"We always looked at this house and thought "that’s amazing'" continues Robb. "One day I ran across the road and said to the owner “You’ve got the best looking house in Stanford. If you ever sell it, I live over there." I didn’t even ask his name, I didn’t tell him my name and I thought “the kids will leave home, Sally and I can rock around in there as a retired couple, that’s going to be amazing, we’d love it”. I didn’t think any more about it, that was August time, 2006. It was summer. In early December there was a knock on the door, Sally answers, and the guy says to her “your husband wants to buy my house!”. I hadn’t told Sally about it, I remember her shouting up the stairs: “Rob!!!" So I came running down and the guy says “you want to buy my house?”.
"And he said that when Robb had first approached him, he walked back into the house and said “it’s time to sell”. says Sally, pausing for effect. "He never put it on the market."
Robb and Sally found it impossible to sell their own house, which didn't seem to make sense as it was a sought-after type of property in that area.
"So we couldn’t sell, and then i remember him phoning me up ranting “you were going to buy my house!" and I said “don’t worry, our bank manager’s coming on Tuesday, it will be fine”. I have no idea why I said that. This was pre-crash days and the bank manager came in and I explained to him the situation, and he said “well, do you want it?” We said “Yeah”, and he said “well sign here and its yours!”".
Robb and Sally then found themselves with two houses, and having to trust God to meet their financial needs. "So we took this step of faith to do this. Christmas we got the keys, embarrassingly we had two houses, but we had no heart to really move in here...we were not comfortable with pursuing commercial rent, we didn't feel peace at doing that. Whoever moved in there we wanted it to be a blessing to them. But we felt like God sent “don’t”, even though it’s a massive amount of money. So that March, our friend came and said “have you thought about making it into a boiler room- a prayer house”. And we just knew. We both knew that second. “yes”."
At that stage their community was not too familiar with 24-7 Prayer, but they opened their doors as a prayer room on 1st April 2007. "We didn't know what we were doing" laughs Sally.
At the beginning, they simply met to eat and pray together and welcomed guests to come and stay. They learned as they went along. People wanted to use the boiler room for birthday celebrations and parties, and the house quickly became buzzing with prayer, community and celebration.
"We thought “I think this is it, I think this is the Kingdom and it was really exciting". We weren’t unversed, we’d been in church forever, but there was this new sense of God opening new doors for us. So we were praying, and we were practicing community. And we read Dietrich Boenhoffer’s stuff on community and we thought “Yes, this is it!”. And it was something that was seeded in us when we were eighteen, nineteen, this is what we wanted. And we just started to gather people. And people were coming alive." explains Sally.
"It was about fanning back into flame" continues Robb. "I think one of the early gifts of the Boiler Room, was that people who were lukewarm Christians, people on the edge, they were fanning back into flame something that was alive in them. It was dormant in them but now we were fanning it back into flame. And I think that’s where individuals came and prayed, and we wanted to pray corporately as well, so we started to build in all these 24-1’s. 24-7’s. Individual prayer slots. Praying after meals. This was something people wanted to do and it gave some real life"
The fledgling Stanford Boiler Room adopted the six core Boiler Room practices of Prayer, Mission, Justice, Hospitality, Learning and Creativity. They recall being nervous at the visit of one of the 24-7 Prayer leaders at their first visit to the boiler room:
"We thought he was going to be Boiler Room hotel inspector!" says Robb. "Ok, Hospitality, yes you are covering that! Creativity, could do a bit better. Learning, yes you seem to have that together. So starting now, you can put above the door “24-7 Boiler Room, 2 stars”. That’s what I thought. So Pete Greig [the founder of 24-7] came down, and we sat across the row, I’m on a little stool, sitting at his feet. I said “Pete, we just got this boiler room, what do we do now?”. And he said “I have no idea”. And I was devastated. I said “If you don’t know then I’m sure we don’t know”. So then we realised we were doing something really pioneering. And pioneering something is scary".
One of the things that strikes me about Robb and Sally is how down to earth they are. They have no heirs or graces, and their honesty about the Boiler room Journey is refreshing.
"Sometimes it feels good, “we can do anything!” and other days “we don’t know what we’re doing!”." says Sally.
They talk about some of the pain caused when they left the church they had been part of for decades, and how they could have handled it better. But now, their relationship with their former church is thriving, and they are fully supportive of what they are doing. It was a tough process, but as I listen to the story, I can't help thinking of what Jesus said about new wine needing new wineskins. It seemed obvious to me that God was doing something new, and the Boiler Room was the appropriate wineskin to hold that new wine.
Impacting the community
After being established, the Boiler Room soon got busy reaching out into their community. They hosted teams doing the 24-7 Prayer "Transit" course and one of the students, Charl, ended up moving back to Stanford soon after and, incidentally, would become the Harmans' daughter-in-law.
Robb has for many years been a governor at one of the local secondary schools, Gable Hall. His good standing with the school opened doors for the community to partner with the school. Robb and Charl soon found themselves meeting with the head teacher and asking "how can we serve you?". They began with organising and running an after-school café once a week, which the head even insisted they put a prayer space in! They regularly have over two hundred pupils through the doors.
We joined the team as they ran the after-school café. There is a snacks and drinks menu, but the main draw seemed to be the free toast. I was quickly put to work transforming slices of thick-sliced bread into hot toast ready to be buttered by Sally to meet the demand of hundreds of hungry pupils. Other team members were chatting to students, praying in the prayer space and selling drinks or handing out food. It seemed that sixteen loaves had met their match with a horde of ravenous teenagers. Many students just came, ate and left, but others lingered around, wanting to talk and connect. Some were eager to use the prayer space too. In Stanford Boiler Room, everything revolves around teamwork and every person being actively involved, and that ethos was eminent here.