There were a lot of questions we had at St John’s East Dulwich when we agreed to host the Robes Project on Saturday nights from January to March. We knew the Goose Green Centre – attached to the church – could be used to accommodate 20 or so people overnight, but no one could recall that it had ever done so. Would the central heating cope? Would we get enough volunteers? Would we be able to clean the Centre in time for the Sunday School and crèche during the 10am service? Where would we store all the bedding? Would the shower work? (It had only ever been used for watering plants before.)
To reduce the scale of the challenge we agreed to work jointly with the Copleston Centre. we would host for six weeks and they would do so for five weeks with a shared pool of volunteers. Once we had decided to go ahead the response really was overwhelming, within a few days we had already exceeded our target of 30 volunteers, and we would end up with more than 70 from St John’s, Copleston and the Peckham Mosque. Many more people contributed in other ways, such as by donating food and money.
Despite attending training and visiting another venue, we were unsure what to expect on our first night hosting Robes. But everything went smoothly, and before long both guests and volunteers were relaxed and comfortable in their temporary home. Luckily we had space for those guests who just wanted to rest to do so. Others joined us for copious cups of tea (generally with two or three sugars), a chat and activities. One guest taught the Vicar some new card games, another was playing chess with one of our volunteers past lights out (despite a rebuke from the volunteer’s wife), and one – an avid thriller reader – was pleased to be given a signed copy of a new book by one of our parishioners.
Over the six weeks of hosting Robes, we’ve had a lot of fun with the guests and also a few serious conversations. Many of the volunteers have spoken of how enriching they have found the experience, both in terms of being able to provide support and sustenance to the guests, and in learning about some of the challenges beyond our everyday lives. With so many volunteers taking part, it’s also been an opportunity for people to get to know each other better and find a common purpose on a shared project. Even those not directly involved have been quick to ask on a Sunday morning how things went the night before.
It has been hard work at times but everyone involved has found it rewarding and, as many have said, it is exactly the kind of thing we as a Christian community in south London should be doing. We are looking forward to next year!