Chris Bennett, a Church of Ireland chaplain in Belfast, gives an update on the Dock, including a new café and the development of the Dock Walks.
The Dock began 2012 as the church with no building, just a group of people with a vision for a shared church for the Titanic Quarter, this fantastic, vibrant new part of Belfast. We were walking (our Dock Walks are a new way of doing church, on foot, and they still take place every week); we were praying; we were meeting the neighbours - thanks to the permission of Titanic Quarter Ltd we were allowed occasional use of a vacant shop unit for pop-up coffee mornings, barbeques and community events. We were also open to whatever God was going to do with us which turned out to be more than we could have asked or imagined.
The Titanic Quarter developers agreed to enter Belfast's first 'Meanwhile Contract' on that vacant shop unit - allowing permission for The Dock to use it for a peppercorn rent as a base of operations, a coffee shop, an art gallery and a chaplaincy centre - in the 'meanwhile' time before a commercial tenant could be found for it.
They also gave us a deadline of six days because a BBC crew were arriving in the area to film Titanic Songs of Praise. Was there any chance we could be open and ready in time for them to film in Dock Café?!
Well, there's nothing like a deadline for motivation. The people we had met and started to get to know over those months of walking, praying and talking threw their energy into everything from sweeping the concrete dust from the floor to constructing flat pack furniture. We filled the space with squashy sofas, cosy corners, art, photography, light, life, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee. In the nick of time, we were ready for the film crew and the grand opening of Dock Café.
Since then, the months have passed in a blur of answered prayer, conversation, laughter and life. The Honesty Box - which replaces a price list for every single cuppa, sandwich, scone and bowl of soup that is served in the cafe - has provoked countless conversations. The volunteer team has grown month-on-month, so we are now able to open six days a week. Students, residents, tourists and businesspeople have all found a safe haven and a warm welcome - a 'local' for a new community.
My contract has been renewed for another three years on the basis that I now work part-time in the Quarter and part-time as Bishop's curate to the parish of St Clement, East Belfast. Part of my role from the very beginning of The Dock had been to find a viable long term, part–time post which would be a solid foundation and support for the more experimental, 'out–there', work in the Titanic Quarter. In the first year of the Dock's existence I did something similar, filling in as temporary minister in Carrowdore and Millisle parish during their vacancy. I then did some tour–guiding with Titanic Walking Tours as a different, and challenging, way to make ends meet while The Dock project made its way forward.
It has made such a difference at the Titanic Quarter to work alongside my Methodist co–chaplain, Karen Spence. We're hoping to see further working partnerships develop in future.
The Dock Walks are still our intentional way of doing church, on foot, in the midst of the Quarter. Everything else that happens through The Dock is focusing on building community and seeing what develops. It's wonderful to now have a physical space at the Dock Café because I know we could use it for all sort of things. Those who struggled to understand the vision of the Dock, or what we meant about encouraging and sustaining a new form of church through the Dock Walks, see the Cafe as being what it's all about. That's not the case because, although it's brilliant to have the premises, The Dock involves a lot more than that!
There is a core of about 10 people who regularly come to the Dock Walk on Sundays. We always have others dipping in to find out what it's all about and, in recent times, we have welcomed walkers who have never had any previous links with church at all. I find that very interesting because it's impossible to come to us and 'hide' in a seat at the back; it's a bit more demanding than that because you simply can't be a 'spectator' on a Dock Walk!
In saying that, no-one is put on the spot, made to speak or pray out loud - and we don't sing, or preach, or walk around with sandwich boards. I find it really encouraging that people without any church links feel able to pitch in with their thoughts and discussions and I like to think that it's because we make everyone feel welcome and part of what's happening. I think there is something very fundamental and natural about going for a walk that releases people to be a lot more personal and to share their opinions with each other. It's also not weird or awkward to have a time of quiet when you are walking.
We start off by walking for about 25 minutes, during which time we just chat to each other. Then, about half an hour in, we stop and listen to the reading from the Wordlive multimedia resources podcast. We then walk for another 10-15 minutes to chat about what we've heard before stopping again to draw together all our thoughts. After that we will listen to the reading again because I believe we can get so much out of it second time around. Onwards again for a while and then we stop to share personal thoughts and discuss the opportunities or challenges we get from the reading.
By then we'll have walked through the Quarter and areas around it; that's when we stop to listen to some worship music. At that stage we make the return trip and head to the Café for a coffee and more time together. All is constantly subject to change due to weather, people and what is happening in the Titanic Quarter. The whole thing takes about an hour and a half.
Sadly, Belfast has been hitting the headlines again with bad things going on rather than good but The Dock is now making connections with all of the churches in the city and I believe it's one of our goals at The Dock to show the other side of Belfast's story here.
[Part of this article first appeared in the Church of Ireland Gazette.]