"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" asked Nathaniel to Philip at the beginning of John's gospel. "Come and see" said Philip. The same question was in my mind as I got ready to spend a week with a 24-7 Prayer community in deepest Essex "Can anything good come out of Stanford-le-Hope?".
I decided to go and see.
Stanford-le-Hope and Corringham are two conjoined towns just 10 miles from where i grew up in Essex, England. Despite their proximity to my hometown, I don't ever remember visiting. I had no reason to. The A13 highway bypasses the town on its way to London, and friends of mine would dismissively call the town Stanford-NO-Hope. It was somewhere I would glance at from the car as I whizzed by without giving it much of a second thought. For those of you not familiar with Essex, the county is one of those places whose much-maligned inhabitants have given rise to endless jokes, with the overplayed sexist stereotype "airhead" Essex Girl and gelled-haired, lowered-suspension car driving Essex Boy providing easy one-liners for comedians struggling for material. It's politically conservative, but brash and loud and opinionated. There is even a not-too flattering reality TV series called "The Only Way is Essex" which only serves to confirm the cultural stereotypes of people who have come into money but not had the class to match. So, to hear about a new community-transforming prayer community springing from the depths of my home county was something that couldn't help but spike my curiosity.
I have been journeying with the 24-7 Prayer movement for the last sixteen years, since its humble beginnings in Chichester, England in 1999. Six or seven years ago I began to meet people with familiar Essex accents at the annual 24-7 gatherings, and heard more and more stories about this dynamic Boiler Room community in, of all places, Stanford-le-Hope. I had got to know the leaders and original pioneers, Robb and Sally Harman, and now at last I had got the opportunity to sit down with them and hear the whole story.
"We were just turning forty and we were just at that stage where we were talking together, praying together and thinking things through- what does the Kingdom of God look like?" explained Sally "And how do you grow? And you get to forty and you were going to change the world, but you haven't. So do we give up? Go on amazing holidays and look after ourselves and have a great life? Which was one option. Because it’s not worked, it’s never going to work, you might as well just drink champagne everyday and carry on with life. Or should we have a further push-in to what all this God stuff is about?".
The fact that the Harmans and their friends chose the second option is the reason I and my fiancée found myself here with the now thriving Stanford Boiler Room to experience life in the community and to discover the story of changed lives and a changing town.
"We thought…our God is bigger than this, there must be more than this" says Robb. "And maybe we had matured and grown as Christians, but we were definitely in a plateau phase. We were about to drop off the end of the church we were in, thinking 'there must be something wrong with us. We need to go and find God and then come back'. And we shared that with a few other people, and they said “we feel exactly the same”. We were thinking “it’s us”, and we didn’t want to hold people back. And then there’s other people saying “we feel exactly the same”".
We are sitting in a beautifully decorated living room in a large, high-ceilinged old house, I imagine from the 1920s or 30s, set back in a large garden just off a main road in Stanford. Robb and Sally are a combination of motherly and fatherly wisdom, hospitality and straight-talking, combined with a youthful exuberance and childlike belief that it's possible for a few people to change the world. They excitedly interrupt each other as they tell the story of how they acquired the house as a base for the 24-7 Prayer Boiler Room.
"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.
After they begun running the cafe, the chaplaincy ministry soon followed.
"They gave us the troubled kids to meet up with, we would take them out of lessons, sit with them for an hour, hand them back, we were given five kids a day each, so ten hours." said Robb.
As a testimony to the simple effectiveness of the chaplaincy, Robb tells a story of when he and Charl went in to talk to senior teachers in the school. While they were discussing chaplaincy, the head teacher exclaimed about one of the students they had been seeing "this boy, it's like...like he's had an encounter with Jesus!".
"This is a very troubled family in Stanford. He’s the first of three sons to actually attend a normal school. And through 24-7 he got through school. Just.".
This is just one of many stories the Harmans share of changed lives through 24-7 Prayer's partnership with the school. Their chaplaincy service was even mentioned in Gable Hall's latest Ofsted School Inspection Report as being "particularly helpful" to the students.
During my visit to the community I was invited to join some of the community in a weekly course they have been running for some of the students. The Aspire Course is run out of the Boiler Room's second property, known as "Number One", which was my home for the week. The Aspire Course came about as a way to constructively help some of the students in danger of expulsion to be able to learn in a different environment, and is staffed by members of the 24-7 Community, led by the talented Charl. The thing which really makes this special is that none of the team are trained teachers or education experts, but have an enthusiasm and genuine desire to see the students succeed and believe in themselves.
The day we join them, the students arrive, exactly how you would imagine a group of disengaged thirteen and fourteen-year olds to arrive. Some are chatting and joking and winding each other up. One girl sits down in a foul mood, arms folded, face scowling, not wanting to have any conversation. The team are unfazed and skilfully manage to calm them down and get them talking and interested. After an interactive teaching session, complete with a film excerpt, we continue on to a music studio in nearby Tilbury, where the main day's activity is taking place.
The studio manager seems well suited to dealing with groups of excitable teenagers and finally their motivation appears from the midst of apathy as they set to work on learning how to build loops and rhythms on a computer and record themselves singing (and rapping) over the top. They also get to go crazy on the studios drum kit, and my heart warms when I see the girl who was previously scowling, break out into a big smile which lights up the room. This may not look like regular education, but I think it serves perhaps an even more important purpose right now- to help the students to believe that they have talent, and are worth something.
Later on in the week, we join Charl and her team for another course they are doing to help a few Year 11 students who have already been excluded from school through their final year of GCSE´s. Each week they take them through lessons from a curriculum on Health and Social Care. The environment is different, more adult, but the same passion and care for the students is evident from the staff.
It strikes me that, for a town like Stanford, this is what community transformation looks like. Sitting down and investing time in small groups or individuals that desperately need the attention, love and care they are not getting elsewhere. School pupils from the café and prayer spaces have already been drawn into the community and have found faith. It was a privilege to sit down with a girl from the school and have communion later in the week, knowing that it was the love and faithfulness of the Stanford Community that had helped her to find faith in Christ. They don't go in, all guns blazing, trying to preach at people. But they carry something infectious, a passion and love for Christ, that is bringing peace and hope to the community.
Meals and Multiplication
At the heart of the community are prayer, shared meals and hospitality We were invited to four meals over the course of the week. The community has multiplied and now consists of two Boiler Rooms, just called "217" and "Number 1" after the houses in which they are based.
Sally shares the story of how the community multiplied to become two.
"So we kind of had this vision. And we were at about thirty-five at that point. So we thought we should start another boiler room".
They talk about a natural group that seemed to be forming within the community, which they describe using the analogy of a rib, from the Biblical creation story where God forms Eve from Adam's rib. It's the same DNA, the same essence but at the same time a whole new entity, not a clone.
Robb continues the story: "So literally we kicked them out of the house and said “you can’t come to house meal, you can’t come and pray. You can have your own house meal, you own little prayer time. We used to pray for twelve hours on Friday nights and first of all they were in this wilderness area. They were praying where they should be in this town and then pray about where they were going to meet. So they ended up believing they should be in an estate over by the school where there are a lot of students, and should be getting involved with the college. A lot of them were living out that way, so they felt that was the place to be".
Once again, God provided a property as a base for this new community in a surprising way. Sally was chatting to a local businessman, who had some inheritance money after the death of his father. His kids had been helped by the 24-7 community. She told him the story of the first house and he was blown away. He then offered to buy a house with his inheritance and rent it to them. Nine months after the second community started, they had a house ready to move into, the same length of time as a pregnancy, Sally points out.
It's this house that now provides my accommodation for the week. It is a semi-detatched house typical of this area, but has been decorated with care and attention for a particular focus on hospitality, a value held at the heart of all the Boiler Room does. Visitors are allowed to stay for a maximum of two weeks, as long as they take part in the community and spend time praying in the specially dedicated prayer room on the ground floor. My bedroom is welcoming, with clean sheets, towel, an alarm clock, a welcome leaflet and a comfy bed. It would not be out of place as a commercial guesthouse, although Corringham is not the kind of town in which I can imagine there being a great demand. There is a kitchen downstairs and large living room for community meals and meetings.
Over the course of the four meals (two with each community) we get to meet a diverse bunch of people of all ages and backgrounds. The house is certainly alive with people, prayer and hope. One particularly articulate ten year old boy talks to me about his family. He comes with his mother and siblings to one of the community meals "We don't have a religion" he explains, "but we like coming here because of the people. We usually leave before they pray!". I'm encouraged that this is what God's kingdom looks like. Once people make a decision to follow Jesus, they are committed as disciples with everything they have, but the welcome of the kingdom is inclusive and extended to others without condition.
The prayer room in the house, is utilised for a day of 24-hour prayer at the end of the week. I always feel at home whenever I walk into a prayer room anywhere in the world, and this one is no exception. In fact, the multiplication of prayer rooms around the community is the long-term vision. We had already got chance to go to the nearby village of Horndon-on-the Hill and meet Lisa Anderson, who, along with her husband Phil and their family, have a heart to see a similar community form there. Lisa runs an art gallery in the village and they are already becoming established there, meeting for prayer in the local Anglican church.
"Obviously we would love to see two, three, four boiler rooms in five years, I would hope. Honestly I couldn’t imagine one, I couldn’t imagine two so I’m just going with what I’m sure God’s saying will happen" says Sally.
But it is not a vision of trying to lure people out of the wider world and into church. The vision is for church to become part of the very fabric of the community:
"For me..our heart has never been that the school kids come and join us. We want them to have church in that school. So we want them to be praying in school, serving in school, worshipping in school, being missional in school, learning in school. That’s what I want. There’s fifteen hundred people in that school and we want them to function as church. If that is happening then they go home to their mums, dads, grans and families are impacted. Someone talked to me about a tipping point- there’s a percentage. It was something like fifty or sixty people, if they are really on fire for God in that school, it’s inevitable that there’s a real move of God. That’s what I think we are looking for. The prayer house then is a place people go to, function, have a meal with friends and encourage them to go back."
Reflecting on my impactful week with 24-7 Prayer Stanford, the thing that really inspires me is the incredible influence a small group of people who seek God can have on their community. I have been to countless meetings where people cry out for revival or think to trigger a move of God we need more services or meetings. The story of this community is quite the opposite. Pray, eat together, share life in meaningful relationships and then go out and in any small way you can, love and serve the people of your neighbourhood. It will look different for every community, but the principles are the same. Seek God, love each other, actively serve and love those around you, whatever the cost. In the midst of this, faith is found and people come alive. Robb and Sally Harman and the others in the community are just normal people like you and I who have decided not to hide their light under a basket. They didn't need to travel to the other side of the world but decided to make a difference where they were. My hope and prayer is that as you read this, you will be inspired to do the same.