Crave: Where everybody knows your name

I was conducting an interview recently with a couple of guys I think the world of. But it wasn’t going so well. In fact, it was going horribly. Ten minutes into the conversation, they started to argue. Not with me but with each other. I realised later, listening back to the tape, that I had provoked it, with niggling, cynical questions and dastardly comments that got them all fired up — but while the interview was happening I had no idea I was to blame, and I thought the tension had arisen out of nowhere. Or, worse, some deep-seated and unspoken animosity that was erupting entirely coincidentally. It was really bad. So bad that I would have been uncomfortable, if such things made me uncomfortable. One suggested the other was lazy; the other took offence and said ‘I’m not lazy, are you lazy?’; the first one backtracked and apologised, then suggested he was lazy in a nice way.

‘Holy shit,’ I thought. ‘I’m witnessing the end of something beautiful.’

The guys were Blue and Nigel, the ‘missionaries’ behind Crave Cafe in Morningside (with their respective wives, Katey and Cathie). Crave is my home away from home. I’d call it my office except very little work gets done there anymore. There was a time that I could sit anonymously in the corner of the old Crave and be bothered by no one. I used to write an entire magazine from that spot, every month, utterly undisturbed. Not now. Now it’s like Ted Danson’s Cheers: ‘Where everybody knows your name.’

Crave people — staff, management, customers — don’t just come and talk to you. It’s all hugs and kisses; some psychoanalysis, if you’re lucky; or offers of freelance work; or invitations to breakfast cigars; or deep discussions on anything from shambolic relationships to new romances or the deeper question of why Enneagram No.4s are so misunderstood (the answer: Because they want to be).

I’m writing a book on Crave; more specifically, I’m writing the story of the people behind Crave, the faith community that has gone by the name Mosaic, which sprung up when Nigel and Blue, from different corners of the city, felt the urge to do something that wasn’t church but would impact a community in the way that ‘church’ could and might and perhaps should. You know, by being human, by displaying real care and compassion, by offering a genuine embrace to neighbours (my words, not theirs).

It’s been more than 10 years since their vision found a home, in the neighbourhood of McDonald Street in Morningside, and now with the cafe Kind as well as Crave, and some exciting projects for underprivileged people happening in the area, it’s fair to say their original vision has been more than realised. So you can imagine my confusion when Blue and Nigel got stuck into one other during our final interview for the first draft of the book. I say ‘confusion’ because, as their friend, I was somewhat distressed. As a journalist, however, I was delighted. Their scrap was gold in terms of book content (not to mention champagne comedy). This was a scoop beyond what I could have hoped for. And terrible though the demise of Crave would have been, I forever would have been able to lay claim to the fact that I was there to witness it … and it would have given me one hell of a final chapter for the book. It was like witnessing history as it unfolds. In my 20 years of journalism I only ever once witnessed news like this as it actually happened. (Aside: I was caught in floodwaters in a small town in the northwest of Western Australia one weekend while covering the opening of a heritage hotel. Heavy rains in the hills east of the coast flash-flooded the rivers around the town and raised them by 12 metres. That’s a lot of bloody water. I saw a four-wheel drive floating down the river at one point. For much of the night all the hotel guests, me included, were sure we going to drown. Our response? We drank a lot of wine.)

Anyway, that was ‘news’ and made it to page 3 of Western Australia’s metro daily newspaper. The scrap between Blue and Nigel was hardly news of that ilk. But it was noteworthy — not least because of what the tiff was about.

Without giving too much away (because I don’t have their permission, and I still want to use the episode for some comic relief in the book), the tension arose over a discussion about the ‘mission’ (if we can call it that) of Crave, and whether, after their first decade of operation, they’ve been successful in that mission, and whether both of them are still on the same page about it anyway. It’s been on my mind in recent days because the essence of the ‘discussion’ (Blue likes to call it a dialogue; Nigel laughs whenever the subject comes up; I tell the story as if I’d just watched MMA) is the very thing I grapple with a lot as an ex-journo and ex-theologian who now writes for living and tries to help other sojourners live ‘authentically’— which is, the relevance of faith language at all, particularly in this era.

I talked with Nigel about it again yesterday (Queen’s birthday), and pointed out that I rarely hear him talk out of ‘belief’ — by which I mean, there’s little in his discourse that marks him as a typical Christian, if there is such a thing. I’m not being critical of him in this — I actually think it’s a good thing. If faith communities — churches, etc — weren’t wrestling with their relevance or toxicity or offensiveness before the Trump era, they certainly are now. From my perspective, and as someone who also westles with meaning and truth and knowledge on a philosophical level, I find the whole premise of faith discourse questionable — from blithe adherence to language that has very little correspondence to actual lived reality, through to the idea that faith offers anything different to what people without faith are experiencing, through to the idea of mission; that we somehow have the right to go and impact the culture of a setting based on our belief about something we say happened 2000 years ago. Even if the content of that belief is true (and I’m not for one second saying it isn’t), we no longer live in a world where it’s okay to go and colonise a street, or a neighbourhood, or a village, or an island, or a nation state, with our religious ideology. It’s offensiveness on a broad scale in a way that it wasn’t, even a decade ago.

These were some of the niggling questions that I threw onto the table like firecrackers during my interview with Blue and Nigel, upstairs in one of the very nice conference rooms at Crave; firecrackers that Blue picked up willingly, as he does, then threw to Nigel, and which Nigel threw back to Blue.

Now, everything I just wrote about how dodgy faith discourse is in this era, generally DOES NOT apply to Blue and Nigel. They have wrestled every step of the way with how to be present, culturally aware and respectful, local, and mindful, while at the same time bringing something new and invigorating and authentic to their work in the neighbourhood. They, together with Katey and Cathie, have been willing to risk (everything!) and have done it without a clear sense of ‘calling’. (They disagree on this last point. What I mean by ‘calling’ is the idea some people have that they’re fulfilling a mission because ‘God told them to’ … which often gives them licence to do questionable things; gives them someone to blame if it all goes pear-shaped; and also gives them a false sense of security when things are going well. Blue and Nigel are not like this. They know the buck stops with them. They moved into Morningside to be ‘present’ because they wanted to; not because a disembodied hand wrote a message on a wall during a wild party — though that would have been AWESOME).

All this was on my mind last night because I spent the day in Crave yesterday, and spent much of the time marvelling at what Blue and Nigel (and Mosaic) have actually achieved. It was a typical public holiday Monday in Crave yesterday — busy, bustling, noisy, hectic — and yet, still ‘home’ for me. Much of that — no, all of that — is because of the front-of-house team, many of whom would not lay claim to a Christian faith, as such, but extraordinarily reflect the vision, hearts and minds of Nigel and Blue themselves. Everyone who walks into Crave is greeted like a family member, not a customer. There’s nothing remotely transactional about the way the team either sees customers, treats them, or talks to them. On the flip side, I’ve often sat with people in the cafe (Christians) who treat the staff as hired hands — no eye contact, clipped sentences, demanding, grumpy. Not the staff. In the (old) language, we might have once said that the team at Crave see in their customers the image of God, and treat them accordingly. How Blue and Nigel (but Nigel mainly, as the one responsible for the cafe), has achieved this, is nothing short of alchemy.

Last year, I interviewed manager Amandine, and we spoke about this. She admitted being nervous of working at Crave initially, because of the faith thing. Friends told her it was a bit weird. Then she said this: ‘After a few months, actually, they were just the most open-minded people that I ever met. I do like the way they are spiritual, I think it’s great because even if I don’t have any faith, they bring me a lot as well.’

Even if I have no faith, they bring me faith. Some guy in the gospels said it this way: ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’

This ‘vibe’ is no accident either, because it’s the same at Kind, Crave’s sister cafe down the road. It is also a home away from home for me. It’s no replica of Crave — the spirit of Kind is completely different, echoing the beautiful soul of its manager Cathie (as in Cathie, Nigel’s Cathie), as well as its extraordinary staff (I hate using the word staff of people who have become dear friends). The decor is chalk and cheese, for example, as is the team — and yet the same spirit endures. It’s a place you want to stay. A place you feel you can belong. A place ‘where everybody knows your name’.

My personal relationship with Crave, and now with Kind, extends back over many years. I first heard about it in the first weeks of the old cafe over the road being taken over by Blue and Nigel, but didn’t visit for another year or so after that. It became a regular haunt during the first couple of years that I published my magazine, and in those days the Christian connection was something that kept me returning but also repelled me (this was after my leaving a Christian tertiary college and determining I would have nothing to do with Christians again). My visits increased, and when my magazine offices moved nearby I would spend every day in the cafe, writing the stories that would be published in the magazine at the end of the month. One of those stories was a cover piece on Nigel and Blue and how they were going to change the world (I didn’t really mean it at the time, it was just a neat headline … but now I’m starting to believe they might actually do it).

Crave has provided a backdrop for some of my best times, and some of my darkest times. I’ve formed friendships there. I’ve lost friendships there. When the magazine went broke and I lost everything to do with it, even the digital files, it was Crave that I went to in order to find solace and a sense of balance and normality. When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, it was Crave that sent a care package. It was Nigel who put money on the tab so I had somewhere to go and find a shoulder to cry on. When I found myself with nothing to do professionally, it was Crave that came to me with the story of Jared Noel, himself a key part of the Mosaic team in its formative years (with Hannah, his wife, who is still one of the faces I look for in the cafe). And towards the end of 2017, when I faced another period of doubt if not despair, it was a Christmas Eve cigar night at Crave that set me back on course.

So, I’m a bit of a Crave/Kind fanboy, to be honest. And the people who work at Crave and Kind are the characters with whom I choose to populate my day. Because everybody knows your name.

But back to the central characters, Blue and Nigel. Two guys who had an idea, as well as a whole heap of personal conviction, and just went for it. That idea was to be present in a community in a compelling, authentic, legitimate way. Not some church on the corner that invites the community to a car wash on the first Saturday of every month … but actual neighbours. And as neighbours living right in the heart of a neighbourhood to then see what would happen next. They’re just ordinary guys, Blue and Nigel. A bit weird, in their own way. But that’s okay. Blue’s the emotional one. Every story Blue tells usually ends with someone close to or in tears (and you believe him, because you know that if the other person in the story wasn’t in tears, then Blue certainly was). I see Blue as the wild animal of Mosaic, the untamed prophet, the fiercely vigilant and fearlessly compassionate pastor who operates out of instinct and gut and spirit and wild fire. But what Blue displays in the way of emotion, Nigel … well, let’s just say Nigel doesn’t. Indeed, people wonder if his limbic brain is connected to his neocortex at all. I don’t think that. I think Nigel’s genius matches Blue’s passion, and his acumen complements Blue’s instinct. I think Nigel’s heart is every bit as big as Blue’s, but let’s face it, if they were both emotional in the same way they’d be a double act at the circus and not the guys behind one of Auckland’s most successful cafes.

I say they’re ordinary guys and a bit weird … but the truth is, they’re both a bit special, in a mad biblical prophet, apostolic kind of way. If they were born 2000 years ago, Blue probably would have been involved in the writing (or dictating) of John’s Gospel and Nigel … well, Nigel would have figured out how to monetise it. But together they would have upended the Roman-Graeco world as we knew it. They may not have prevented the early church heresies from occurring as they did, but man, they would have drunk a lot of wine trying (Nigel, anyway).

Here’s some stuff straight from the mouth of Blue, taken without permission from the interviews for the book:

‘I cry more now as an adult. The older I get, the more I cry. And it’s not sentimental tears. I’m as passionate, if not more passionate, than I’ve ever been. But tears are just an outworking of, sometimes, my emotions; and sometimes when I feel the spirit of God. If I feel close to the spirit of God, I’m just in tears. They’ve dubbed me the make-people-cry-guy. It’s just because I ask questions that need to be asked; or that they haven’t quite formed themselves. And often those questions result in tears; often that conversation results in tears. It’s not because I’m talking about something per se; it’s because I can recognise what God is doing in them. It’s just a heartbeat away; it’s just one question away.’

I reckon that sums up Blue pretty well.

And here’s some stuff from Nigel (also used without permission, because it’s easier to seek forgiveness):

‘This is my bold thing: we are actually, in a minute way, changing the social fabric of New Zealand. We’ve had 50,000 brand new people through Crave in the past year. They’ve sat under Mary there (Crave’s amazing wall art); 75,000 people return. Those are big numbers when you view them as percentages of a small country. I think we are focussing on the neighbourhood, and we’re starting to see it work out. Now this thing’s happening next door (the tavern etc). We are not responsible for all these things, but I do think we are the catalytic stone-roller for something that other things pick up. And I go, that’s far more the point than being a church that congratulates itself for getting 500 people along. Is God thinking, you guys have almost got it but you’re missing the main thing? Is that the general attitude? Stay with what you’re doing but you don’t quite have the point? I genuinely don’t believe that. We’ve actually got the point — for what this neighbourhood needs and is. That would be our inherent belief.’

Sitting and working (or trying to, anyway) in Crave yesterday, and watching as hundreds of people came and went, interacting with staff who loved them and embraced them and let them know they were valid and valued and important, not just because of their trade but because of their humanity, I had to concur with Nigel. Crave (and Kind) have got the point of what it’s all about. Because it’s all about love. That’s all any of us need … to know there’s somewhere in our world ‘where everybody knows your name.’