The Café church

 
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When I first walk into Redfern Adventist Community Centre (RACC) in the heart of Sydney, I can sense that there’s something very different about this place. Taking refuge from the cold hustle and bustle of the city streets outside, I open the heavy glass door and, as it closes behind me, sense an overwhelming sense of peace and warmth. It almost feels like coming home.

It’s not a polished or perfect space, but it is welcoming. The people look poor, but their smiles are genuine. The volunteers are tired, but their passion inextinguishable. And the sound of off-key voices lifted in Saturday morning worship is the sweetest music I’ve heard in a long time.

The delicious smell of hot bread has people mesmerised as they sing a final hymn and then prepare for lunch. They spread out around the room and share true stories. I listen as one man openly confesses his drug addiction to his mates, and another shares his struggles with violence. Near the kitchen, a young homeless mum queues for food, four children in tow. This stuff is real, difficult, but—in a strange way—it’s beautiful. A far cry from the individualistic rat race of the streets outside, these people are willing to lend a brother a hand, or an ear. They genuinely care about each other and, in this place of safety, they can voice their failures, struggles and needs.

That’s why RACC exists—to create a nurturing, Christian community that serves and rehabilitates the homeless and lower-socioeconomic communities in Sydney’s CBD. Centre manager and lead pastor, Bernard Deojee, has partnered with local businesses and volunteers to help those who are most in need. Together, they work to provide meals to the community four times a week, as well as a community cafe, a counselling service, cooking classes, the provision of secondhand clothes, a Technology for Communities program that teaches people valuable computer skills, and a Working Development Order program to help those experiencing financial hardship. And best of all, they do it all for free.

“I refuse to be a church who, if we leave, no-one will know who we are,” says Deojee. “We want to be intentional about relationships and immerse ourselves in the community, not be detached from them.”

Given the diverse cultural and socioeconomic demographic of Redfern, this is no small achievement. While homeless and disadvantaged people line up for free meals and food parcels at RACC, some residents complain to the council that their presence brings housing prices down in the local area. “On one side of the road, there’s a boutique that sells kimonos for $A600, and on the other, there’s Housing Commission. The council hasn’t made it easy for us; we’re not allowed to ‘loiter outside’,” says Deojee. Despite many logistical struggles—from council regulations to sourcing volunteers and funding—RACC has powered through, with much of their ongoing momentum thanks to their free morning cafe called “Cafe at the Way”, which is run by volunteers.

“People can come and have a chat, vent, have a hot beverage on us, and experience hope and goodness despite their circumstances,” Deojee says. “We’ve even delivered free hot drinks to businesses up the road.”

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Community partnerships are vital to RACC’s work, with their volunteer-run community kitchen providing anywhere between 50 and 200 meals on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings, and lunch on Saturday following a morning church service. They also provide food parcels full of bread, vegetables and non-perishables each week. This is thanks to an ongoing partnership with OzHarvest and a handful of Seventh-day Adventist churches in Sydney who send teams of volunteers to help in food preparation.

In addition to meeting physical needs, RACC provides emotional support and skill-building programs. They have partnered with Western Sydney University’s psychology department to facilitate a student-­run, free counselling clinic every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. “Renting spaces is expensive in the city. I can offer them a free space in exchange for counselling services,” Deojee says.

Just recently, RACC was approved as a site where people can pay off outstanding fines by undertaking unpaid volunteer work or counselling, by upskilling or receiving mentorship, through personal development programs or even by attending Bible studies. “We currently have four community members participating in the program, with another four signing up in the coming weeks,” Deojee explains.

Having worked previously at The Salvation Army’s Territorial HQ up the road, and Baptist World as an emergency crisis manager, Deojee understands the Redfern community well. “I can tap into resources and experience that others don’t have. If we can’t help someone in an emergency, I know I can send them to Vinnies or the Salvos up the road.”

Unlike most churches, RACC is open every day of the week. Up to 50 community members attend worship every Saturday, seeking support for struggles like alcohol and drug addiction, homelessness, food insecurity and post-prison rehabilitation. “We take children out of the room [when discussing adult stuff]. . . the stuff we deal with is real. Sometimes visitors are confronted by how we do church . . . [but] I know the Holy Spirit is here. I can rest on my pillow at night with peace,” says Deojee.

RACC’s team of passionate volunteers works hard to minister to the physical, social, emotional and spiritual needs of people doing it tough. Despite having limited resources, by showing love to the local community, they are making waves of change.

“My call to ministry is to empower people to go back out into the community,” says Doejee. “God bringing me here is the best place it could happen. I thank the Lord that He has given me a team that also sees that vision.”

 

Maryellen Fairfax is assistant editor for Signs’ sister magazine; Adventist Record. She lives in Sydney and loves creating art, music and YouTube videos.