The church has lost contact with young people, If you go straight up to young people that you’ve never met before, and start inviting them to church, they’re just going to think, “Well, who are you?” You’ve got to build bridges. You’ve got to try to do something positive for them. You must reconnect.” How could a parish church in a poverty-stricken former mining town respond to this challenge?
The church, lead by minister, Rev. Andrew Bookless, went back to the very basics. They asked the young people of Bargoed what they actually wanted from the estate where they lived. Many mentioned that there weren’t any facilities for young people. They had nowhere to go to meet with their friends, to hang out and relax. Many of the young people filled in questionnaires, and the project developed from there.
The cafe was the first thing to be up and running. It’s a place where the young people can meet their friends, have some food, listen to music and relax. Funding and support come from a number of local churches, as well as the European Union, some charitable trusts and the local council. A property was bought, and staff were employed, although much of the work is done by volunteers.
Computer facilities were added later. These are used mainly for games, but they are also used by some of the unemployed young people to gain IT skills, and produce CVs. The Careers Service and the Probation Service also use the facilities. The cafe are keen to strengthen links with other bodies who work with local young people.
The latest stage of the project, just starting, is a series of practical workshops, things like dance, drama and guitar playing, as well as DJ skills and graffiti art.
What excites Rev. Andrew Bookless most about the project is the young people’s changing relationship with it.
“All along we’ve been wanting to get some of the older teens, the over 16’s, to come back and support the project as volunteers,” he explains, “It’s been a slow process, but it’s beginning to happen. It’s so positive to see how they’ve changed. Some were in a bit of trouble when they were younger, and it’s exciting to see them beginning to move away from that and take on some responsibility”.
Bargoed is a former mining town in the Valleys of South Wales, with high levels of unemployment, crime and substance abuse. The Youth Project has had to deal with these issues, on the cafe premises. The cafe has been vandalised. In the past the police have been called to remove trouble makers, and ban people from the cafe. More recently the staff have tried to work alongside those who cause trouble, to deal with the problems. Andrew comments,
I think it looks better, trying to understand them, rather than exclude them. But having said that, even the ones who have been banned end up coming back, and seem to have learnt something from the process. We’ve seen a couple of youths who were in trouble with the police for nicking a car become Christians. They’re not perfect now, by any means, but the difference in their attitudes is amazing.”
The cafe is not overtly Christian. There are a number of non-Christians among the staff and volunteers.
“We want the overall direction to be clearly Christian, but it’s Christian in respect to the way we relate to the youngsters. We’re not pushing things on them, but if they do ask questions about our faith, then we’ll talk to them. Some have actually started coming to church as a result of getting to know people there, but it’s not pushed on anyone, it’s just a natural thing.”
The church has had a series of 4 annual missions run by teams of young people from America but it was important to all involved that these are kept separate from the cafe. Many of the young people came along to the missions, invited by staff and volunteers who knew them well. However, it was felt to be important that the cafe remained a space dedicated for the use of the young people, and wasn’t taken over by overtly Christian events.
So what does the future hold for the Youth Project in Bargoed? The cafe is warmly regarded by the local community, and Andrew would like to strengthen those links. He would also like to link more closely with the local churches, but he adds “It’s partly a case of wait and see. More and more I want to see the young people themselves giving the project direction and taking the lead.”