On Fridays I help at Brushstrokes Community Project in Smethwick. Brushstrokes is a partnership community project that was set up in 1999 by the Infant Jesus Sisters, the parish of St Philip Neri and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd.
Brushstrokes is a place that welcomes the stranger through engaging with Asylum Seekers and working to establish them in their communities and ensuring that they feel safe. They work to serve the whole community, particularly those who are asylum seekers, refugees and newcomers and they aim to do this with “kindness and respect, affirming the rights and dignities of vulnerable people across Sandwell”. Some of the services that they provide are activities for social, educational and recreational development. Other services that they provide are practical help, information advice and guidance as well as education and housing support.
Brushstrokes run a free lunch period called ‘The Friday Community Cafe’ and that’s what I, alongside other volunteers and staff, help out with. A typical Friday involve me arriving at 10:00am and washing my hands, (making sure to adhere to hygiene standards) put on my Brushstrokes apron (an apron I am really proud to wear), wipe down surfaces and prepare the tea and coffee station. Sometimes I will peel potatoes or other veg (if our amazing chef needs an extra hand) and I will write down the ‘menu of the day’ on the board, big enough so people can see!
At around 11:15am the service users arrive, and we take their beverage orders which are normally tea or coffee. At around 12:00 the chef gives us the heads up to start taking food orders and everything goes from there.
The impact that the Friday Community Cafe has had on service-users is profound and I think it is a great initiative! It provides an opportunity for people to come and not only enjoy some wholesome free food, but to also mingle with people from different demographics. I enjoy seeing the smiles on people’s faces as they ask “so, what’s on the menu today?”
Understandably, it is not all smiles as you do have sullen, dispirited faces because we cannot forget the lived experiences of the people that Brushstrokes provides care for. Smethwick is a low-income area and although providing free lunch may seem like a small gesture, it can make a significant impact on someone’s day or even week as there is value in lunch.
I spoke to the Volunteer’s Coordinator Martin McNally to hear his views about Friday Community Cafe and its impact on the local community.
Tobi: “What is the importance of the Friday Community Cafe?”
Martin: “Having a cafe is a great opportunity for local people who are feeling isolated, marginalised and maybe just in a low mood, to get out and come to a place that is safe, friendly and welcoming. And they can also make new friends here. The Friday Community Cafe offers an opportunity for a free meal- a proper meal which works great for the community and economically as the food otherwise would have gone to landfill!” He continues to say, “some people are so grateful for a meal, especially considering the financial climate. Some people are not able to feed themselves properly or they have to choose between heating their home or having a meal.”
Tobi: “Can you tell me what type of people we see at the Cafe?”
Martin: “The people who attend are a diverse group of people, reflecting the diversity of Sandwell. We have a couple of people who are experiencing homelessness and people who have mental health issues which affects their ability to understand the concept of budgeting. It serves a lot of purposes, the cafe.” He continues to say, “We have people who have addiction issues which means they spend all their money so at least we give them a little bit of respite.”
Tobi: “What has the impact been?”
Martin: “The Cafe improves people’s wellbeing. We’ve had people in tears just because we gave them a cup of tea! Some of these people have been rejected or have fled their homes.”
Tobi: “As a man of faith, how does your Christian faith connect with this project?”
Martin: “As a man of faith, it ticks all the boxes. We are here to welcome the stranger, help the poor, feed the hungry, and love one another. Those are all the messages I get from my faith and scriptures in the Bible.”
And it is true! Christ and many Bible scriptures have called us to have a concern for one another, “Carry each other’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2), and Christ’s very act of laying his life down for us, so that we could be reconciled to the Father, is the greatest example of caring for one another.
The Community Cafe also runs other special events such as an Interfaith Lunch, Big Lunch, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and more which are all centred around food-sharing and encountering different foods from around the world, made by people in the community.
On the Brushstrokes website, there is a quote from Nicolas Barre; “We Must Be In The Hand of God Like a Brush in the Hand of a Painter.”
To me, this quote encapsulates the Christian’s calling which is to allow God to use you and trust him in the process. The same way a paintbrush trusts the plan of the painter to take it across and around the canvas. The process might be uncomfortable as it can feel like you are being pressed upon and twisted and turned, dipped in paint and swirled in water, but when you step back, you’ll smile and be amazed at what God used you to do.
I really enjoy my time helping out with the Friday Community Cafe. But in addition to the Cafe, I really appreciate the work that Brushstrokes does for the community in welcoming the stranger and making sure that they feel listened to, supported and treated with dignity and not like the ‘other’. The work that Brushstrokes does very much echoes the message of the Bible.