry can have a really positive effect on people’s safety and wellbeing. We have had a large variety of people, in a variety of states! There have been people who needed someone to talk to after an argument with a partner; people who needed to sleep it off and sober up for an hour; people who had become separated from their friends and needed help to connect with them, and people who were quite happy to have a coffee and a chat about every thing under the sun, putting the world to rights. We have also handed out over 750 packets of “spikeys” – small plastic inserts for bottles to prevent them being spiked with drugs.

The project has been affected by one incident that happened on only our second week of operation. The pub next door to the chapel was the scene of the fatal stabbing of a man, Paul Gilligan. We were all shocked and saddened by the news of this killing, but we did not know about the incident until the next morning. In the following weeks many volunteers spent time at the front of the chapel, by the pub, where a make-shift shrine grew up to honour the young man who died. Many people needed to talk and the Night Café volunteers offered candles to light and a listening ear.

This incident certainly demonstrated the worst that can happen in bars at night, but it would be wrong to see such a tragic event as typical for the thousands of people out in Bolton at weekends. All human life is here: young and old, coarse swearing and infinitely polite and charming, laughter and tears, arguments and friendship, love and lust and hate. Our job is not to be judgmental, nor to evangelise, our job is simply to be there, offering what support we can. Our volunteers have found this ministry to be challenging, rewarding, sad, fun and fulfilling.

The pilot scheme is now over and we are in a period of reviewing what we can learn from this initial project. I am both proud, and concerned, to say that the majority of volunteers came from Bank Street. We have risen to the challenge of doing something outside our comfort zone and I am deeply honoured to be associated with a congregation that is prepared to do this kind of challenging ministry. At the same time we are a relatively small congregation, and there are not enough of us to support this ministry alone. We need more volunteers from churches or elsewhere who are prepared to join us in this exciting work. We are also in search of more funding to help us train volunteers and provided the basics we need for our work.

The story of the Night Café is an on-going one. We are now reviewing the pilot so we can learn from the project and then re-launch it next year. We would like to see the project expand to include a more pro-active presence on the streets, possibly with “Street Angels” who can chat to people on the streets and let them know that the café is there if they need it. We know that there is a huge need for this ministry and we are committed to its continuation and expansion.

What can other Unitarian communities learn from our experience? First, to do something effectively it’s necessary to work with others. Luckily for us, Bank Street Chapel has always been accepted as a full member of Christians Together in our locality. It is because of such good links between churches and other groups that this kind of ministry can take place. Secondly, social responsibility work has to start at your doorstep. At our doorstep on Bank Street were thousands of people using the bars on Saturday nights, so we have responded to this population. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can respond to what is right in front of us. That’s where we must start.

Stephen Lingwood,

Minister, Bank Street Unitarian Chapel, Bolton

This article was written with much supporting information provided by Adrienne Tonge, a leading volunteer for the Night Café and member of Bank Street Chapel, and Mike Aspinal, leading volunteer and United Reformed Church ministry student.


Anonymous Tim (S Manc) said...

Sounds like a great initiative. A few questions as background:

What proportion of the volunteers are from your own and other Churches?

How long did it take to get the Nite Cafe set up?

What kind of training did you offer to volunteers? Do volunteers require CRB checks too?

10:35 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Hi Tim,

When the pilot scheme was running (July- October) we only had about 15 volunteers, of which about 10 one from my church. In November we had a recruitment drive for more volunteers and now have about 30 volunteers. All the new volunteers have come from other churches in Bolton, and some people from outside the churches who heard about us from various sources.

How long it took to get going is difficult to answer as it depends on when you count we started from, and in a sense we're still not fully formed. It took maybe a year of intentional planning before the pilot scheme. But the same scheme in Halifax was launched after only two weeks.

We offered some basic training on listening skills and making assumptions, but we're still planning on-going training.

We ask if people have CRB checks, and take up references, but that's one of the things that's a bit of a headache to organise and find funding for.

2:57 pm  

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