What follows is my attempt to tell that story of The Dock as clearly as I can… It was written because Nate, when he was filming the DOCKumentary, couldn’t get me to tell the story in anything less than 13 minutes (he was hoping for 3!). This script helped me keep to time…
The Dock exists to build Life in the Titanic Quarter – heart and soul amidst the concrete and steel of this fantastic new development in Belfast’s historic shipyard.
The project began at the end of 2009, when I was appointed to the new post of Chaplain to the Titanic Quarter. At that point the area was still mostly scaffolding, but the hope started to grow amongst the developers and early residents that with this new part of Belfast the city had been given a blank page, a fresh start.
Belfast is famous for separating into its different communities and (especially) churches. We sought to provide something different – a shared gathering point – a boat on neutral waters, in which all our traditions could share the excitement of building community together. In the early days, this squiggle represented our vision:
So we went looking for a boat. A succession of beautiful, inspiring but utterly impractical old craft were visited, fallen-for, surveyed and then discounted as the truth began to dawn – buying and restoring a rusty old boat was just way beyond our resources. We had to start with what we had: a few deckchairs, a kettle, and a desire to meet the neighbours.
In the open air, at Saturday morning coffee mornings and Sunday afternoon walks, the first building blocks of Life in the Titanic Quarter started to form. Neighbours met. Churches of all traditions and backgrounds worked together – so that the ‘Chaplains to the Titanic Quarter’ became a team rather than one individual.
And the developers, Titanic Quarter Ltd, got involved; their tagline from the moment the first foundation was laid was, ‘Where once we built ships… today we build community’. That vision was becoming reality and they made the unprecedented move of offering The Dock a ‘Meanwhile Lease’ on an empty shop unit in the heart of the Titanic Quarter.
(They also gave us a deadline. Eamonn Holmes and the Songs Of Praise film crew were arriving in six days’ time and would like to film in our pop-up cafe. Was there any chance we could turn an empty concrete shell, with no water, no electricity and no furniture, into a cosy little cafe in time to serve Eamonn a cuppa?
And so in the unforgettable Titanic Centenary year of 2012, the story of The Dock became the story of a man who went looking for a boat – but found something much better instead.
The Dock Cafe opened its doors in March 2012 with little more than those deckchairs and kettle – but as the months went by, more and more donations started to fill the place, as the people who ate, relaxed, met up and chilled out in The Dock Cafe began donating sofas, dining tables, mugs, art, sculpture, games, armchairs, and a thousand other quirky little touches to make a big empty concrete space a home-away-from-home.
Every cuppa was served by an ever-growing team of volunteers from all arts and parts – many of them residents from the apartments upstairs or students from the new college across the road, all swept along by the fun of building community in their new home. And every cuppa came with no price tag attached – but with the trust that customers would donate a fair amount to the Dock Cafe’s honesty box. The ‘honesty box cafe’ became a concept talked-about from Toronto to Timbuktoo, and trusting in the honesty of Belfast people still keeps the doors open and the shelves stocked to this day.
The cafe is a space where absolutely anybody can feel at home – no-one is attacked with Bibles, tracts or evangelistic slogans when they come in through the door. At the same time, we try to provide a little bit of space for spiritual life in the Titanic Quarter – especially in the Prayer Garden, a light-filled little oasis of greenery and peace in the corner of the cafe, and through the presence of the team of Dock Chaplains, who are just as happy to get stuck in to a deep and meaningful natter about the meaning of life as to get stuck feeding Doris the Dishwasher!
The sign above the door says ‘Life in the Titanic Quarter’, and we believe that life is all about:
- living in community with other people
- living in relationship with God, and
- living together with people from all backgrounds
– Social, Spiritual and Shared, our three core values.
- residents living in Titanic Quarter in the hundreds of apartments just above our heads)
- students studying in Titanic Quarter – the massive BMC Titanic Quarter Campus is just across the road
- professionals working in Titanic Quarter from Citibank to the Game Of Thrones crew
- tourists visiting Titanic Quarter from all across the world, drawn by that fascinating ship
- visitors to the Titanic Quarter from greater Belfast, finding space to build a shared community
As the cafe has grown and grown, the opportunities for more expressions of Life in the Titanic Quarter just keep coming…
About a year ago, I got the opportunity to start Titanic Pilgrimage Walks – using my walking tour guide training to lead visitors to Titanic Belfast around the physical footprint of Titanic on the spot where she was built, with pauses for reflection and (hopefully) inspiration.
A few months ago, the crew of the newly-opened SS Nomadic, the little tender ship to Titanic which sits next door to the cafe, asked if the Dock team would like to come on board and run church services from time to time. Sunday Nights On Nomadic now happen on the first Sunday of every month and involve all our different denominations and traditions sharing stories of good news and hope from around Belfast city.
A few weeks ago, we took the opportunity of another ‘meanwhile’ lease on another empty shop unit at the ARC apartments, to run The Dock Market, showcasing the best of local creativity – ice-cream makers, knitters, painters, crafty creatives, photographers, waffle-makers and plenty more – many of whom started their business in the little free market booth in The Dock Cafe.
The next big project is the idea of a ‘Meanwhile Garden’ – planters filled with greenery, dotted throughout the undeveloped concrete parts of Titanic Quarter, making something beautiful out of spaces that are empty until the next building development comes along.
Life in the Titanic Quarter, we’re beginning to realise, flourishes when we don’t wait for a building – or a boat – or a massive fund or a huge injection of capital. It happens when we start with the deckchairs, look for ‘meanwhile’ opportunities, accept that these may be short-term and temporary, and just enjoy the rush of building social, spiritual and shared life from one day to the next. The variety and creativity of ideas just seems to keep expanding.
Recently the penny dropped. That early sketch of the boat – it was along the right lines, but it was upside-down. It’s not a boat – it’s an umbrella.
The Dock is an ethos, a momentum, a vision to build Life in the Titanic Quarter. Under that umbrella, countless expressions of that Life can grow, flourish, multiply, propagate. Some (most?) will be temporary, in the right place at the right time. Many of them might involve ‘meanwhile’ contracts and honesty boxes, as those seem to exemplify what we’re about. But we’ll try to stay light on our feet – we’re not here to build a cathedral, an edifice or institution.
We’re here to live.