Whoever is kind to those in need honours God
Book of Proverbs
Where it all began
The story of Hope House began back in 2017 when the (then) Rector of St Thomas’ Church (Brampton), Matt Barnes, was driving down Ss Augustine Road in Chesterfield like he had done many times before. As he drove down the hill he encountered what he later describes as the closest thing to hearing the audible voice of God he had ever experienced. The message was simple “I want my building back”. As Matt came to the bottom of the hill the ‘Ponderosa Bed & Breakfast’ – a place many described as one of the least cared for buildings in Chesterfield in one of the poorest districts on one of the busiest roads, with one of the worst reputations – was up for lease.
To Matt, God’s instruction was simple and clear – God had plans to take this building and transform it – and use it to transform the lives of those who live there for good. A few simple enquiries with the letting agent revealed that a £40,000 lease was being asked for the building.
Matt knew that if God had spoken to him then it was a message for the whole church and not just himself. The best way to test this was to share his experience with the congregation and see if they thought he was crazy. One Sunday morning he began to dream a dream with the church – what would it be like to be a church that not only prayed for the homeless but actually gave them a home? How could the church be a people who not just sang about overcoming injustice and spoke about God’s love for the poor but actually put those words, and faith, into practice. So moving was the vision and so enticing was the prospect of ‘practical Christianity’ that the funds to secure the lease were given within a matter of weeks.
St Thomas’ may serve an affluent part of Chesterfield but this does not mean that those who attend are blind to the needs of others or unaware of their responsibility to those on the margins. The Church already supported the excellent work of ‘Church on the Bus‘ which reaches out practically to those who are homeless on the streets of Chesterfield and Matlock.
Also, a number at St Thomas’ had been privileged to get to know a young homeless man called Carl who ended up living in the church’s grounds for a number of months. Carl had his own amazing story. Wrestling with feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts Carl also heard God speak to him directly one Sunday afternoon out of the blue; the word simply said was ‘Thomas’. Carl got up from where he was sat in Chesterfield town centre and set off down the Chatsworth Road in search of ‘Thomas’. Stumbling across St Thomas’ Church Carl decided to see what was going on, he discovered the first evening service was in progress – he was nervous to go in but was befriended and invited to stay for the later evening service which he did. Here Carl had an encounter with the Holy Spirit in such a powerful way as he described as ‘the best high he’d ever had, way better than heroin!’. Carl detoxed from drugs and alcohol instantly. Because Carl was concerned not to lose the incredible sense of peace he had encountered (which he was afraid he’d lose if he left)
he asked if he could stay the night in the grounds of the church – he ended up staying for months in a tent behind the Church’s community centre. In that time he didn’t touch drugs, grew in his faith, reconciled with his family and began to think about finding his place back in society. Eventually Carl had grown enough in confidence to leave St T’s and for the first time in a decade or more he secured a flat. Unfortunately, because he was now living away from the community of St Thomas’ on his own he succumbed to the temptations of his old life; his body wasn’t used to that level of abuse any more and he sadly died. Many good things happened in the last weeks of Carl’s life and God clearly had hold of him but the reality was that Carl became lonely and isolated in his flat – accommodation alone simply wasn’t the answer. Had Carl been able to be a part of a more permanent community over a longer period then the ending to his story could perhaps have been so different. The church in Chesterfield did (and still does) many wonderful things for those in need -providing food, clothes, companionship, medical care … the missing piece in the jigsaw was actually having a long term place for the homeless to call home and a permanent ‘family’ to belong to. The concept of Hope House fell into already open hearts and minds.
Hope takes shape
As St Thomas’ already owned a trading company [STB (Chesterfield) Ltd] a small group within it was formed and plans were made to try and secure the Derby Road property. There was much to do! Those who did the due diligence report claimed that after they had visited the Ponderosa they all had to ‘go and lie down in a dark room’. The property was so dishevelled. All the professional advice was not to touch the building (or anything to do with it) with a barge pole but there was a real awareness that God had other ideas and so armed only with a strong sense of calling the church, through STB pressed on.
The transfer of lease was eventually secured and STB became managers of the Ponderosa in the summer of 2017, Hope House was born! The property didn’t come empty, there were 7 sitting tenants who were a super bunch of people, each with their own life challenges, being forced to face their difficulties alone. A key worker [Dawn Cooper] was appointed and these became Hope House’s first residents.
On the morning of Saturday 30th December 2017 an electrical fire broke out in the main fuse box at Hope House. Matt recalls being told of the incident on his way to the football. Beth, the project manager, rang and said ‘there’s a fire at Hope House’ Thinking this was a euphemism Matt asked the nature of the emergency and was plainly told – ‘NO, there’s a fire at Hope House!’ Thankfully no-one was injured and the damage to the building was confined but with no electricity and the need to rewire the entire building there was no way Hope House could continue until major works had been completed.
The decision was taken now the building was empty to pause the project and rather than try and do improvements ‘around’ residents as had been originally envisaged (mostly because there were sitting tenants who could not move) to not reopen until all building works and planned improvements had been completed.
Charred Ashes, Green Pastures
Despite everything practical being in place for such a terrible eventuality (and everything working as it should when it happened) having such a ‘major incident’ so early in the project’s life was a huge shock and massive knock in confidence for those involved. In the immediate aftermath of the fire much time was spent working with residents (many of whom had lived in the Ponderosa for years) in finding and settling them into new accommodation as well as working through a forensic examination of what happened with the fire brigade and Insurance company. Ultimately a faulty component in the fuse board which no-one could have foreseen was identified as the likely cause of the fire but nevertheless this still left Directors soul-searching and seriously contemplating if it was sensible to continue. The nagging call of God and the desperate need for this work remained.
Two things happened around this time that saved the project. Firstly, new Directors, amongst them Karen Riley (our current chair), came on board with fresh vision, energy, faith and hope. Incredibly they joined the project in its darkest days when everything looked fairy bleak and they were willing to roll up their sleeves and tackle the challenges head on. The second thing was a ‘chance’ encounter with Pete Cunningham from Green Pastures. Pastor Pete came and spoke with Directors and encouraged them in the Hope House vision. The ability to hear stories of similar projects around the country having such a positive impact was truly inspiring and to be reassured that the Directors and church weren’t completely mad in what they wanted to do gave a much needed boost to keep going.
Lessons were learnt from the first six months of operation and from the terrible aftermath of the fire. It was clear that much physical work needed to be done to the building to make it suitable for its new purpose, not just to repair the fire damage which was fairly contained but to remodel the building to be suitable for safe, modern living. The landlord was unwilling to make the much needed investment and initially unwilling to sell (which was needed for grant funding to be possible) and so an impasse grew delaying the project for a year or more. With few funds and no clear way of moving forward the project looked once more in danger of failing. Eventually the landlord warmed to the idea of a sale but Hope House (now it’s own charitable company) lacked the resources to complete the purchase and do the necessary works to upgrade the building.
The other thing that the first six-months of operation had taught those involved was how much they didn’t know about working with those on the margins of society! The answer to both these challenges came in the form of Green Pastures. After the initial meeting with Pastor Pete the Directors had maintained a loose connection with Green Pastures, and at this point it became clear that GP had all that the Directors needed to move forward – funding from GP to buy the property which would then be operated by the local team and practical knowledge and skill to help craft and support the project going forward. With outstanding assistance from Carl Good (GP Partner Liaison Team) a happy partnership formally began in January 2019.
With advice from Green Pastures an architect was engaged to help redesign Hope House. Barely a wall would be left untouched as the building was completely remodelled. The plans looked amazing but although partnership with GP had resolved the purchase of the property a lot more funding was needed to complete the actual renovation. So many stories of generosity and sacrificial giving by individuals and local organisations could fill this part of our history – we are SO GRATEFUL to everyone who supported us financially at this time. One story illustrates God’s hand of provision. A local Christian businessman, Matt Gavins, happened to be visiting a Trustee’s home. Noticing a cross on the wall they began to chat about their shared faith and Hope House was mentioned. Matt instantly saw the importance of this work and the synergy with other projects he was involved in helping to re-skill the homeless with new practical skills.
A generous gift and favourable loan from Matt opened the way for the plans to lift from being just architect’s drawings to becoming reality! Also through Matt came a contact with Chris Burley of Creative Building Projects Ltd who eventually tendered for and won the main building contract. Building projects can be fraught with difficulty and working with contractors can be problematic but working with Chris and his team was a total dream! We were pleased to receive the remodelled shell of Hope House, with work happening during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in December 2020.
Hope House was handed back to the Directors as a new building but with just bare plaster on the wall and not a single piece of furniture in place there was still much to do. The Director with responsibility for guiding the building and property work was Paul Willis. After an incredible job liaising with contractors Paul set about working with his team of volunteers over the next three months to redecorate the entire building!
With Covid restrictions in place this was not easy and Paul himself offered a super-human effort to get Hope House ready for people to use. He was not alone, others including our Chair, Karen Riley, and her husband Phil also did much to bring the building to a useable state. Working with Sally-Anne Beecham, who did most of the securing of furniture, Hope House started to look less like a building site and more like a home. Karen and others set about recruitment and the first staff team, able to offer 24/7 support to residents, was formed.
Open again .. the story continues …
For centuries, Christians have been at the forefront of working for the poor, the marginalised and the rejected. In doing so, they are following the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. Monday, March 29th 2021 marked the next big landmark in the history of Hope House as it opened its doors once again to receive referrals of those in need of its sanctuary. It’s been an incredible journey full of highs and lows – the golden thread throughout has been God’s faithfulness and calling and His unwavering commitment to see all of His children flourish in life and hope.