Left Bank Leeds

Monday, 23 September, 2013

Youth worker and Baptist minister Simon Hall is involved with the Revive community and Left Bank Leeds. He explains why it's very difficult to know where one ends and the other begins.

Revive has been a bit of everything in the past. It was a youth congregation 20 years ago but, obviously, the people have got older and Revive eventually became a church plant rather than a congregation within a larger church.

We moved into Hyde Park, the 'boho', bedsit land area of Leeds because we knew the people we wanted to reach and where they lived. Revive has had its ups and downs, with many mistakes being made along the way, but in many ways we can now see Left Bank as a perfect fulfilment of Revive's original vision.

Left Bank Leeds - graffitiRevive saw young, single, people with alternative lifestyles and felt that these people weren't going to connect with traditional churches at all. We wanted to put church in their way and make God more accessible. Well, we haven't seen revival since then but we have seen a few people become Christians and others explore faith more deeply.

In more recent times, members of Revive helped to found a project called Left Bank Leeds, an arts and events venue based in the amazing surroundings of the former St Margaret of Antioch church in Hyde Park.

The building hadn't been in weekly use for some years, although occasional services had taken place there. From the outside, it's not the most attractive of places but inside it's huge; a mock gothic cathedral with a real 'wow' factor. We had funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other funders for major repair work which began in July 2008 and finished in February 2011.

The idea was that it would be a centre for arts and culture, for new thought and new ideas, friendly and full of life – which is why we called it Left Bank, after the artistic district of Paris known as the Rive Gauche.

Left Bank Leeds - interiorHalf of the people who got behind it were from Revive and the other half from another local church. Left Bank is kind of undergirded by these people, most of whom are still either staff or trustees. There is also a wider community of Christians who ensure that the explicitly Christian part of the vision is maintained – known as the Left Bank God Group, they are involved in the day-to-day God 'stuff' and bits of programming that have a clear faith emphasis. There are about 20 people in the Left Bank God Group and most of them are part of Revive.

The other side of it is that we have got a wider group of people who have been drawn into the community through volunteering, about 200 of them. That's where conversations about faith occur naturally rather than us trying to manufacture opportunities. In the old days, I guess you'd call it an attractional model but it's the building and project which are bringing people together, rather than a service. We don't have to work hard at building community, it's all around us.

A great example of Left Bank programming would be Amazing Graze, our street food and culture festival. We worked in partnership with street food traders and buskers to create a unique weekend event – the vision came in part from the bad experiences of a member of Revive who is a professional busker; we wanted to celebrate the diversity of life on the street and celebrate 'the commons'. In the autumn we'll be working together on a massive Narnia community project - as pioneered by Liverpool's In Another Place. It will involve about 300-400 people, including professional sound engineers, lighting designers and producers wanting to lend a hand. Isn't this what church is supposed to be like with so many people using their gifts – a lot of them Christians, a lot of them not?  

Left Bank Leeds - musicFor the next six months, we will all be getting involved in the Narnia project but it's difficult to know where the boundaries are. Revive doesn't meet in Left Bank, it's too big! I live with my family in two terraced houses which we knocked into one and I think we have had about 50 people meeting in there at times. We've also got one or two other places that we go to and we have met in church buildings in the past but that just didn't work for us.  

Revive was definitely a young people's and then young adults' church. We have been really blessed in that quite a few of those people are still involved but it's quite hard keeping a church of that type going. Every now and then we'd say, 'Shall we just give it up?' and have a meeting to talk about it - but we kept on going because it's definitely like a family; I can only think of one or two people who have really left.

We are still only about 40 adults and 20 kids even when we are all together but we also have a much bigger group of people from all over the world who, in some way, feel they are part of it.

Left Bank Leeds - foodWe still do the thing that churches do and meet on a Sunday but we also have a strong focus on vocation and small groups meeting around a common purpose. We have:

  • book Group which is involved in organising open debates and lectures;
  • 'blokes' Group. Someone in the church bought some woodland and is trying to set up a programme to take kids from the city to learn bushcraft skills (this is sort of shared with another church);
  • women's Group, a prayer group exclusively for women in the church;
  • group for people who are musicians or really into music;
  • group for those who want to get involved in Forest Church;
  • the Left Bank God Group;
  • a very informal leadership group made up of anyone who wants to discuss what we should do next.

The small groups work as a sort of free market. They start and, if they gather people, they carry on. There is no central idea or strategy along the lines of, 'Oh we must have a small group based on...'

When Revive started we had some priming money. Over three years, we were given money from the Baptist Union and individuals were able to make up the rest.

I have never worked more than half time for Revive and, technically, I only work a day a week for them. We also have an organised, admin-type, person who does half a day a week. I would have thought our annual budget is in the region of about £10,000 a year. Thankfully, we have a few people involved who earn good money and they also support it financially.

Left Bank Leeds - worshipLeft Bank Leeds is a quintessential social enterprise. There is a charity that owns the building, with responsibility for the faith and heritage side of it. On top of that, we set up a Community Interest Company - which is the new legal vehicle for social enterprises - and that deals with the community and the arts ventures. We also have a commercial arm, renting the space out for gigs, parties, conferences and – in the summer – lots of weddings!

In terms of the future at LeftBankLeeds, there is a long list of needs to improve its facilities. Long term plans at the moment include:

  • development of a café bar at the front of the building. People are certainly attracted to the space but, at the moment, it's too big for them to feel able to stop. We want to ensure that there is community there every day;
  • continuing to curate a gathered space for all the creatives in the city; we want to be the catalyst to make things happen

For God Group, we are working on two things that people could pray for:

  • permanent exhibits that draw people towards God. There are already plans in the pipeline to have the Chartres labyrinth as part of our new floor;
  • commissioning other arts that would just give people pause – not as invasions of space but that the space would allow them to consider what life is all about.

We have reached an amazing new stage with Revive. While we have always wanted to reach out the truth is we have always been like a hospital for people with heart conditions – people who have been hurt by church, people who have asked too many questions of their churches and come unstuck – but now they are finding 'real' church again. This has always been the main way that the community has grown and sustained itself.

Left Bank Leeds - marketAt the moment we feel less like a hospice and more like a hospital, where people are actually getting well! We have been quite well known in the past for writing quite melancholy songs, but at the moment we are having to write songs of faith, hope and love because as a community we are finding out feet and want to be more positive.

Left Bank has a chequered history. It is a long time since it was full, if it ever was. Changing demographics in the area – first Irish Catholics, then Pakistani Muslims – mean that there was never a large congregation. And it means that the building doesn't have a place in the heart of the community, even though it is the largest building by some way. Most people who visit Left Bank have never been in it when it was a church, which has turned out to be a great help to us as people don't immediately associate it with religion. This new phase in the life of the building is fulfilling the vision of the original church in new ways, as well as the vision of Revive.

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