If you’re ever peckish and feel like a bit of meaningful, theological debate on a Wednesday evening, ordering a grilled cheese sandwich from Text a Toastie to your door is probably your best bet. It’s a wet, Wednesday evening and I’m on my way to a house somewhere in the shadow of Hartley Library, temporary headquarters for the Christian Union’s most ingenious marketing tool, where evangelical exegesis meets Subway.
The system’s simple. A dedicated team of volunteers takes turns to sit with a little Nokia as dozens of questions on the meaning of life come through with names and addresses. In super-quick time, details are written down on Post-It Notes and slapped on made-to-order toasties, wrapped up in foil and couriered off to various locations around Southampton. All will be revealed.
With my housemate and a camera, we arrive about 15 minutes late, stepping in from the rain through the back door into the kitchen. It’s quarter to 9 but they’ve already got 11 orders, the toastie machine busy at work. The room is a buzzing hive of bright lights and laughter. On a TV in the corner, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is playing in the background.
Having been on the receiving end a few times, I decide to see the system at work for myself. With rucksacks full of toasted sandwiches, bicycles borrowed, and an obligatory prayer, we pedal off into the night for our first order. Christmas might come but once a year, but the guys and girls who volunteer at Text a Toastie are pounding pavements every Wednesday throughout term time. Generally destinations are in halls or Portswood, but occasionally orders come from further afield:
“Going all the way to Archers Road can be a bit of pain. One time we had an order from all the way down in Ocean Village. We had to call them back and ask if they actually wanted the toastie.”
Arriving at the gates of Glen Eyre our questions are asked and answered with some interest, although I get the feeling that the novelty and promise of free food is more appealing than finding out the respective patrons saints of Estonia, Latvia and Poland, particularly when the answers are only a Wikipedia away. The two CU volunteers provide an interesting definition of ‘patron saint’ however. I can’t really remember the details but the answer to each was “Jesus”, and all parties concerned were fairly satisfied.
Cycling back to HQ – downhill, thank God (?) – and we meet the CU President, 2nd year Ollie Jeffs, who is only a few months into his reign. Their recent ‘Big Issues’ initiative proved extremely successful, catering lunch for around 250 people and packing out the Cube where others have failed time and again. It’s just one of the ways in which the CU lives up to its status as one the most active and engaging societies at Southampton.
The large majority of the Christian Union’s budget funding comes from local churches, supplemented by offering from the members themselves. It’s on this that Text A Toastie operates. On around £30 per week, the Wednesday trip to the supermarket sees dozens of plastic bags stuffed to brim with packets of sliced ham, tins of pineapple and boxes of tomatoes. It’s a well oiled machine of foil wrapping and butter spreading, and as I’m reminded, apparently selfless. Ollie tells me:
“The CU is the only society that’s not for its members. It’s for its non-members.”
This point stays with me for a long time. Past Fresher’s Week, how many other societies can claim to dedicate so much money and time to attract students who are, at least statistically, stubbornly uninterested? With the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies launched in 2009 to garner unity and momentum behind a quietly brewing anti-religious sentiment across university campuses including our own, it must be harder and harder to run a religious society.
Yet difficult questions are something that the CU relishes. With a subject as sensitive as religion, there’s a guaranteed allotment for cynics. Yet my conversations with the members I met were a far cry from the unchallengeable, infallible image of religion that is portrayed as so common by the self-dubbed ‘anti-god squad’. The President of the Atheist Society texts in every week, religiously. “He asks great questions!”
Dialogue and debate like this, not preaching, is surely the healthiest way of running a society. Faced with such an uphill struggle, and I imagine all that effort to deliver free food to smart-arsed students who have no desire to listen must be pretty demoralising; but the volunteers take it in their stride, getting through an average of about 3-4 orders a night each. In an exemplary display of PR and self-promotion, the society has reached hundreds, if not thousands, of people around Southampton this way, down to its persistence and increasingly large membership.
It’s a sobering thought; that realisation that there’s another world out there beyond the realm of lectures and lashminas. While many among us make frequent evening pilgrimages to nefarious Portswood vice dens, invariably singing popular power-ballads from the 1980s, such as Journey’s hit single Don’t Stop Believing, or the theme song from the Lion King, whilst respectively expelling and imbibing (every so often simultaneously) a heady concoction of vomit and snakebite until our petrified eyes roll around in our brains, our systematically battered and enfeebled livers weeping for mercy, bodies bloodied, sweaty and broken, but happy… somewhere, somebody is pedalling uphill through the rain to deliver someone a ham and cheese toastie in return for an (often facetious) question about Jesus. But maybe, just maybe, the same sense of masochistic satisfaction applies.
“Some weeks we only get round to doing about 30 orders a night. One night we managed 260. Even if all they get is a toastie, that’s something to be happy about. We’re told to serve and love and it’s all about spreading love. Jesus said ‘Love others as I loved you’ and if Jesus could just give someone a toastie, I reckon he’d be pretty happy”
Perhaps we’ll never find out what Jesus’s favourite flavour of Skittle or preferred pizza topping was, or what size sandals he wore. Maybe nobody really knows who would win in a fight to the death between Christ at the controls of the Millenium Falcon and Thor, mounted on the back of a Velociraptor. That would be close to call by anyone’s standards, not least a 2nd year geography student.
In conclusion, the Christian Union gets a lot of stick where it probably doesn’t deserve it, and somewhere between all the polemics and prayer, heartache and denial from all parties, the lasting impression is that Text a Toastie is run by a bunch of really nice people who have a genuine desire to do some good in the world. In spite of differing opinions, surely handing out a bunch of free food to students can’t be that bad? Can it?
Text a Toastie runs every Wednesday night during term time from 8pm. For more information click here.