"The church has lost contact with young people, If you go straight up to young people that youíve never met before, and start inviting them to church, theyíre just going to think, "Well, who are you?" Youíve got to build bridges. Youíve 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 werenít 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. Itís 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 peopleís changing relationship with it.
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,
The cafe is not overtly Christian. There are a number of non-Christians among the staff and volunteers.
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 wasnít 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 "Itís 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."