This post was written by Jo Loop, who served as a chaperone for the Leeds Youth Exchange 2019. The Leeds Youth Exchange is a link between the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and the Diocese of Leeds, Church of England. The program involves youth alternating visits between Southwestern VA and Leeds every summer for the purpose of service work and relationship building.
We were both excited and a little nervous about chaperoning six high-schoolers on the Leeds Youth Exchange this summer. But after spending considerable time with the group last year, it wasn’t completely unfamiliar territory. It’s been about a week since returning, and with the trip in the rear-view mirror, we can say it was a formative experience for the youth as well as us, the adult chaperones. We had long days and short nights, but the adventures were worth a few weeks of not enough sleep. We had the privilege to encounter God in some unlikely places. Sure, it was amazing to feel the peacefulness of the 1,300-year-old Anglo-Saxon crypt at Ripon Cathedral and walk among the ancient ruins at Fountains Abbey built in the 12th century. But the unlikely moments like witnessing God’s presence in a small café…may have been among the most memorable and helped to show us the true mission of the exchange.
"Tomorrow we’ll all be working at a café, preparing breakfast, lunch and making coffee. Oh, by the way, we just acquired the café about 2 weeks ago,” stated Liam.
Wednesday evening around 9 pm, Liam took us by the Lodge Café, a recent acquisition of Primetime, a non-profit that supports young people in a community around Bradford, England. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by John, a young man that is currently an apprentice at the café, who just happened to be walking around outside. As Liam informed us, John was kind of “on night watch.” He takes his job and responsibilities very seriously and is always watching over the café even though he does not live within walking distance. The café is located on the edge of Bowling Park in Bradford and had been struggling when Liam’s organization agreed to take over the daily operations. The café, with its perfect location between the park and neighborhood, provides tasty breakfasts and lunches of sandwiches and salads, along with a barista machine for various coffees and milkshakes. But that’s not its key purpose. The mission of the café is to train young adults, that apprentice for one year, where they can develop skills for future employment and obtain a reference.
At first sight, we knew Day 9 of the exchange was going to be different. Upon our arrival Thursday morning, Liam quickly took us upstairs for a quick overview of the café background and what our jobs for the day would be. Hatley & Abbey will start on the barista machine and run the till; Charlie & Cailin are in the kitchen, preparing food (think hot griddle); Cole & Nora will be serving and then we’ll rotate. Got that…? What’s a till? How do we make change with the pound…? Quickly we all got to work. John, who we had met the night before, started working with Charlie and Cailin in the kitchen, prepping sandwiches for the day; and then he trained Hatley & Abbey on the barista machine. There was a flurry of activity, and we were not even opened yet. Since we were still waiting for our first customers, Nora and Cole decided to pick up trash around the outside of the café, gaining recognition from the sanitation workers that patrolled the park, who gave them additional bags and one of those “claws” you use to pick up trash – it’s the little things, you know. Liam admired their work and said the outside had never looked so good. You could feel the pride John felt as he was able to instruct all of us on the daily operations of the front end and kitchen. He was becoming a leader right before our eyes.
As the morning progressed, customers started strolling in for coffee and tea, and then more customers for breakfast, and then lunch, and then more coffee and tea, and a lot of ice cream. Oh no, we need to re-stock the ice cream… Suddenly it didn’t matter what the WiFi password was, or if we even had WiFi. The faces of the kids, hot and sweaty from the park, happy to see us and getting their ice cream, was heartwarming. The questions: Are you REALLY from America…? Why are you here…? Tell us about the exchange. Oh, the conversations and connections were marvelous. The mission of this café is simple, supporting young people and serving a community, much like the mission of this exchange, creating a connection and community of young people on both sides of the pond; demonstrating we’re all more alike than different, and we’re all Beloved. Hopefully these connections will become life changing and lifelong.
This was just one day of our 20 day exchange, but out of all the wonderful things we did, this day might be the one our youth remember the most. Not because they got to work a barista machine, but because of all the people we met and interacted with. We were immersed in the culture around us and a part of the community.