There’s an overwhelming warmth and welcome that hits you as soon as you walk into the Oasis cafe and community project. From the country cottage tables, to the beautiful bunting hanging end to end, it’s a homely space that invites you to pull up a chair, have a coffee, and take a break from the busyness of life.
But there’s something else - something palpable and captivating. And that something is God. Here. At work - in this place, and in these people.
During the summer more than 1000 visitors have come through the doors of St John’s Church in Hinckley to experience the Oasis – a pop-up cafe and community space, offering a range of free wellbeing activities and courses.
As well as barista-style hot drinks, homemade cakes and paninis, the community has been nourished mind, body and soul, with everything including pilates and Kintsugi wellbeing groups, money management and bereavement sessions, craft activities and board game evenings.
Like many great ideas, it began with prayer. “A lot of prayer – and a lot of walking around town, discerning what God wanted us to do,” explains Dave Rollett, Associate Minister at St John’s.
Dave was often joined by Matt, a local teacher and member of the church family with a heart for Hinckley.
In a pandemic, it was all about timing, and judgement, but one thing they did know was that there was a deep need within the community for people to re-enter into society again.
It started to emerge that other parishioners, Clare and Jane, also wanted to do something in the town, but didn’t really know where to start; while another man, Gwyn from local Christian charity, Feed the Hungry, was looking to set up a creative space in the community.
“After some months it became clear that God had planted parts of a vision with different people and so partnerships emerged,” says Dave.
Indeed, the right people, at the right time, with the same thoughts and feelings, helped to get God’s vision going.
“The idea of a café evolved with a view to rebuilding both the local community and also the church community, and as a discipleship opportunity,” explains Dave. “There were some important values that we wanted to come across which were: hospitality, welcome and everyone feeling valued.”
But what skills did they have and what things could they offer with their resources across the church and community? “We didn’t want to get a load of external people in, as that would have lost the mission of discipleship and growing together by using what we have been given,” says Dave.
So they forged partnerships with Feed The Hungry (a food poverty charity), and Youth With a Mission (YWAM) - a diverse community of young people with a like-minded heart to know God and make Him known, based at The King’s Lodge in Nuneaton.
In fact, around 60 people have volunteered from local Christian organisations, the church family, and the wider community, to make Oasis a reality.
Dave and Gwyn presented a vision to Hinckley and Bosworth Borough council and put together a proposal, which the council agreed to support and offered £12,000 in funding. Further funding of £4,500 followed from local business, Everards, while the church family generously donated cakes and soups.
Taking a moment to sit back and reflect on what has actually gone on since February, it’s amazing to see the work that God has done, says project coordinator, Tricia.
“Coming out of the pandemic, we’d been thinking about the need to have a place where people could reconnect and process the effects of loneliness, isolation and bereavement - not just for people in the church, but across our whole community,” she explains.
“It all happened quickly once the money was granted, in the space of about six weeks – which was pretty intense – but it very much felt like God was driving this, the way it all came together and how generous people have been with their time.
“We’ve had days when 75 people have been in and the place was buzzing, and others when just eight popped by. The blessings are in the stories and conversations we have shared, and the support we have offered to our friends, old and new.
“Oasis has reimaged what it can look like to live out our faith together in a way that shows God’s love and welcomes people in. It has become its own, new community.”
With any project such as this, it’s good to know whether your welcomes are working. Dave says of those who came to Oasis, around a third were core church members, another third were on the fringes, while the last third had not engaged at all until their visit.
In a survey they carried out in the final week, half of the respondents had heard about Oasis through church, the majority of the rest had been invited by a friend.
All the respondents said that coming to Oasis had either had some effect or a significant effect on their wellbeing.
It’s certainly been a lifeline for Rita and her ‘knit and natter’ friends, who have bonded over crochet and frothy coffee, and had a “right laugh” at the games evening and pilates sessions.
“We’ve been shut up for over a year, told not to go out, with only the phone to make contact, so it’s wonderful to be among friends again – it’s quite the reunion,” says one elderly lady.
Another lady admits: “My husband is in hospital and I’m not sure when he is coming out. I’ve felt very alone, but these people care and not being alone at home thinking about it all makes me feel a lot better.”
Worthwhile, if only for that, you might agree – and all the others seeking fellowship and support, whatever their circumstances.
Dave says: “The café runs on a pay what you can afford basis, so we have seen a number of disadvantaged families in the area feeling able to participate, which has enabled us to forge relationships and walk with them in other ways.”
Of course, the time, resources and God given talents of the many generous volunteers have contributed to Oasis’ success.
It was important for Sarah to get involved, to serve her church and community, and feed people – which she loves. “For me it’s about getting to know people, being interested in their lives and sharing my faith to help other people come to know Jesus,” she says.
Matt, who prayer walked Oasis into being, says God’s vision was always St John’s. ”Just look at this fantastic, intergenerational space,” he says. “This is a place of contemplation and reflection, somewhere to ask those questions and to bring heartache and joy. Somewhere to breathe and be ourselves.”
Student Kate has spent her summer volunteering at Oasis: “It’s just great and has become a hub for the community,” she says. “We’ve all come together to make it possible and you only have to look around to see God’s good work. It really affirms my faith.”
Elena from The King’s Lodge was quick to get involved. She says: “Reconnecting with people has been great for me and, as a Christian, reaching out to people is really important. When I found the love of God it felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted and I want everyone to know that love. It’s a joy to see so many people come in – after all we’ve been through it’s like a light in the dark and I feel alive!”
Nine year old Elsie has also been helping out, doing everything from clearing the tables, to keeping an eye on the kid’s corner: “It’s been great to chat to lots of people, and those people have kept coming back. We’ve been selling out of cakes!” she says. “You can come in and there’s something for everyone, like painting and knitting and the play corner. We hope it can carry on because it’s just such a nice place to be.”
And so the summer is over. But what does the future hold for Oasis? “Having had a really successful time and with a strong and supportive volunteer team, we are actively praying about how we might go forward, both at St John's and with our partnerships in the area,” says Dave.
*What would Dave’s advice be for those churches seeking to do something similar? “The foundation has to be prayer,” he says. “Pray with other people and communicate with those who share a heart. When you feel as certain as you can be that God is saying something, you’ve got to step out of the boat. Have an intentional outward focus and be openhanded in everything - including your ideas of how a church should work. Challenge and question everything. It also helps to find someone who has done it before, who has experience and can walk alongside you.”