Family-owned cafe burns down and local church steps up

Orange Uniting Church really loves its neighbours

Aaron Wright got a surprising call at 11 on Easter Monday morning.

Owner of Café Latte in the main street of Orange, in rural New South Wales, Aaron had his public holiday interrupted by a neighbouring shop owner. A small fire had started in the flat above the café that Aaron and his wife Emma established more than a decade ago.

Nothing really to worry about, though, was the assessment by the end of that unexpected phone call.

Half an hour later, Aaron decided to head over for a look to see what was going on.

About two hours after getting that 11am call and as firefighters worked to contain the blaze, Wright watched as the fire in the building “exploded”.

“It just went absolutely nuts … It [went] through the ceiling of our café and that was that.”

Café Latte was gutted. So were its owners.

“It was pretty devastating because we’ve been there for 12 years,” Aaron tells Eternity about the fire which he’s been told was caused by an electrical fault. “So [it was] just watching 12 years of building it up and hard work, go down the gurgler.”

Over the back fence of Café Latte is Orange Uniting Church. Bob Nash is one of those blokes who is heavily involved with his church and local community, being everything from pastoral care supervisor to chair of the church council. Bob has known Aaron and Emma for yonks and he rapidly opened up the church’s carpark on Easter Monday for the fire trucks to take best position.

It was obvious to Bob that the Wrights’ business was in strife, a tough break for anyone, let alone a couple with young kids. So, within days of the fire, Bob called to make an offer Aaron had not even had time to dream would come.

“What about using this room as a temporary set-up for your café?” Bob put to Aaron. The room being offered was a meeting room that is part of the church property, located right next to the church’s full commercial kitchen.

Bob knew Café Latte also did a lot of catering, so he and Orange Uniting Church’s council thought their set-up could help the Wrights to quickly rebuild their business from the smouldering ashes.

“We knew the guys from the church but we were very surprised by the offer,” Aaron says. “It’s just not something we had thought of; we were still probably in a bit of shock … but we were very grateful.”

Within a fortnight of the fire, Café Latte re-opened in the church – with rent generously charged at a rate proportional to the Wrights’ turnover. Having been in its new home for a few months, regulars are returning to Café Latte – and Bible study groups at the church report they now get the best coffee they have ever had at their weekly meetings.

Cafe Latte at its new premise, Orange Uniting Church.

Aaron was a bit nervous at the start about whether long-standing customers would want to come into the new premises. “We have a lot of tradies and [we wondered], ‘Are they going to come in? Will they support?’ But they are. They’ve started to come in and it’s actually been good … Anyone that has come in, I don’t think they have been turned off [by the church].”

The Wrights are still waiting on the insurance process to indicate when they might return to their fire-ravaged premises. The whole ordeal has been tough, Aaron admits, but he is convinced it would have been a “long road back” if Orange Uniting Church had not reached out. The church’s offer has left quite the impression on Aaron about the Christians he now shares workspace with.

“A very good one, of course. It’s not that I had any bad thoughts but, yeah, you realise they are very generous and kind people. And they’re really easy to get along with.”

“Our church has a heart for the community and for people outside of the church.” – Bob Nash

Bob Nash sees the Cafe Latte relationship as a door opened by God to live out Orange Uniting Church’s explicit aim to reach out. The church is looking for opportunities to practically demonstrate its love for all its neighbours in the regional centre.

“Orange Uniting Church has decided to be totally focused outwards, not inwards,” says Bob.

“We want the community to know that Orange Uniting Church cares; it’s not just a church that is closed apart from Sunday and that its people just look after themselves.”

This outward focus has been a deliberate and “significant” shift during the past five years, since the three separate Uniting Church congregations in town began to come together.

Taking a few years of planning and decision making, two out of three UCA church properties were sold – and one congregation was formed at the start of 2020. Proceeds from the property sales are going towards renovations of the church where Cafe Latte now resides, as well as other projects linked with investing in the people of Orange.

“Our church has a heart for the community and for people outside of the church.”

Along with transforming its church building to be better able to host community events, Orange Uniting Church has a long-standing ‘Mustard Tree’ program that provides meals for less advantaged people. It also runs a Community Centre three days per week with Fusion, a Christian youth and community service. “It’s a safe place for people who are having difficulties or problems,” describes Bob about a “chat and cuppa” space often frequented by people who are unemployed, or affected by drug use, or having family issues.

“… We made this positive decision to be more Jesus-like.” – Bob Nash

You can hear in Bob Nash’s voice how pleased he is to be able to support Aaron and Emma Wright. Not simply because it was a decent thing to do, but primarily because it’s a prominent way to put Christian faith into action beyond the confines of habit, tradition or insular practice.

“What we felt is that our religion and our churches had become tied down with rules and regulations … But when we look at what Jesus did when he walked [on earth], he didn’t spend his time in the churches. He spent his time among the people, in the places which were said to be places of sin.

“He spent his entire time caring for those who were less fortunate, people in need.

“So, we made this positive decision to be more Jesus-like and look out for how we, as a congregation, can be disciples of him and be servants of anyone who is in need.”

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