I attended Sunday church service yesterday for the first time in 20 years.
I read along with the scriptures, sang along with the hymns, clapped along with the Honeybees Choir, and was even invited to take the Eucharist (but chose not to).
The reason for dragging myself out of bed on a Sunday before 10am wasn't just for any church, but for The Wayside Chapel, a very special meeting place in Kings Cross, which was celebrating a very special occasion: the first Sunday service in their brand new church.
The Reverend Andrew Williams, general secretary of the NSW synod of the Uniting Church, delivered the sermon, which was a musing on the biblical story of the fishes and the loaves.
A woman, known as Saintus Interruptus (real name: Mandy) who is a fixture at the Wayside made amusing interjections during Pastor Graham Long's welcoming talk.
It was not your typical church service; at times funny and sad: I had to dab my eyes at one point during Pastor Long's story about his early forays with the church, in particular one awful story about a family who lived on a river and the tragic end of their little girl.
The Wayside Chapel was established by Methodist minister Ted Noffs in a former duplex house at 29 Hughes Street in 1964. Noffs, who died in 1995, was an unconventional clergyman with fairly radical ideas for the 1960s, forging strong relationships with the people in the community who are usually treated with some distance and often disdain by the conservative churches: the marginalised, the disadvantaged, the drug-addicted, the homeless and the mentally ill.
The Wayside Chapel soon became a mecca for those who had been cast from general society and who knew that when no one else cared, there would always be food, warmth and kindness at the little brick building on Hughes Street.
As the people seeking need grew, so the Wayside expanded, taking over 27 Hughes Street and a four-storey apartment building at 31 Hughes Street.
In the almost 50 years since it was established, thousands of people have crossed its well worn doorstep and gone in through the little red door at number 31 to seek comfort from Noffs, later Pastor Ray Richmond and now Pastor Graham Long, who with their teams of employees and streams of volunteers, were able to give a glimmer of hope on the darkest days and also provide valuable advice and support to help them break out of their downward spiral.
The Wayside Chapel were also pioneers. They were the first to open a medically-supervised injecting room in Sydney, despite warnings they were breaking the law.
The Wayside's injecting room paved the way for the trial of the Medically-Supervised Injecting Centre on the Darlinghurst Road strip, which last September was finally made a permanent, legal fixture.
And despite regular attempts by the church to sell the building and put the money elsewhere, those three good men fought the good, long hard fight to keep The Wayside Chapel's doors open - even as the building around them crumbled from lack of funds.
But now The Wayside Chapel is stronger than ever: after more than 10 years planning and a mammoth fundraising campaign, the Wayside's new, purpose-built premises at 27-29 Hughes Street are complete and they moved in on Saturday.
Yesterday's church service, which attracted about 250 people, was the very first in the shiny new chapel and after the hour of power was over, those who attended were invited on a tour of both the old Wayside (above) and the new (below).
According to the chap who led my tour group, the old Wayside, at 31 Hughes Street, is heritage-listed and will now be refurbished to house the op-shop on the ground floor, a level one community space, a level two indigenous space and a roof-top garden.
As parts of the buildings at 27 and 29 Hughes Street were condemned and then turned into a construction site, the Wayside was gradually forced to move its operations into the rabbit warren of rooms at 31. So beneath one of those horrible porridgy ceilings, staff and volunteers squeezed into small rooms (often six to one room), cooked 600 meals a week, offered counselling, support services and no doubt, much, much more.
As I walked through the old rooms at 31, it seemed impossible that they have managed to survive this long. Just compare the old stairwell at 31 - which has exposed telephone wiring running along the ground - to the new stairwell at 27-29:
Yes, being a heritage freak, I am rather fond of those old wooden banisters - but they will be restored over the coming year, with work expected to be completed by April, 2012.
The old building is just so gloomy and claustrophobic in comparison to the bright colours and vast spaces of the new building.
This tiny room with porridge ceilings, is where Pastor Graham Long used to hold the Sunday service (sans rubbish):
And this is where Pastor Graham Long will now be holding the Sunday service:
I particularly love the Reg Mombassa, custom-made ''stained-glass'' Wayside window. Beneath the alter there is also a ''screaming Jesus'', which Pastor Long says is very appropriate for the Wayside. I didn't photograph it, so you'll just have to attend Sunday service (10am) to check it out for yourself.
A critical component of the Wayside's services is its youth program, which helps steer marginalised, troubled and addicted young people along the right path to prevent them from becoming long-term unemployed or long-term homeless. The youth space at 31 had seen better days:
So I imagine the young people and youth-workers are going to prefer the new space, with its long balcony, leather lounges and leopard print cushions:
And those 600 meals a week? They came from this tiny, decrepit kitchen and were pretty much eaten where anyone could find a spot to sit down:
The new Nomad Cafe actually looks pretty hip:
It even has one of those classy glass display cabinets.
I had a Sri Lankan beef and potato curry - which was delicious with strong punchy lemongrass and ginger flavours - served with rice, for just $3.
It was painfully obvious that the building at 31 required a refurbishment and that the Wayside desperately needed its impressive new building. The Wayside has the only public toilets in Kings Cross (well, apart from those gruesome ones outside the police station) and is also the only place many people can take a shower. So functioning bathrooms and plumbing are critical.
The new building's bathrooms are better than most of the ones I encounter in trendy hotels and restaurants:
But there were still remnants in number 31 of the small miracles and beauty that had occurred within its walls. On the upper levels there were lovely moulded ceilings and in the youth space, I discovered this wonderful tree painted on a wall:
"You are rich or born in life by . . . smiles around you, friends you make, people you are with, ideas you have, dreams you have and the love you spread.''
The new building, it should be noted, has impressive green credentials.
Designed by Surry Hills-based architect Tone Wheeler it was built with the three Ls of green construction in mind: Long life, Loose fit and Low impact.
The long life aspect refers to the main structure, which has been built with 160mm thick concrete walls and 280mm thick concrete floors to last for over 100 years.
Loose fit refers to the steel-stud and screw fittings used on the internal walls and ceilings, so that they can be easily repaired, or if need be, replaced in 15-25 years.
Low impact refers to the environmentally friendly materials chosen for the floors, such as rubber and cork, and the hoop pine plywood ceilings and walls.
Meanwhile, the entire building is wrapped in insulation and most floors have hydronic heating, which is created using hot water pumped from the solar collectors on the roof.
There's a whole heap of other technical green stuff that you can't see and that I won't go into.
The green-friendly parts that you can see include the Big Ass Fans in the community hall (above left) and the Modwood decking used in the outdoor spaces (above right).
Up on the roof it's a whole other world, with sweeping views across the city and into the neighbouring apartment buildings. The roof is also home to solar panels:
And soon the roof will have an edible garden in raised rectangular beds and large circular pots. I spied a lime tree, passionfruits, grape vines and avocados, all ready to be planted.
The food grown on the roof will then be used by another critical part of the Wayside's services: day2day.
This service is aimed at people suffering from mental illness and helps them to relearn those things most of us take for granted in life, such as cooking, cleaning and the general day2day stuff.
The day2day living space takes up an entire floor of the new building and includes offices, meeting spaces and most importantly, a teaching kitchen, which is kitted out with brand new, shiny stainless steel appliances and shelves of cookware.
People enrolled in the day2day program will use the kitchen to prepare the foods plucked from the roof garden, which will then be served in the Nomad Cafe. It's such a clever, simple and resourceful idea. Michael (below left) is involved in managing the day2day services.
The chap on the right is the Wayside's former pastor Ray Richmond, who travelled down from Brisbane for the weekend to attend the opening of the new building. Mr Richmond worked at Wayside over two decades and was instrumental in pushing for the new building way back in 1997. Mr Richmond was over the moon to see his grand plans for the Wayside finally come to fruition.
The Wayside will also survive and flourish due to the commitment of its 200 or so volunteers. Many of them were there yesterday, taking visitors on tours, working in the Nomad Cafe and also manning a stall selling T-shirts and copies of Stories From The Wayside, a hard-cover pictorial collection of individuals's stories about life on the street, which was released in February.
Pastor Long writes a weekly email called The Inner Circle, which details the comings and goings at the Wayside - the stories, the tears and the hard work in running the outreach services. I have been subscribing to it for a few years but had never actually attended church at the Wayside until yesterday, although I had been to its op-shop.
I was really inspired to see the passion behind everyone involved and now feel I should help out somehow. It is only through community support, both financially and in a volunteering capacity, that places like the Wayside can continue to do their important work.
If you haven't visited the Wayside yet, I would highly recommend it. There is a 10am service every Sunday and there is also an upcoming theatre production, based on Stories From the Wayside, that will be held in the brand new chapel from August 19-28.
If you aren't religious, it doesn't matter to the Wayside, as they explain, ''We're not much like a church and that might work for you if you're not much like a christian.''
The Wayside Chapel
27-31 Hughes Street
Potts Point NSW 2011
02 9358 6577