Story 44 - Genuine Relationships
Stanmore Baptist Church
How could a 3- wheeler, ‘tuk tuk’ style Italian work van, adapted as a coffee shop on wheels be used in the Kingdom of God? Stanmore Baptist Church have been answering that question over the last three years since they started Refuge Coffee UK, a project that not only seeks to provide good coffee but also genuine conversations with customers, job training opportunities and also reinvestment in the local community.
Written by Suzie Abramian in conversation with Dave Barden 20/10/2020
Dave Barden, Stanmore BC’s Community Outreach Worker in charge of the day to day running of Refuge, explains how a vision to open a coffee shop in the Stanmore area began almost ten years ago in the church but has now evolved into something very different. When no suitable premises for a shop could be found, a previous pastor caught the idea of a coffee van after seeing one in Canary Wharf and with the budget and support of the church already in place and a van purchased and brought down from Hull, Refuge Coffee began.
The van is mainly parked in the church car park, situated on a busy main road in Stanmore and close to local schools.
It opens 3-4 days per week, morning and afternoon, to coincide with the foot-fall on the school runs and requires two helpers, provided by volunteers from the church, one to make the coffee and another to be available for conversations. The employment training at Refuge has been in place since the beginning, enabling barista training for those most in need. Any profit made from the project goes into local community projects in the Harrow borough such as homeless shelters and foodbanks.
The coffee itself is directly traded, coming from beans grown in a small village in Tanzania, then sent to the Sail & Anchor Coffee Community at Mill Hill East Baptist Church where it is roasted before coming to Stanmore. This kind of way of trading makes an enormous financial difference to the growers, even more so than fair trade labelled products, and along with the help of a Tearfund project, has benefited the local community in the Tanzanian village providing new schools and community amenities. Prices for a coffee from the van are intentionally kept low as Dave says, ‘the bottom line definitely isn’t financial,’ and if anyone can’t afford anything, drinks are often given for free or frequently paid for anonymously by other customers.
When asked why this kind of project appears to be working in their context, Dave notes how the uniqueness of the van itself stands out to people. It’s attractive and draws people, particularly children, to come and see it and provides a conversation starter in itself. Although serving coffee is nothing new, the fact this can be done in a mobile way has also enabled the van to make journeys, albeit slow with its 50cc engine!, around the local area for other events.
However, more than the appearance of the van and even the good tasting coffee, the real impetus is the genuine desire to create relationships with the local community and in order to do this effectively an awareness of the area is paramount. Harrow is known to be one of the most religiously diverse parts of the country, therefore starting any kind of missional outreach with an explicit gospel message can prove quite detrimental and even inflammatory. Neither does a covert way of “sneaking the gospel in” work either, as Dave explains, ‘we have to be a church that people know respects them as individuals and what they believe. If we were to offer a tract with a latte that would go terribly, and people would never trust us.’ The importance of trust runs deep and is demonstrated by the real relationships that have developed over the years where, ‘they know that we respect them and we’re not just trying to slip Jesus into the conversation.’ This has led to families recognising the helpers at the van, seeing them on an almost daily basis and invitations into personal aspects of their lives. For Dave this has involved diverse invitations from the breaking of the fast at Ramadan to an 8-year olds laser tag party!
There is also an integrity required in this, demonstrated in many ways, such as the origins of the coffee which take on emotional significance when customers to Refuge originate from parts of the world familiar with the devastating effects of unfairly traded goods. Refuge Coffee has also demonstrated a stable presence in the area, key to developing relationships. Even when struggles have come along the way, their continuity has been a powerful witness during times when many public services are abruptly cut.
From all their experiences with Refuge Coffee so far, Dave encourages other churches considering a similar venture that going outside the church building, ‘can provide so many more opportunities for relationship than staying inside the church.’ He also notes how there have been challenges along the way and that it takes commitment and a willingness to stay with it but that they’re able to see the ultimate importance and that they can be relevant in the local community.