Walk down Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Here East, along the River Lee Navigation and there will be a barge named Genesis bobbing on its waters.
It’s where the local community of St Columba meet and fellowship with Reverend Dave Pilkington at its helm.
“We have a gathering called The Journey,” Pilkington told Westminster World and elaborated that the meetings are on Thursday evenings. “So it’s not a traditional service. We work to the themes of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.”
“We do that for everybody so it’s not for people who necessarily have an addiction. We see it as a fantastic spiritual programme for growth,” he said.
The St Columba community have been meeting at the river for the past two years on a different boat. Architects Denizen Works were commissioned by the Diocese of London to build Genesis as a dedicated space for the community to meet.
“It’s been a lovely space. It’s very different from a church because some people won’t step into a church because they don’t feel comfortable, they may not feel accepted, they may not feel they’re good enough for whatever reasons,” says Pilkington.
The barge has a retractable roof so it can pass through bridges. But when it’s raised, the design mimics organ bellows and lights up like a beacon.
“It’s very attractive so people come by and they’ll ask me questions if I’m on board,” said Pilkington, adding that it’s a great conversation starter for him to engage with the locals.
People from all sorts of life and different beliefs are welcome on board as the reverend describes St Columba as an open community.
“What we’re trying to foster is a real open space where people can grow in their spirituality and their emotions, and the way they interact with God, others and themselves,” he said.
Keeping the community afloat during lockdown
Genesis was delivered to St Columba on 19 October 2020. On 2 November, England went into its second lockdown.
“I think we had four weeks in between lockdowns,” Pilkington said on how long the community met on the new barge. “We could meet together, which was great but limited numbers just so we can still maintain social distancing.”
In the first lockdown, which ran from 16 March to arguably 15 June, Pilkington kept up the Thursday night meetings via Zoom and call people up.
“Some of the people don’t have families or some are self-isolating on their own. So as much as possible we would either call or Zoom people just to sustain contact and keep that community spirit up,” he said, adding that new people would join after walking past the boat or are brought in by their friends.
“People realise how important community was when communities are taken away. I think it was lovely for people to come in and find a space where they could belong, where they could be heard and where they could be seen, even in the lockdown.”
The second lockdown hit harder on the growing community.
“That felt harder because we knew what to expect. So I’m glad we can go back and have services on a Sunday and go back to being on the boat on other days of the week.”
Where will Genesis sail next
The Diocese of London commissioned the Genesis to be a vessel that helps to build and support communities around areas near canals.
Its plan was to have the Genesis moored at Here East for three to five years before moving on to the next community.
As he was ordained in 2019, Pilkington is on a curacy for three years with two more years remaining with St Columba.
“I don’t know beyond two years what I’ll be doing, sadly,” he said. “It depends on what the Church of England wants to do.”
“Currently, I’d love to stay. I’d love to continue to build the work that we’re doing. I think it’s really valuable.”
At the moment, the reverend plans to have another session on Tuesday night and a youth programme with ages 16 to early 20s on Wednesday. The youth programme will run in collaboration with St Mary of Eton church.
“We really want to make it accessible as much as possible,” said Pilkington.
“It could be something that could help the church more broadly engage with people and help them. I think there’s a lot of hunger for people to engage with spirituality.”