What becomes of the broken-parted
An award-winning church in Lancashire is helping people mend not just their ways but their things. Laurence Wareing reports
Andy Littlejohns is staring at the Japanese geisha in front of him. She’s in more pieces than she should be, he says.
Andy will try his hand at mending most things, porcelain statuettes included, but he freely admits that the volunteers who have made Chorley Repair Café the award-winning success it is are usually far more skilled than he is at fixing the broken and bringing hope to the hopeless.
That biblical sentiment is echoed by the volunteer electrician Paul Blackett. ‘People come to us with a sense of hope, and we breathe life into old things.’ For two hours on a Saturday, once a month, the café repairers take a look at anything and everything, from Christmas lights and scented room diffusers to (on one occasion) a chainsaw. (‘That made quite a noise when we got it going!’)
Andy arrived at Chorley United Reformed Church as a Church-Related Community Worker with the idea of a repair café already in his mind, having seen one in action in Levenshulme, Manchester. The church Elders were supportive of the idea, so Andy was pushing at an open door. Chorley Sheds Project – a creative and upcycling initiative – was already active in the area, and the post he placed on Facebook, asking for interested volunteers, eventually reached 25,000 viewers.
Initially, there was a pool of around 12 volunteers, men and women, who turned their hands to everything from bikes, vacuum cleaners and larger mechanical items to furniture, textiles and zips. Nowadays, team members are aged from their mid 20s to late 70s. Some initially joined to learn new skills from more experienced practitioners.
Around 75% of the items brought in for repair leave Chorley URC again in good working order. There was an off-road wheelchair, bought for a local young man. On its first outing, one wheel collapsed – and then two went. It would have cost hundreds of pounds to replace, so it sat useless until a volunteer bike repairer took a look at it. He couldn’t mend all the broken spokes in one session but used his own time to continue the project. Before long the young man’s delighted carers were wheeling him onto the grass at the nearby park – accessing the outdoors and able to experience life more fully once more.
Sometimes repairers have to say something can’t be fixed, or needs more specialist attention than they can offer. The volunteer Paul, a retired NHS engineer, describes the process in appropriately medical language as ‘a triage service’; but adds that, for many people who come by, it’s enough to know they’ve at least made the effort to save a loved item.
Even during the pandemic, the project was not idle. Working with the local council, volunteers refurbished 80 laptops for use by school children – and the idea now is to be more hi tech, and even more connected to the Chorley community.
As one of the winners of the 2020-2021 United Reformed Church Community Project Awards, they would like to put their £2,000 prize towards a 3D printer. Some items need a new part that is either hard to get or simply no longer available. ‘Many cheap power tools, for instance, are not designed to be repaired. The manufacturers want you to throw them away and buy replacements.’ With a 3D printer, it would be possible to design and print replacement parts that would give items a new lease of life.
The project’s repair work isn’t meant to be economical in a business sense; rather, it’s about seeing value in things people can still use and reducing the waste we generate in our single-use culture. The vision of a higher-tech version of ‘men’s sheds’ would certainly make the Chorley Repair Café even more versatile, but the team also believes it would help them engage with a new generation of repairers.
These might include refugees and asylum seekers who are part of the Chorley community. Andy says they face high levels of boredom and would value some structure in their lives. Working with a 3D printer is a painstaking task – items need to be printed and reprinted with tweaked designs before they meet the required specifications. This involves developing new skills – a gift for those with time on their hands and the willingness to learn.
Part of the Repair Café International movement, founded in 2011 in the Netherlands, Chorley Repair Café has given advice to volunteers setting up other Repair Cafés. And as well as building on a growing awareness of the need to be less ‘throw-away’ in our behaviours, Andy believes that establishing the repair café in the church sanctuary can help break down perceptions about the building and create a fresh awareness of what the church community is really like.
Chorley Repair Café was awarded a prize of £2,000 in the United Reformed Church Community Project Awards – an initiative sponsored by Congregational
This article was published in the November 2021 edition of Reform