Vili Costescu is one of the three people behind the Sabbath Sofa project, where passersby in a busy London shopping area are invited to take a rest on a sofa, talk about what makes them tired, and consider taking a break from the world for 24 hours every week. He talked to Spectrum about the genesis of the project and how it works.
Question: You are the creator of Sabbath Sofa, a community outreach program where you take an Ikea sofa, place it in a busy shopping area in London on a Saturday, and invite people to sit down and take a rest. Where did this idea come from?
Answer: Let me say from the very beginning that I am not the creator of the concept — I am the engine of it. I am privileged enough to have two other pastor friends (Sam Neves and Sam Gungaloo, the guy you see in all the videos talking to people on the sofa) who are the creative minds of the team. I am more of an interpreter, the guy who is translating an idea into practice. The Sabbath Sofa has been a team effort from its inception.
Where did the idea come from? It's difficult to say — you would need to hear us talking to get a glimpse of how ideas are born and developed. I would not take any credit for the project and I can assure you that all other team members would say the same.
However, the question "How can we revive Adventism to its initial level of relevancy for the world it operates in?" was making all three of us lose loads of sleep. We love our church and we are not prepared to attend its funeral in Europe yet — not until we have exhausted all possible solutions. That's the background of the Sabbath Sofa idea and how the project was born.
Question: Can you describe what your thoughts were and what happened the very first time you tried the Sabbath Sofa concept?
Answer: We were all excited and worried at the same time — excited to see our dream coming true and worried about how it would end. I was probably the only one in our group with previous extensive interaction with non-Adventists.
Imagine yourself going to a country where you know no one, you don't speak the language, you have no previous contacts in that country and you hope, against all odds, to find someone who you will be able to talk to. You arrive and surprise! You realize that all the people are friendly and that they kinda speak the language you do. And then you feel guilty for your pessimistic thoughts.
Question: How long has the Sabbath Sofa project been running, how often do you go out, and how long do you expect to continue the project? How does it work practically? Who helps? Has it been duplicated anywhere else?
Answer: We started in May 2013 when The Sabbath Sofa was launched as part of Mission to the Cities - London's bigger project which is run by the Trans-European division.
We aim to go out once a month, but the weather in London is not exactly optimal for outdoor activities. As a result, we are now exploring the idea of renting spaces in the big malls in London where we could potentially operate on a daily schedule. We hope to run this project long term, until we get a better idea for promoting Sabbath rest.
Practically, it works like this: we set up a day and a location to go out with the sofa. The next step is to get permission from the local authorities for the location and the day we would like to go, which sometimes takes weeks. Provided that we've gotten the permission and the weather is not too bad, we put the sofa in a van and take it to the designated location.
Two people hold signs that read "Are you tired? Have a seat" as two or three others invite passersby to take a seat on the sofa. Most people accept the invitation, especially when they see the camera, and they sit on the sofa. Then Sam takes over by asking for permission to film the dialogue.
"Are you tired? What makes you tired?" are the icebreakers. We have not had one single person on the sofa say "No, I am not tired at all.” Everybody is tired: tired of work, study, shopping, news, war, injustice, and the list goes on and on.
The dialogue ends with the following: "Imagine this concept, an ancient concept which we call Sabbath. For 24 hours, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, you switch off your phone, email, computer and simply relax, spending quality time with dear ones, leaving all worries to worry for themselves. How does an idea like this sounds to you?"
The answers we get are: "Amazing, can't believe it, that would be awesome, it sounds like heaven.”
"Well, we would like to encourage you to try it for yourself. Please take a card with our website and contact information if you would like to learn more about the Sabbath. By the way, would you mind if we take a picture and post it on Facebook? Please tag yourself in it and let's keep in touch.”
And the next passerby sits on the sofa and we start over again.
Listening to all these people's stories as they share their lives with us is an exciting experience. I remember the very first time we went with the sofa to Marble Arch in London. One of the first people who sat on the sofa had just been laid off that very day, and he was so thankful to hear words of encouragement from us.
The minimum required team is five people: The interviewer, two sign holders, the cameraman and the photographer. The ideal team is seven, with an additional two, who would talk to those who are waiting to sit on the sofa or with those who don't have time to sit but would like to know more about the concept. We are always accompanied by young people who love the project and want to be involved.
We've had queries from the States, Canada and South Africa. At the moment we are working with the Danish Union, a Conference in Romania and a group of enthusiasts in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We hope to report to you soon that the Sabbath Sofa is being replicated in many places.
Question: Londoners are pretty good at avoiding proselytizers, beggars, etc, who accost them on the street. Doesn't this make your project more difficult? When people realize that you are just another religious group looking for a way in, do they get annoyed? Do you invite them to church, give them literature?
Answer: The Sabbath Sofa is not a religious program, and our aim is not to invite people to church or to make converts or to distribute literature.
Our message is simple: you, Londoners, have a problem: tiredness. But, don't panic, we have the solution: the Sabbath.
Because of this simplicity, we have not annoyed anyone yet. One thing that one may find it intriguing is that 90 out of 100 who sit on the Sabbath sofa don't even know what the Sabbath is. Unless one comes from a Jewish tradition or they are very educated in Jewish studies, the majority of Londoners don't know what Sabbath means. People want to learn more about the concept, not to prove it wrong or right, and we are here to share with them our own stories abut the Sabbath and inspire them to experience it for themselves.
Question: Has the project been successful? How do you measure success? Can you tell us any interesting stories of people you have met?
Answer: I would like to believe that the project has been successful if those whom we've challenged to experience the Sabbath did. This would mean our mission has been accomplished.
How do we measure success? I personally use numbers to measure success. I know some may disagree, but to me it is important to let as many people as possible know about the solution God gave for tiredness from the very beginning. Even on social media I measure success in numbers of likes, comments, shares or video views. So far, all my expectations and dreams have been put to shame by the responses we have received. In this respect I would like to believe that the project has been successful. However, every day I raise the bar so we will never stop dreaming about developing the idea into something more.
As for stories about people, we have quite a few. Sonnje is a German lady who came to visit England for the first time last year. You can watch the entire conversation with her on YouTube here. Not only did she keep in touch with us, she was happy to give us permission to publish the whole interview, which is a statement in itself. If you would like to spend five minutes watching the video, make sure you watch every second of it, especially the last five seconds.
What is really inspiring about the story of Sonnje is that after speaking with her when she got back to Hamburg a few months later, she told us that she had found a different job that enabled her to have weekends off to spend time with her family. This was so inspirational because we spoke about this topic with her on the Sabbath Sofa. We don't know if she made her decision based on the conversation we had with her. However, we know that she understood the concept of the Sabbath and we would like to believe that God led her to make this change in her life.
Question: Do you recommend that others try out Sabbath Sofa in their own towns? I first heard about your project when it was mentioned at the GC annual council in October. Is the GC hoping to replicate it?
Answer: I am not sure this project would work in every town. We tailored it for London. I would imagine it working in big cities, but not necessarily in small towns. I generally don't believe in the 'one size fits all' principle; however, if one would like to replicate the project or the idea, we are very happy to share tips, principles and stories that would help people in their endeavor to do the Sabbath Sofa project in their town. I don't know about the GC's plans, but as I mentioned, the Trans-European Division owns the project and is faithfully investing in its development.
Question: Any other interesting past projects, or new ideas for future ones?
Answer: All the Sabbath Sofa team members are also involved in the Heroes The Game project. We hope to launch the Android version of Heroes The Game as well as the Romanian, Hungarian, Hindi and Chinese versions of the game.
Question: You are a pastor and a digital media expert. How do those two things go together?
Answer: I cannot imagine Adventism, and any religion for that matter, surviving in today's media dominated culture without digitally savvy pastors. In the past, a missionary was willing to move to a foreign country and learn another language for the sake of spreading the good news of the Gospel with the people of that foreign land. To me, using digital tools is like speaking another language that is understood by billions of young people across the world.
Question: You were born and raised in communist Romania. How does your background influence your faith and your work today?
Answer: We are all shaped by the circumstances in which we were brought up and educated, and I am no exception. I remember growing up confused about the Sabbath, as my parents sent me to school on Sabbath to avoid unnecessary persecution. It is a long and painful story, but God has been good to me and by the time I was 15 or 16, I made a personal decision to keep the Sabbath at all costs. This was during the last years of communism, which were also the worst of all 50 years of its domination in my country. It was not exactly a walk in the park; I was insulted, mocked and mistreated because I had different values in life, because I was a Christian and would bow down only to a higher authority than the Communist Party and the President.
The most intense part was during the last couple of months of 1989 when I was serving in the Air Force right before the Revolution. I was severely punished because I stood up for my beliefs, including the Sabbath. In spite of all the hardship, those years were the best of my life because they shaped my faith in God and taught me to depend on Him for every step I took.
That's why the Sabbath is so dear to my heart, and I am so eager to see The Sabbath Sofa project developing into a special tool to share God's gift of rest to as many people as possible.