Hope Cirencester opened The Upper Room in 2008 with the aim of reaching out to people who had never been to church to show them that Jesus loved them in a way they could understand and relate to. Leader Kim Hartshorne tells how a cup of tea and chat can lead to a world of opportunities.
We provide a welcome and a place of acceptance. We felt that society has become quite fast moving and many people are isolated, not heard or noticed by anyone, especially those who are vulnerable. We felt Jesus would want to welcome them and so we became his hands and feet for that. We try to demonstrate Jesus' love for people - that they are each unique, valuable, precious and made in God's image.
We run a drop in space called The Upper Room above a shop in the Market Place, Cirencester. This is open on Monday and Friday mornings and that's when we listen and welcome everyone with a cuppa. We run meditation classes, eat out together and support local people and charities. Many people who find their way to us have never had any background in church and so we gently offer to pray if they have a problem, explaining that Jesus does care about the small things of daily life. We try and chat in a relaxed way about what the Bible says, but always offering space for disagreement or conversation. We are helping people start their faith journey and travel alongside them as it develops.
We have seen some amazing answers to prayers small and large. It is noticeable in the past year however that we have seen our visitors suffering greater pressures than anything we've seen before in the areas of finance, family issues and mental health problems.
As a registered charity, Hope Cirencester's aims are to show the love of Jesus and alleviate need and distress in Cirencester and elsewhere. It all started when a group of us we were praying for our town and we were really hoping to take church out onto the streets and just get involved in a missional 'day to day' sort of way with our community. We were praying for a building on one of Cirencester's estates but we didn't find one so we kept on prayer walking and calling out to God, 'Where do you want us to do this?'
Eventually an estate agent contacted us to say they had a set of three rooms right in the market place so we asked him for the keys and brought a team of about 12 people here, including some church leaders from other churches in the town. We prayed in the building for the morning and very much sensed the presence of God here so we felt that this was the place to be.
The Upper Room is accessible to those who wouldn't necessarily do traditional church because they feel it wouldn't be for people like them, saying it's only for people who are clean and neat and have nice clothes and drive big cars or whatever. A lot of our visitors are homeless or people with addictions, severe depression or mental illnesses, those who have perhaps suffered abuse in the past, people who just find it very difficult to access things that they just consider to be for the well-educated. Perhaps church is too 'intellectual' for them and they need to 'see' the Gospel demonstrated practically in order to grasp it.
So they come in for a tea or coffee and to talk to us about what's going on in their lives. We offer to pray with them, signpost them to other agencies, and go with them where they need to go or advocate for them if they need us to. Social justice is really connected to the gospel and so when Jesus comes to someone, you would expect to see changes in every area of their life – and that's why we just try and look at where Jesus really would begin to work in their life and we follow on from that. For example we have supported mums learning to read for the first time, sent someone away on holiday for a break, we supply starter boxes to people moving into a refuge and fill up flasks of coffee for homeless people in the town.
The Message translation that says, 'The Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood', is talking about Jesus transforming whole neighbourhoods when he comes. So we work really collaboratively with all the other churches, charities, Citizens Advice, local council - everybody that will have a connection with us in order to go and try to build bridges for the sake of the Kingdom.
I'm inclined to say The Upper Room is like a mini branch of social services combined with a prayer room and a coffee shop; just like the church in the Victorian era built schools and eradicated slavery, and Anglo-Catholic revival 'slum priests' ministered to the poorest people. Instead of a binary way of thinking that is 'either/or', for us, it's 'all/and'. That to me is a sacramental view of life – everything belongs to God and so we are 'being' church in everything we do.
We don't have a Sunday expression at the moment but it seems that the Spirit is leading us to consider that and we're really praying and brainstorming and just waiting on God to see what will bubble up. I'm sure something is coming, we don't know what it's going to look like yet, our team is still waiting - but God has gone ahead of us and has a plan.
Our people seem to want things that lead to belonging, they want to be together with each other and be together with us so people will say things like, 'Why don't we go out for a curry?', 'Why don't we invite some people in?' or perhaps we'll have a birthday party for someone. On Easter Sunday we gather at my home for a BBQ to celebrate our belonging – to Jesus and to one another. We're open to all of that because belonging is a big deal in today's society; belonging is such a huge part of faith to me and if we can help people to belong and to feel safe, to join in community and in family together we'll have already done so much of the journey towards the gospel, towards Christ.