Friday, March 03, 2006
"The Outstretched Hand"
My earlier musings on hospitality and its abuse were in part inspired by an outing last week, to a “fresh expression” of church, The Outstretched Hand café in Pentwyn, a deprived housing estate on the outskirts of Cardiff. This was an excellent trip in all sorts of ways. I travelled with the vicar of a nearby parish whom I didn’t know terribly well, and I was happy to have the journey there and back to improve this situation. She’s great, and so was "The Outstretched Hand".
The café/drop in centre is sited in a large shop premises, part of parade of rather run down shops (at least one of which is now closed), which is awaiting development….It’s lovely. Bright yellow walls, a mural of a wonderful tree in one corner, comfy sofas and a play area, as well as a counter and café tables, with books, newspapers and magazines on tap.
Prices are very low, so that it should be possible for everyone to afford at least a coffee and a sandwich (very tasty they were too) but there is no pressure to use the café in order to spend time in the centre. People can spend all day just sitting, keeping warm, enjoying the company with no strings attached.
The project was the vision of one lady, who shared it with a group of friends who had been meeting for some time to pray and explore together, outside any formal denominational structure. Together they have made the vision real. On each table is a copy of their policy statement
“We believe that everyone is a unique part of creation, and as such is to be cherished and valued.
Our aim is for Pentwyn to become a place where everyone is valued and can fufil their own potential and contribute to the community.
Our policy is to welcome everyone who comes here. We hope that you will help us make this a place where everyone feels accepted- a place of welcome in our community.”
Spending a couple of hours there, on a Tuesday in half term, it felt very much as if their aim is being fulfilled. Some young mums with toddlers and school age children lingered at one end of the room, with occasional skirmishes breaking out over the playhouse. A pensioner settled herself on the sofa. People dropped in and left again, but all were welcomed by name.
It felt very good.
But it was also sad, because the project is threatened. There are plans to redevelop the shopping parade and it seems unlikely that "The Outstretched Hand" (which receives virtually no outside financial support, and is charged full commercial rents) will manage the move into new premises. They have been offered a first floor space, which presents its own problems, as one of the beauties of the current set-up is that people can have a good look through the window before they venture in.. Though a lift is promised, so that the centre would still be accessible for wheel chairs and buggies, climbing into a lift might be a step too far for those who aren’t certain they want to commit themselves at all.
More, it seemed that the original group of visionaries is getting weary and dispirited. J tried to get them to share their vision for the future, but they seemed only to have the energy to focus on survival. We had been inspired to visit because we both have experience of a faith community emerging from the experience of eating together, (J's lovely phrase is "we can eat our way into the Kingdom") and we hoped to see the steps by which the café was becoming a church,- but in fact I’m not sure that is really on the agenda here. An expansion of their vision statement reads
“We believe that the first step in helping people to a personal faith in God through Jesus Christ is that they should feel loved, accepted, and part of a community that cares..” and this core belief informs everything that they do. They operate independently of any local church, which is an advantage in an area where Christianity has been seen as at best irrelevant, at worst patronising, intrusive or condemnatory….but it does mean that they are very much on their own, and vulnerable in their isolation. It has to be, really.
"We believe that Jesus Christ demonstrated God's love and healing power for humanity by the way he related to people, by his acceptance as equals of the poorest and the lowest, of sinners and the suffering, and we believe that his revolutionary kingdom of love where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, should be our aim."
The reality of "The Outstretched Hand" is genuinely beautiful…but it is so fragile.
It needs to be fragile, because it is an expression of life (if not of church,-I’m still uncertain of that) in an area where life is a struggle, where nothing comes easily…It needs to be fragile, because powerful bodies and institutions are treated with suspicion when you are aware that you have neither power nor influence. It needs to be fragile because…that is the nature of incarnation. Putting yourself at risk for the sake of others.
Whatever happens in the future, those women have put themselves on the line for the sake of their community, and such love and committment can never be wasted. "The Outstretched Hand" may not be church, but it is surely Kingdom.