Finding love and compassion among the bric-a-brac

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The story of one shop, one church and some fantastic results

WHAT could your local church do to reach those on the margins of society?

Perhaps you might find inspiration from this small charity shop in Carlisle. There, once a week, the books and bric-a-brac are pushed away, and something remarkable and wonderful happens.

20 years ago, St James’s Church set up its own charity shop and Opshops grew from this idea. They sell second-hand clothes, books, toys, DVDs and the like, but the greater goal is to bring people together, to reach those who may have experienced poverty or difficulties, and to create community.

Now one of those has evolved into a new form of church.

Jon Greenwood, business development manager, tells us more….

Haven is a Fresh Expression of Church that has developed around the OpShop in Carlisle. It is about volunteers, local people and customers coming together to share, pray, and explore life around a meal.  It’s an exciting story; seeing the church embrace and build community with people who might never normally be part of established church.

It has developed out of people’s experience of coming into a charity shop, being welcomed, loved and accepted for who they are. The Botchergate OpShop is one of the charity shops supported by the Diocese of Carlisle. But this shop on the corner of a main road in the centre of Carlisle is much more than that.  It is a place of welcome, where community happens.

Haven meets weekly at the shop and people share a meal, stories and prayer. The people who make up Haven are the volunteers, staff, and customers. It is a great cross-section of ages but mainly single people.

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It is a safe space for people who have been knocked by life’s up and downs; some of the young lads who access food banks or who have drug and alcohol issues come for food, some people with mental health issues come for company and for many it is place where they know they are accepted and welcomed. It has grown organically with people who struggle with structures but Haven has learnt to work with the chaos of life. It makes it a fun place – people come and go but there is a core community of around 14.

Many people who attend Haven felt their lives were too chaotic to be accepted by mainstream churches, so gravitated to the charity shop, either as customers or on placements from the Job Centre, or they were referred by GPs or mental health services. At the shop, as they worked alongside each other sorting clothes and other items with friendly volunteers, they found respect and dignity, opened up to conversations and built relationships.

OpShops are located where people can benefit. When other retailers and services withdraw from communities, OpShops invests in them. We raise money to fund local projects through the sale of donated second-hand goods.

St James’s Church recognised the shop made contact with local people they might not otherwise reach. We have simply replicated this in other areas of the city. Haven started really simply, as staff chatted to people and recognised the need for everyone to have a decent, good quality, cheap hot meal. Volunteers and customers enjoyed being around when the shop was open, but some had life issues and needed extra support. So Haven meets not only the physical need of food but also the emotional and spiritual needs of people who feel they don’t quite fit in other places.

Often someone comes into the shop because they have to, with eyes down. At first, you simply ask their name and share in conversation at their pace. People will often open up and usually no one else wants to listen, so this is the start point. We do a lot of listening.

Customers became volunteers quite quickly, grabbing a cup of tea, then making their own. At times it’s hard to spot who is a volunteer and who is a customer, but over time people drift towards Haven.

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All about Haven

How often does it take place? Weekly in term times.

How many people come? About 12-14 regularly come for the whole time, with extra people coming for the food when times are particularly tough.

What’s the format? We start with food at 6pm then, after an hour, move into more intentional conversation, focused on how people are doing, often with a time of open prayer, informal Bible study, singing praise songs from a laptop – always ones that are low key and familiar, such as carols and simple chorus. Often people remember a song from school, so that might be used. People are encouraged to pay for the food if they are able to and some people pay in advance in case they run out of money at the end of the month. The whole meeting lasts about two hours.

How much work is involved? There is a rota to prepare food, which is currently done off site. It’s usually a home cooked substantial meal such as a casserole, shepherd’s pie, corned beef hash and a big crumble.

What are the key values? Being family is important but Haven recognises that family life can be stormy. So we need to practise honesty and be straight with people. Acceptance is key and everyone is welcome. It’s easy to read that we should forgive ‘seventy times seven times’ – but it’s harder to put it into practice.

What are the top tips for others? Individual relationships are key. An individual’s behaviours and actions may be challenging, but remember, you don’t know the story behind it. So Haven doesn’t have blanket policies around behaviour, alcohol or drugs etc because it is about relationships.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and keep an eye out for early warning signs that someone is struggling to avoid trouble before it erupts.

With food, people often have traditional preferences, so go with hearty staples.

What are the pitfalls? Getting volunteers and people to help is a struggle so we are always on the search for volunteers. Coping with people with different lifestyles can be difficult so volunteers and staff need the right outside support.

I want to do something like this – where should I start? First, think about your context. What type of communities are in your area? Could this be something that develops from a local social action project like the food bank? Who might get involved and how can you make sure you can sustain it longer term? Once you have reflected on these issues, write down some questions to ask when you visit, and make notes of what to look out for. Feel free to contact me on 07523 778723 or enquiries@opshops.co.uk

Who comes to Haven? Lots of people, with different stories and experiences. But let me tell you about one of our members, Roz, who is happy to share her story:

Roz first came in as a placement from the employment agencies three or four years ago. She had no self-confidence, compounded by low literacy skills, but with a strong work ethic quickly got stuck into the jobs in the shop. She has a cheery disposition and as hard worker wants to do her best, and she quickly became a key member.

Like most members of the community, Roz has come and gone from time to time as life’s challenges overtook her. However, as she settled she started coming to Haven and then as one of a few people who wanted to know more attended a Bible study group. This was a challenge for those at Haven – how can you run a Bible study with people who don’t read? However as people opened up about their lives the group grew deeper and real community formed around it with great support. For example people would read for Roz, and when it came to reading prayers, helping her learn and practise the words.

A Haven singing group was formed, who sang in three local OAP homes. The effect on Roz was amazing as her confidence and faith grew. A while ago Roz started complaining of pain in her ribs. She was finally convinced to go to the doctor, and has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But Roz is determined to make the most of every moment and says: “I thank God for the day ahead every day, I pray and it helps me get through.”

  • If you would like to know more about Opshops or have any questions, feel free to contact Jon on 07523 778723 or enquiries@opshops.co.uk

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