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FRANK SOBEY: Re-think the way we do things

I HAVE some homework for you. There is an old church at the top end of Union Street tucked in behind Torquay's town hall. The church is called St Mary Magdalene and I've driven past it so many times without really giving it a second thought.

It, therefore, came as a surprise when a friend suggested that we meet there to talk about a possible social enterprise development.

"Meet me in the Living Room" he said. "Where?" I replied. "You'll see," was his delighted response and then put the phone down!

I don't know how you feel about churches or about religion for that matter, but for almost countless generations these buildings have been a gathering point for communities.

If you read my words from time to time you will know that I keep beating the community engagement drum.

So many places where the community once gathered seemed to have been eroded and the closing of churches, post offices and local shops evidence that.

Of course you will hear that everything is going online these days but that, in my opinion, is an illusion.

Texting, emails, Facebook, Linkedin, Facetime, Twitter and the others lack the vibrancy of body language and physical energy.

Ah yes, your homework. I would like you to do what I did and that is to visit the Living Room at St Mary Magdalene Church and, hopefully, it will bump you from your comfort zone as it did me.

Bearing in mind that this beautiful old church was built in the mid-1800s, it is somewhat shocking to walk through the door and be greeted by the smell of coffee, noisy music and a completely cosmopolitan collection of folk.

I found myself at a gathering of the homeless, the jobless, shoppers, office workers, passing police officers, some legal professionals, business people and many others all sharing a common experience in the middle of a busy town.

My purpose for being there was to meet with a few folk who believe in the power of social enterprise as a foundation for job creation within communities.

Within each community we have vast skill reserves untapped as so many people become disconnected and disenfranchised.

Part of that healing process is to understand that we are all part of a community and stereotyping others conveniently keeping clear of those who make us feel uncomfortable.

Oh yes, I felt uncomfortable when I walked through that door because I have been brought up on a diet of church architecture, literature and music.

But my immediate question was why I felt challenged!

It is one thing to pick up the easy political rhetoric of all being in this together but it is quite another to test it.

I was tested and will be returning in the hope of understanding more about the true nature of my community and about myself.

It would be nice to hear whether you did get around to doing your homework for me!

Of course, I can understand that many would baulk at the idea of a church being used in such a way and I must admit it did make me raise an eyebrow.

The church still has its services but some have been adapted to suit the needs of the wider community from the traditional to the modern. Interesting stuff!

Of course having a coffee shop in the back of a church isn't going to solve the community cohesion problem but it does at least provide a platform for social interaction at a time when the gap between those who have and those who have not seem to be getting wider by the day.

One vital ingredient is, of course, a friendly smile. Add to that the person-centred values of empathy, genuineness and unconditional positive regard championed by American psychologist Carl Rogers, then you have something that is likely to have a huge social impact.

To build sustainable local social enterprise will also help to re-energise lifeless communities and create employment in a way which will benefit neighbourhoods.

It is difficult and I am not saying that it isn't but this is a time where we really do need to re-think the way we do things.

To boost a community from within is a hugely exciting possibility and almost certainly has the potential for economic success.

But we all need to be making this happen rather than sitting back with a silly grin waiting for others to make the running.

You might start with a cup of coffee with friends in the Living Room!

Keep the smile.

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