Heather Keough, coordinator of a community centre in a Dublin community, talks about the philosophy behind the creation of centers of influence, and how people need to feel they belong before they believe.
Question: You coordinate the Cuisle Centre, a community outreach program based in the Ranelagh Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dublin, Ireland. Can you tell us about some of the activities the Cuisle Centre organizes?
Answer: We run a wide range of different activities to benefit the community around us.
Our most popular activity is the Vegetarian Cookery Class, which we run every two weeks throughout the year. There is a lot of interest in this class and it is thoroughly enjoyed by people from our local community.
We also have a knitting/crochet group and a Seniors Club, which are well attended by ladies and the occasional man from the Ranelagh area. These groups are organized to offer lonely people the opportunity to make friends and give them a place where they can go and socialize.
Every Tuesday we run a free drop-in Health Checks program, with trained nurses who check blood pressure, pulse, oxygen levels and peak flow. People attending the Health Checks can also fill out a questionnaire about their lifestyle. The answers are then put into a computer program and the health age of their body is determined and suggestions are made to improve lifestyle.
We run different health seminars about mental health, diet, and lifestyle.
We have a soup kitchen in the winter months, in partnership with the local Pathfinders, who help to run it.
A very enjoyable activity is our annual Vegetarian Community Christmas Dinner, where we have a lovely meal, carol singing, and a short talk on the true meaning of Christmas.
There are also services provided by trained professionals, including a counseling service and massage therapy. These paid-for services help generate some revenue for the Centre.
The Cuisle Centre also partners with the Children’s Ministries Department in Ranelagh Church to provide activities in the Centre for the children in the local community, such as Holiday Bible Club, Light Party (an alternative to Halloween) and a Children’s Christmas Party that is an interactive experience explaining the true meaning of Christmas.
Last June 10, 2018 — a day where throughout Ireland communities were holding Street Feasts, an initiative to help people meet their neighbours — the Cuisle Centre held a Street Feast in the car park at the front of the Centre/church. Our street feast had a real international flare because Ranelagh Church is a very international church. Church members brought food from their home countries, we had games and face painting for kids, and volunteers stood on the street inviting people to come and join in. This was a huge success and we got to meet so many new people who wanted to know more about the centre and the church. We look forward to hosting another Street Feast this year.
So the cookery class has been the best-attended activity organized by the Cuisle Centre?
Yes, the Vegetarian Cookery Class has a good solid attendance from the local community. Just this evening we had 23 at the cookery class and only three of those were from the Ranelagh Church.
The class offers a very relaxed environment where we encourage people to ask questions during the presentation, and then afterward everyone gets to enjoy the food. This class is advertised to end at 8:45 p.m. but people stay on longer than that to chat and enjoy new friendships.
A vegetarian or vegan diet is increasingly popular, in Dublin as in many parts of the world. A new vegan restaurant has opened just down the street from the Ranelagh Church. This trend surely makes your classes more popular, especially with younger people.
Many of the people who come to the class from the community have only recently made the decision to become vegetarian. Vegetarianism and veganism seems to be becoming more popular, but not just with the younger generation. Older people are coming along to the class because they are making the decision to make healthier lifestyle changes later in life.
We also have a small group of people who come along occasionally to the class to help improve their grasp of the English language, and they are pleasantly surprised at how good vegetarian food tastes.
The Adventist church has been encouraging its churches around the world, especially in cities and large urban centers, to establish "centers of influence." Can you tell us about the concept and philosophy behind the centers of influence?
I believe that the philosophy underpinning the idea of the centers of influence is that our churches need to become more community-oriented than they generally have been. We need to open seven days a week for the community, rather than one day a week or those commuting to “church.”
I think it’s really about trying to change the philosophy of how a church sees itself. Is it a center solely for a worship service, or a place that makes a real difference in the lives of real day-to-day people?
Through mixing and mingling with people, through meeting them where they are, through supporting them in their needs and becoming friends with them, then opportunities might open up to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them.
These days people want to belong before they believe. So we are trying to create a place that people feel is theirs — a place where they are comfortable, confident, and involved. As we build real relationships with people then they will come to know us as we truly are. Then we may have opportunities not just to talk to people about Jesus, but show people how Jesus has made a difference in our lives and what he can do for others. It’s about building authentic relationships with others that don’t break down even when the other person isn’t interested in becoming an Adventist.
How do you advertise your services and activities to the community?
We have poster boards outside the Centre advertising the different activities, including contact details for enquiries. We have designed a brochure with information about the different activities that we distribute in the surrounding area and give to visitors to the Centre.
Social media is a great way of advertising and using Twitter and Facebook seem to generate a lot of interest. We have a database we can use to alert people by email and text message of activities they have told us they want to know about.
Of course one of the best ways of advertising is by running good, well-organized activities and seminars — then people go and tell their friends about the Centre.
Do most of the people who avail of the Cuisle Centre activities already attend the Ranelagh church? Are they Adventists or just community members?
The majority of attendees are from the community and prior to attending the Centre knew very little about the Adventist Church. Since August last year there are four people attending the church most Sabbaths as a result of attending the Cuisle Centre and wanting to know more about the church.
There are a small core group of church members who attend different activities and volunteer their services. I would love to see the activities better attended by the local church because it is so important for the community to meet with the church members and develop friendships.
Can you tell us about the profile of the Ranelagh church? You mentioned how international it is.
Ranelagh Church is a diverse and multi-national congregation representing over 25 different nationalities among its 300 or so attendees. Approximately 5% of the congregation are native Irish. The largest national group is comprised of Indians, although the largest people group is Africans. Approximately 15% of the congregation is under 18 years of age, while another 65% is between the ages of 19 – 50.
How about the community where the Ranelagh Church and Cuisle Centre is located? What is the make-up of the neighborhood?
Ranelagh is a predominantly young, well-educated, thriving community. Forty-eight percent of people living in the Ranelagh community are single or married without children, and between the ages of 19 and 35. There are a small percentage of families with children and some more elderly people who have grown up and lived all their life in Ranelagh. The majority of people who live in Ranelagh are Irish.
Dublin is a very secular place, and many people have no interest in church or religion. Has this made attracting people to the Cuisle Centre especially challenging?
From my experience the biggest challenge is not to do with religion but more to do with time — when people see value in something they put time into it. People will come into the building knowing that it is attached to the church, but are unsure of the link between the church and the Cuisle Centre and are not afraid to ask what it is.
The older generation in Dublin are not so affected by secularism — they still hold a lot of respect for religion so they are not afraid of coming into a church building. A lot of younger people have been brought up in the Catholic church and have turned their backs on religious institutions. This is a challenge because there is a mistrust of anything religious. Historically in Ireland there has been a connection between religion and the State. More people now want a State that is separated from religion, thus bringing about a more secular society.
What further plans do you have for the Cuisle Centre?
Ultimately I would like it open throughout the whole week, providing a range of spiritual, mental, physical and social services for the community. We are in the process of looking to start a parent and toddlers group, English language classes, games club, and fitness classes. I hope to have more church member involvement, by identifying skills that they have and using them in the centre.
Have you worked in other centers of influence or similar community outreach programs? What is your background and training?
I am a qualified nurse and worked in oncology for nine years. After our children were born I retrained as a special needs assistant to work with children in schools. My husband is the pastor of the Ranelagh Church, so I have been involved in many different aspects and programs, not only in the local church but in the Irish Mission. Following our move to Dublin in 2016 I started volunteering in the Cuisle Centre, and later in 2017 I became the manager of the Centre. Prior to this I had never worked in a Center of Influence.
What do you most enjoy about working with the Cuisle Centre? What do you find the hardest? What have you learned?
I really enjoy engaging with the people who attend the different activities in the Centre, I love listening to people’s life stories — and Irish people really love to talk! I think the most rewarding aspect of what I do is watching people come into the Centre who are lonely or have lost their partner, and see them make friends with others who are going through similar life experiences. Genuine friendships are formed, which makes them want to come back and enjoy what the Centre has to offer.
One challenge I have is finding enough volunteers to run all the programs that I can see will benefit the community. Another is that because I am so people-centered I struggle to find time for the administrative side of managing the Centre. I have had to learn some simple things like how to keep a website up-to-date and learning the best advertising methods. I’ve also had to learn how to use computer programs for designing posters and flyers.
The greatest lesson I have learned is that when I took over as the Manager for the Cuisle Centre I had a few sleepless nights of how “I” could develop a recently-established ministry that would reach the local community and inspire the local church. I soon learned that “I” had nothing to do with it — God was the one who inspired us. Days when I felt frustrated due to lack of volunteers or other discouragements were the days that God brought people to the door of the Cuisle Centre who were searching for answers to life’s big questions.
Photos courtesy of Heather Keough.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
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