A SHARED front room is how they describe the café concept that is Renew 37. It doesn’t look anything special from the outside: a modest shopfront in a row of unremarkable shops, in an unremarkable parade in the Nottingham suburb of West Bridgford. The window boxes are full of vibrant pansies, though, and I glimpse bunting through the glass.
It’s a Wednesday morning, and there’s a buzz about this place, 37 Abbey Road. Several people are sitting round a large oilcloth-topped table, making decorative hangings from a pile of brightly coloured fabric pieces being silently cut to size by a woman sitting shyly on a sofa. There’s an aroma of coffee and baking, and it feels warm and inviting. The people here today are regulars, and most have mental- and emotional-health problems.
The vision for a well-being café where people could find support and friendship — “quiet shared spaces where it’s OK not to be OK” — came originally from Ruth Rice, then pastor of the New Life Baptist Church in West Bridgford, whose own past experience had led her to explore issues of mental health, particularly relating to social isolation. She suffered a burnout and was low for a year after that. She experienced then how supportive a church community could be.
Her explorations coincided with the church’s search for premises. It met in a school, and was looking for a more permanent base. The search was known to the owners of the café adjacent to what is now Renew 37, who knew the lease of the building was coming up. “They wanted more space at weekends and asked us to consider some sort of share,” says Alison Williams, who oversees the work here on behalf of the church. “In the end, we negotiated and knocked the space through with a connecting door. They have it at weekends, and we have it from Monday to Thursday. It’s a great working relationship.”
The café uses Renew 37’s kitchen to bake its cakes, which made the whole enterprise a viable proposition. Church members financed buying the lease and continue to give generously — and the church still meets in a school. Of the 80 or so church members, 25 volunteer in the café, which Mrs Rice has described as “a space for all of us to attend to our wellbeing as equals, to connect, learn, get active, take notice and give. Not ‘volunteers’ and ‘service-users’, but humans sharing hobbies and habits.”
The café consulted the local NHS mental-health team about what was needed in the community and what might work best. In partnership with Renew 37, members of that team come in on Monday afternoons to host ‘Building Bridge’, which is described as a “safe, supportive group . . . to be used for promoting acceptance, knowledge, and understanding of mental health. Everyone is welcome, to socialise or just be somewhere different. Crafts and activities are available but not obligatory, neither is any religious or spiritual leaning. We promote tolerance and even-mindedness for all.”
Renew 37 also works in partnership with the Nottinghamshire County Council initiative Let’s Live Well in Rushcliffe, which in turn works with GPs and GP practices to empower and support individuals with a long-term physical and/or mental-health condition. It aims to make communities “friendlier places for everyone”.
But you wouldn’t know any of this if you were just passing by, and Mrs Williams sums up the ethos when she says: “This is a place where people can make friendships but not be quizzed. We don’t say, ‘What’s your problem?’ when they come through the door. We don’t offer a counselling service. But we can put them in touch with people who can help, if that’s what they want. There are no questions, no do-gooding, no private areas where people go and sit, except the prayer room.”
What they do offer is prayer, a gathered habit three times a day, “the heartbeat of the space”. At least two volunteers are committed to coming at these times, one prepared to take a lead. The prayer room is a small sitting room with comfy sofas, at the back of the café, and feels like a room in someone’s house. When it gets towards noon, there’s a drift of people towards it. It’s a very simple 15-minute format, a Celtic-style liturgy that includes Psalm 103.1-5 every morning (“Bless the Lord, O my soul”); the Lord’s Prayer at lunchtime; a prayer of examen at the end of every day.
It is as regular and acceptable a part of the day as the board games and the Knit and Natter on Tuesdays; the singing on Wednesdays; and the sign-language sessions on Thursdays.
The activities have evolved here rather than been superimposed: they sing because “someone brought a guitar along, and now there are seven guitars”; they learn signing because someone from the deaf community came along. In term-time, they run after-school youth and children’s activities on two days a week, which are highly valued in the community.
In 2016, Renew 37 won a £15,000 national award from the Cinnamon Network to replicate its ministry. The Network “aims to make it as easy as possible for local churches to transform their communities by reaching out and building life-giving relationships with those in greatest need.”
Mrs Rice now heads Renew Wellbeing full-time, a national charity dedicated to setting up Renew Spaces across the country. There are currently more than 40 operating, with more set to open by the end of the year.
“It’s not necessary to exhaust yourself running round opening up a café; some churches just open for a few hours. The important thing is not serving egg sandwiches but to be present, working in partnership with mental-health teams, to be human together: to sit down and learn from one another. We talk about wellbeing more than mental health, as we can all share in that,” Mrs Rice says.
Although the prayer is optional, it is a non-negotiable aspect of what is offered, she said.
“Travelling round, we’ve found many churches have a prayer space, but often not in the same area as their serving space. But this allows people to access our spiritual practise as well as our physical space.
“After my breakdown, it was adopting a rhythm of prayer that helped restore me. But the Church in some places has lost its distinctive. We’ve forgotten that our language is prayer.
“We’ve found that people do pray and do want to pray, they just don’t know who they are praying to. The simple pattern of prayer we’ve adopted allows people to take the format home with them; to pray their own prayers in the pauses.”
A man arrives at the door, to be greeted by an apologetic, “I’m sorry you can’t come in today, Chris,” from Mrs Williams. The man, a regular, had phoned earlier to say he had a stomach bug, not deemed a desirable thing to pass on to the others present.
But he is reluctant to go.
And then another man gets up from the crafts table and says, “I need a cigarette. I’ll come outside and sit with you, mate. Then we’ll all be alright.”