FREEdom Café

Monday, 1 November, 2010

FREEdom Café - face paint

There's no such thing as a free lunch. Well, not unless you're visiting the FREEdom Café in St Gregory's Church hall, Seaton. Its leader, Mary Casey, gives the lowdown on the church with a difference.

The monthly café itself has been running for just over 12 months but the story goes back a lot further, about six years, when I became very conscious of those people who found coming to traditional church very difficult.

At that time I worked for a charity promoting social inclusion for people with learning disabilities and I was concerned that when they went into residential care, it often meant the end of any opportunities for them to explore or celebrate faith. I persuaded our vicar at that time to hold a special service for those involved in care in the community, whether they were carers or those being cared for.

We still have those ecumenical services six times a year and they have been a great blessing. Simple worship followed by fellowship, afternoon tea and a sing along. As a result some of the carers at those services started to show an interest in knowing more but they weren't ready for the full-blown church 'thing' or anything like the Alpha course, so I wondered how we could do something about that and also include others in our community who might have preconceived ideas about 'church'. Then the answer came to me, food. I love it!

FREEdom Café - cakes

My faith is very simple in that Jesus was always talking about community, serving one another, friends and feeding people. As a church I felt we needed to be very much part of our community so about two years ago I went to our PCC and asked if I could have the use of the hall for three months because I wanted to open a café where people would not be charged for the food they'd be given.

I didn't know how we were going to fund it but felt it was time to put my faith where my mouth was. As a Christian I often shy away from publicly acknowledging my faith, but I felt Jesus was encouraging and challenging me to do something about this. We talk about a God who will give freely if we trust, let go and ask. I wrote a piece for the church magazine about the cafe and asked people to pray about it and pledge whatever they could, time, money or ingredients to the project. Such a lot of talent and produce was offered that I was able to create a rota for volunteers and a menu for the cafe, and we opened our doors in September 2009.

It was a huge learning curve for the church to trust that the money would be supplied. On that very first Saturday we had overspent by £39.42, when we looked in the baskets we had put out for prayer requests – not donations – we had enough to cover our deficit and over £100 more to fund the next café session.

I believed from the start that if God wanted to fund this, the money would be there. We have a rummage and book stall too but again, there is no charge for anything. The only baskets we leave out are those for prayers though our 'customers' have been so generous that we've been able to buy ourselves some basic kitchen equipment – at the beginning we brought in our own – and we've also given away over £500 in donations to local charities and community projects. To mark our first anniversary we held a special birthday café, with many from the community helping out and also gave a £100 to Seaton Primary School to help a project there for the young children.

FREEdom Café - kids

We meet on the third Saturday of every month and we now have a core team of about ten and many, many volunteers – more than I can actually use for any one café session. That means I can give people time off for a month or two, they are very grateful and it does away with any sense of it being a chore to be completed rather than an act of joyful service! It gives everyone the freedom to move in and out of the volunteering rota, the message being that God doesn't 'trap' you into serving him.

Earlier this year I completed a Pioneer Discipleship course run by Exeter diocese [mission shaped ministry] and it was very helpful indeed. One of the things I had to come to accept through the course was that, for many, a transition from something like FREEdom café to a traditional Sunday model of church is almost impossible in today's culture. The course also helped me to get some input for myself and just check again if this project was more about self ambition than anything to do with the Lord working. Very quickly I had confirmation that if you gave God a space he would walk in it.

I constantly check on the project's motivation and make-up, if it starts to become a struggle because the Lord is no longer moving in it, then the volunteers know I will knock it on the head. But until then it will go on, not necessarily with me leading it, but that's fine – God has already raised up so many people to be part of this, I'm sure he'll have his eye on the next person in line.

The joy is that we've now got people meeting in the FREEdom café community who don’t go to traditional church but who are active in volunteering their time and talents. We open up at 10.30am and at 1.30pm when the café officially 'closes', I give a clear announcement that the team is going to join café visitors for lunch and at 1.45pm will have 3.2.1 for Jesus.

FREEdom Café - basket

This is 15-minutes of worship time and people are very welcome to stay or leave as they wish at any time. At first I thought people would run for the door at that point but instead I've noticed that some now come later in the morning for lunch and then hang on for 3.2.1. It averages about 30-35, about 60% of which don't attend traditional church.

We light candles and hand around a simple service sheet with a few words and a clear outline of what to expect. There are then:

  • Three minutes of music for reflection;
  • Two short readings (one Scripture and something current today which fits in with the scripture);
  • One further song with lyrics that fit the theme and a short time of prayer based on the simple Celtic theme of 'circling'.

People are invited to join in aloud or quietly in their hearts if they wish. I quickly learned to include the words of The Lord's Prayer when I realised it's not known by everyone any more.

FREEdom Café - table talk

We talk of a God who speaks of freely giving us what we need, it's all about putting our faith on the line and seeing that God will feed us freely – that has certainly been our experience at FREEdom Café. When I first presented the idea to the PCC, I said the only way that everyone can be treated as equal in this café is for everything to be free.

Some of the initial reactions were that it was a ridiculous idea, that it would be 'awkward' if you weren't paying, that there was no such thing as a free lunch. People from the community were looking for the catch, saying we don't want to come here if you'll then say we need to come to church on Sunday, or have our children baptised, or be confirmed. The only way I could explain it was by saying, 'Nearly 2,000 years ago a friend of mine fed a crowd of people he cared for lunch. The loaves and fishes went down a treat. He's doing the same today only its called FREEdom café.' Those words are now on a poster on our wall. Christian visitors to our café have written these words down and taken them away to Wales, North Devon, Chester and even New Zealand!

Thankfully I could go back to the PCC after that initial three months pilot to say that FREEdom café was going well, and so it rolls on. One of the key things is excellence in all things and doing our best for God because, from the start, I wanted this café to look like it would fit into any high street, and operate like a restaurant. There is waitress service; and beautiful white contemporary crockery donated by the Churchwomen's Guild. The colour theme is black and white with a touch of colour and this reflects in the table linen and waitress aprons. The kitchen staff has to make do with green and white aprons, but we're working on it! Everything is branded with our logo. There are just no prices on the menu...

FREEdom Café - cake

The other huge benefit with the development of the café has been the growing relationship between the churchgoers who lend a helping hand. Many people didn't know each other, even though they all go to the same church, because they attend different services. If they go to the 8am, 10.30am or Evensong regularly they may never have met each other. My question was 'How can we bring people to Christ if we don't even know the people in our own church family?'

There are now at least eight regulars at 3.2.1 who do not set foot inside traditional church, FREEdom Café has become their church and I pray that many more will come to know the God who loves them and gives so freely as we move into our second year.

What would I like to see for the future?  I would like to see the ethos of FREEdom Café in every parish in the diocese, and in 10 years every parish in the land. One of the biggest challenges in that? Christians have to learn not to question, or even interrogate, the people they are there to serve. Don't quiz them, don't mention church, keep it on their terms and be ready to speak of your faith if asked – but not before. Just love them, serve them and watch what happens with God's help.

Updates to, and learning points from, this story

Tuesday, 2 October, 2012

Mary Casey gives the latest news from FREEdom café in Seaton, Devon.