Hope for the Hopeless
What would you do if you arrived for a church service and found someone sleeping rough in the car park surrounded by empty bottles? Would you help them or tell them to move on? How would you react if you then discovered that person was the speaker?
This is just one of the ways Mike Curtis the founder of Gloucester City Mission alerted people to the plight of the homeless in the city, with the aim of bringing Christ to the marginalised and serving them in practical ways.
The first City Mission was started in Glasgow during the 1820’s by David Naismith, who believed that Christians needed to visibly share their faith through deeds as well as words. Today, the British Association of City Missions is a network of more than twenty such interdenominational missions across the UK and Ireland, helping some of the neediest people in our cities.
Mike began Gloucester City Mission in August 2003, however his connection with street people goes back several years to when he worked as a printer for Zurich Insurance.
“I was doing a lot of overtime and when people came up to me in the street begging I would get cross and tell them to get off their backsides and try to do a day’s work like I had to do.
“One day God challenged me about my attitude, and said ‘Why were you rude to these people?’ Suddenly I saw them from God’s perspective. I realised the beggars on the street were people who were so hurt and damaged there was no way they could do a day’s work. It’s like God took out my heart of stone towards them and gave me a heart of flesh, like he promised in Ezekiel 36:26.”
As a result of this revelation, Mike started to build relationships with street people. Initially, he wrapped up New Testaments in bright paper and handed two or three out at a time along with an encouraging card and a small amount of money. This progressed to going onto the streets armed with a haversack, giving out soup, coffee and rolls as well as tracts, Challenge newspapers and New Testaments.
Then what Mike thought was a job for life ended in redundancy and he had to face the question of “what now?” One day he had an encounter with a Methodist minister.
“We’d never met before, but he said “I really feel I need to pray for you”, recalls Mike. He laid hands on me and suddenly I knew I had to go to Bible College.
Mike applied to Redcliffe College in Gloucester. He had no academic qualifications, other than City and Guilds certificates from his time as a printer. After passing the entrance exam however, he found himself deciding to do the two-year Diploma in Applied Theology, despite having only the equivalent of a year’s salary as redundancy pay. The decision was to prove a turning point for him.
“During an Urban Mission lecture one day I suddenly thought: Gloucester City Mission – why don’t we have one?” he explains.
I wrote to various City Missions and went to visit the one in Birmingham. When I asked them: “Why isn’t there a Gloucester City Mission?” they said: “We think God’s telling you to start it.”
With the support of his wife Beryl, his home church in Gloucester and Redcliffe College, Mike piloted Gloucester City Mission through his second-year placement. Although the homeless problem in the area was quite big, there was a lot going on and the placement gave him the chance to stick his nose into every nook and cranny in Gloucester, and make contacts with local agencies working with the street people.
Beryl, according to Mike was the unsung hero in all this. “Setting up Gloucester City Mission meant putting our house and life on the line, but she has been great and behind me all the way.”
In the early days, Mike worked from a former gay pub in the docks area that had been converted into a government “one stop shop” providing advice and support to the city’s homeless. In these early days people initially thought Mike was an undercover policeman.
They would tell him: “I’ve never been in prison” or “I’ve never done drugs”. Mike felt he earned their trust and he said they would open up and ask for prayer about pending court cases, or the fact that they were on five bags of heroin a day.
Foundational to his work, however, was the spiritual dimension. He never gave food or drink without giving the Word of God, in the form of tracts, leaflets or Scriptures; but he also never gave out the Word of God without practical help. This might have been a hot drink and pie from his bag, or a full set of nightclothes and toiletries such as those he gave to a tramp admitted to hospital with bowel cancer.
Mike spent quite a lot of time visiting homeless people in hospital, or prison. The average life expectancy on the street is 42 years. Government figures show that they have higher than average risk of suffering from infections such as TB, hepatitis, and septicaemia, poor diet and nutrition, stress, depression, and musculo-skeletal disorders. Around half of single people on the street have a combination of mental and physical health problems.
All kinds of people live on the street, and Mike wept at many of their stories. A large number have suffered emotional, sexual or physical abuse and according to Mike, 80 per cent of people on the street are there through relationship breakdown. One teenager’s parents fought over who wouldn’t have him when they divorced; they each had new partners and no room for him in their lives. There are also professors, lawyers, engineers and businessmen who have turned to alcohol or drugs or suffered a nervous breakdown, often after divorce or family tragedy.
No one however has ever refused prayer. “Street people are very spiritual, in a New Age kind of way,” said Mike. “Some are into Wicca, whilst others embrace a bit of everything, and they think Jesus is a wonderful person. At times I feel like Paul on Mars Hill. You find they are quite ready to talk about spiritual things; whether they accept Jesus as God is another matter.”
Several people made Christian commitments through Mike’s witness, however discipling street people can pose big problems, he explained.
“It is very hard for the church to accept them and for them to accept coming into a middle class church. This is why a lot of City Missions had mission huts, which are supposed to be like halfway houses. Even so there are still difficulties integrating converts from a mission hut into the church.
The drug culture many of these people are in is a culture of its own where things like dates and appointments just don’t figure. You might arrange to meet on a Wednesday, but they don’t turn up and when you see them again they don’t know what day it is. I used to get angry but I had to learn it’s part of their lifestyle.
Some come to church for three months, do Alpha, disappear for several months and then reappear. You just have to go with it, and trust that God will eventually get hold of them. The first person I led to Christ on the street was a guy called Kevin, and I’ve heard he’s now back with his wife and children in Cornwall. But it is a long process; you don’t often get instant conversions or miraculous deliverances.”
A New Leader and a New Home
In April 2014 Mike decided that the time had come for him to hand over the reins to someone else as he planned to retire the following year. The search began for a suitable replacement. Amazingly within a few weeks Mike was approached by a young man, Dave Kinghorn, who was already doing a similar work on a Saturday evening.
2013 had seen some major changes in supporting housing in Gloucester as well as the closure of the Nightshelter. Dave saw a need and gap in provision for the most vulnerable in society and believed as a Christian he had a duty and an opportunity to make a difference.
With the aid of a few friends Project Beacon started with a rucksack and flask (very much in the way Gloucester City Mission did) going out on a Saturday night 9pm till 10.30(ish) to reach out to those sleeping on the streets, those in supported accommodation and those in temporary and emergency accommodation.
Dave says “It was mentioned to me, when explaining about Project Beacon and what it does, that I sounded like a young Mike Curtis. Unsure if this was a compliment or a criticism I sought out Mike and Gloucester City Mission. The comparisons were obvious and methods similar, it was also clear that Gods timing was on this and guidance was sought”.
Project Beacon has 3 main aims – to provide warmth through clothes, sleeping bags and blankets, to offer sustenance through tea, coffee, soup and sandwiches and finally to signpost people to agencies appropriate to their need.
Dave says “The exciting thing for me regarding Project Beacon was the chance to go out and show the light of Christ out on the streets in a practical way. We have had various volunteers come out with us since we started in December 2013, including non Christians (what a great way to witness), and professionals from organisations in the city. “
In 2014 they were nominated for a Heart of Gloucestershire award for Community Project of the year; they made the final 3 but lost out on winning the category. Not really a loss considering how far they had come, the links they had made and the work they had done. Dave said “In reality Project Beacon isn’t about recognition it is about helping people break the cycle of homelessness, it is about befriending in a safe and responsible way people who don’t feel listened to and it is about showing Gods love in a practical way to those in the dark. “
After much discussion and prayer Dave agreed to join GCM part-time and in November 2014 he started to work alongside Mike. They were able to have 6 months together before Mike retired in May 2015.
Dave says “Project Beacon and Gloucester City Mission working together excites me and I hope we continue to go from strength to strength helping those who need it, building relationships and seeing growth in Gods kingdom.”
Dave now splits his time between his other part-time job, as a housing officer with Gloucester City Homes, and GCM. Dave continues to run the drop in on a Wednesday morning, along with our large group of volunteers. He also advocates for the vulnerable and signposts them to appropriate agencies as well as facilitating training and running workshops on homelessness.
In January 2015, after the announcement of the closure of the Vaughan Centre, where The Homeless Healthcare Team were based, a vision was born to have a centre where everything could be under one roof.
Over the years that we have been active in the City there have been some partners that we have had regular contact with, who like us, have a burden to care for the poor and needy in our society. We began researching how we might work more closely with these organisations – enabling us to share resources but without compromising the fundamental belief that the love of Jesus should be made known to all who will listen, and that lives can be changed through Him.
To that end we came to realise that with our limited resources ‘we cannot be all things to all people’. Yet there were those in the City who were already servicing the needs of the hungry and those who are homeless and in need of medical care.
Gloucester Food Bank was one key partner and Gloucester Care Services (Homeless Healthcare Team) was the other one. With both of these partners looking for a permanent home we began exploring together whether we could reside under one shared roof and be more effective in serving those in need in this way. The concept of three major players working under one roof in serving the most vulnerable in our City but with each retaining their own operational identity, was very exciting.
It became increasingly apparent that the George Whitefield Centre in Great Western Road was where God was directing us. Numerous meetings took place and the landlord was sent a joint ‘Letter of Understanding’ from all three parties about their respective interests.
Early in June 2015 we put out a quick update to some of our close friends and supporting churches asking folk to pray for what we thought God wanted us to do. In writing in this way we were keen to share this exciting news and ask that they stood with us in seeking God’s guidance and confirmation that the path we thought was right and correct, actually was!
By the way things moved after that, God made things very clear to us as the landlord of The George Whitefield Centre heard of our vision and agreed to our three-way tenancy. Our identity was not compromised with this plan, only strengthened. The synergy of bringing these three independent organisations together under one roof creates a Centre where our work can be more effective and more needs met.
The needs of those we meet continues to stretch our limited resources but we could see that God wanted us to step out in faith and trust Him for what He had in store and on 2nd May 2016 we moved into The George Whitefield Centre. GWC is now open Tuesday & Friday afternoons from 2-4 pm as well as on Wednesday mornings. There are also showers, clothes washing facilities and a clothing store.
In June 2017 Nick Penney joined the staff team as Centre Coordinator. Nick has previously worked as the Operations manager for the Mariners Church, he will be dividing his time between his role at the City Mission and as the Operations Officer for Gloucester Cathedral. Nick has been volunteering with various organisations working with street people for several years and has a heart to help these people move forward with life. “I feel that my own life experiences can be used by God to really connect with the people who the City Mission supports on a daily basis”.
Further staff growth occurred with the addition of Kevin Howie in June 2018 followed by Paula Keepers and Lousie Wyatt in November 2018. In September 2019 we also employed a Volunteer Coordinator..