A welcoming Departure
London café does ministry through relationships, art, classes
January 24, 2011
Departure may be many things but one thing it’s not is business as usual. Ministry business, that is.
Run by the London City Mission in London’s East End, an area called the Docklands, Departure is a café/secondhand bookshop/art gallery — a welcoming place, in which you might find any sort of people, participating in any variety of activity.
“Jesus calls us to be fishers of men,” said Adam Gage, Departure’s team leader. “But there are different kinds of bait.”
In his native Northern Ireland, said Gage, fishermen use all different sorts of bait, with each type used to attract a different sort of fish, so to speak.
The East End of London is an interesting mix of people — long-term working class Britons referred to as “East Enders” have begun to mix with Bangladeshi immigrants with Muslim backgrounds. There are city workers, old money, new money and students. There is a scrap metal yard across the street. And, according to common wisdom (though not necessarily verifiable) there are more artists in the community per square yard than anywhere else in Europe.
But rather than reaching out to the community through services such as the Alpha Course or Christianity Explored (two common and popular programs for outreach in the United Kingdom) Departure takes a less traditional path in its outreach efforts.
“We don’t want to become a traditional church for many reasons,” Gage said.
Most important among them is the loss of what Gage refers to as the ‘neutral status’ of the café.
“We get customers coming in who are Muslim — so we’ve got halal status for our food. If we had church services, that would be a barrier to them.”
Departure also attracts an educated crowd whose skepticism has turned them away from conventional understandings of Christianity. But, Gage said, through these folks coming into the café and getting to know the staff, they are able to have their concept of Christianity challenged as they see it lived.
One such customer summed it up this way: “In Departure, people treat people how I think they should treat people outside.” Rather than being taught certain theological principles, customers are seeing Christ through the relationships that are forming within the staff and between the staff and the customers.
This ‘incarnational ministry’ is an intentional component of the vision and mission of Departure.
“When people are here, the staff seek to come alongside them to form mini communities in which the end goal is to reflect Christ,” Gage said.
From its beginnings, London City Mission has sought to reach out to those who were in the gaps that the church wasn’t reaching. In doing so, it seeks to help the traditional church go out to the people, rather than waiting for the people to come to church.
“We need to have new expressions and ways of reaching out,” Gage said.
At Departure, these new expressions can take the form of a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup, a knitting class, or Arabic lessons. Departure offers 10-week courses as well as drop-in courses for those who would not be able or willing to commit to something more long-term.
“Some people want to come in and discuss issues right away and some people don’t want to do that for years — we’ve got to be intelligent and sensitive to where people are,” Gage said.
Recent activities have included classes on English as a second language, how to make trousers, sculpting and pottery classes and oil painting.
The main thing, stresses Gage, is to form community.
This has been done recently by Departure’s current artist in residence, Stephanie Newell. In addition to her own art, Newell asked customers to look for objects on the path and bring them in. The following week she had those folks write fictional biographies of the objects, and then used them to decorate the café.
“The people who have engaged with Stephanie the most are people who don’t see themselves as artistic at all,” Gage said.
Instead of her being the resident artist, she has invited them to be the artists.
Artists and creative types are often finding discarded items and giving them new life.
“Really, they’re in the business of redemption,” Gage said. “As Christians, aren’t we?”
The Rev. Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer and photographer in Newport Beach, CA, and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.