This is the story of the genesis of The Dock. It’s also the story of ten unforgettable years of my life. I’m Chris – the man who went looking for a boat, and found something so much better instead.
The Dock was founded 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 Dock began in 2009, when I was appointed to the new post of Chaplain to the Titanic Quarter. At that point the area was still mostly wasteland and 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 infamous for separating into its different territories, communities and (especially) churches. We dreamed of providing something different – a shared gathering point – a boat on neutral waters, in which all our traditions could share the excitement of building community together.
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 Christmas community events, sunny coffee mornings and barbecues 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 race the clock and 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?)
Maybe it was the paint fumes, maybe it was the pressure, but during that unforgettable week, we decided to do three mad things.
First, we opened Dock Cafe in March 2012 with little more than our old 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 our pop-up living room began donating sofas, dining tables, mugs, art, sculpture, games, kitchen equipment, armchairs, and a thousand other quirky little touches to make a big empty concrete space a home-away-from-home.
Second, we started a busy cafe with no staff. Every cuppa was served by Tegan and 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. (The volunteers also willingly wielded hammers and/or paintbrushes – often the right way around – every time the place needed a spruce-up.)
Third, and maddest of all, we put all our faith and trust on the line to open up Belfast’s unique, one-and-only, Honesty Box Cafe. Every cuppa came with no price tag attached – but with the trust that customers would donate a fair amount to the Dock Cafe 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. Today’s dosh buys tomorrow’s nosh.
So, the doors opened. And, oh my goodness. Life happened.
I’ve never known a space to be so extravagantly beloved. Some visitors entrusted us with priceless pieces of shipyard memorabilia. Others donated (and built and plumbed) a loo. Others gave funds for heaters and dishwashers. Countless others filled the cafe with thanksgivings and prayers and messages of boundless gratitude. We met mayors, archbishops, politicians, even monarchs. (Dignitaries who didn’t call into the cafe were made to feel as bad as possible.) We welcomed people from every corner and continent of the world. One day, we even raised the Titanic.
A kind of ripple effect started to happen; on the back of this crazy Honesty Box Cafe idea, all sorts of new crazy ideas sprang into life. We built a pop-up market booth in the cafe, which became a regular artisan craft market, which soon blossomed into its own space – and so Dock Market was born. We established a team of Wee Chat buddies, who, in addition to countless informal heart-to-hearts over coffee, treated us to the unforgettable sight of wakeboarding boobs. We hosted or started language classes, knitting circles, book clubs, writing groups, cycling clubs, residents forums, trad sessions, comedy nights and alpha courses. We were at the centre of pop-up cinemas, colossal art projects, peace day events, volunteer celebrations, wardrobe swops, music videos, fashion shows, and passion walks. Some ideas stuck, some were temporary, some are still going strong, some involved honesty boxes and meanwhile contracts (since those seemed to be at the heart of the Dock ethos). The great gift of this space is the freedom to give almost anything a try.
Some of our crazy ideas were imaginative attempts to grow the spiritual life as well as the social life of the area. There’s the prayer garden – a light-filled little oasis of greenery and peace in the corner of the cafe where prayers literally grow on trees. Or the Slipway Pilgrimage Walks, liaising with the Titanic Belfast team, providing reflection and inspiration to tourists and visitors. Our ‘Church on a Walk’ (the Dock Walk) became ‘Church on a Boat’ (Sunday Nights on Nomadic) before we grew a bit too big to squeeze between the decks and became ‘Church in a Cafe’ (Sunday Nights at The Dock).
And, day by day, the volunteers and the Chaplains always find countless, countless opportunities to chat, pray, comfort, welcome and inspire. Behind every cheerful coffee-drinker in the hubbub of the lunchtime rush, there can be a world of worry. Under the mask, we all sometimes feel lonely and afraid. There’s never any pressure to share. But in The Dock there’s always a listening ear and someone ready to speak words of blessing and hope and life.
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.
There are days when every single aspect of that Life seems to thrive and bloom until Dock Cafe is bursting at the seams.
There are days that I’ll never forget as long as I live. Launching an imaginary ship by screaming my lungs out for 62 seconds on live TV. Standing at the opening of Titanic Belfast and watching the birth of a new era of hope for an outward-looking Northern Ireland. The powerful commemoration of the centenary of Titanic’s loss (and the annual Nights To Remember every year thereafter). Being the fly in a fly-on-the-wall documentary. The first time Dock Cafe bubbled up to the very top of the rankings on Trip Advisor. The weekends when the Tall Ships and the Giro came to Belfast. The baptisms of the first new members of the Titanic Quarter community. The day the stormtroopers invaded Dock Market. The nights that Santa abseiled down the ARC. The time I accidentally hit a woman with a parsnip. (yep, some memories are unforgettable for all the wrong reasons…)
By mid-2018, I was starting to run on empty. As well as the head-swirling growth of the Dock, I was hoping to generate funding for my chaplaincy post by founding The Wee Tram, which was stretching (in lots of good ways) and stressful (in a fair few bad ones!) My wife Susan and I were also still trying to get our heads around a diagnosis of MS which we both received a few years ago. We needed some space to breathe. We decided to fulfil the dream of a lifetime and take a sabbatical year touring the world in our beloved Hymer campervan – and so, with tears and love, with a van but no plan, we hit the road in May 2018.
Something happened just before we left that seemed to sum up all the wonder and beauty of the story so far. A day that started as one of our worst, became one of our best. A burglary led to a media campaign which led to an explosion of support, which led to a miracle. Such an outpouring of love and support for our crazy cafe, our leap of faith. The writing’s on the wall – and now it’s written in our hearts, in our story, in the DNA of this incredible Dock movement.
Every clickable link that you can see here leads to the relevant blog post from 10 years’ worth of blogging, bi-weekly or thereabouts, at the coalface of Life in the Titanic Quarter. Every post, from the oldest to the most recent, is out there somewhere. The blog was written moment-to-moment and so there are probably some references to specific events that will look a bit obscure in hindsight. Also, a lot of the video links have disappeared into the ether – but hopefully the surrounding text still makes sense.