Victoria Armstrong is the founder of the Oasis Centre in Gorton, Manchester. When she first moved there as a student, she could never have imagined the vision God would give her
It was a love of Chanel makeup that first got Victoria Armstrong to move to one of the most deprived areas of Manchester.
“I got a place at Manchester University to study fine art embroidery, and I needed to find lodging somewhere; an advert of a flat in Gorton seemed to leap off the page at me. It was very cheap, something like £32 a month! I loved Chanel makeup, so if I took it, it meant I could still afford a Chanel lipstick now and again.”
Victoria’s flat was two rooms above a local bank. One day a brick was thrown through her window when she was brushing her teeth; there were drug deals outside her house, prostitution and fights. But there was turmoil within her flat too.
“I was in an abusive relationship and life was falling apart. One night I remember looking out the flat window, thinking: ‘What if I jumped? I wonder if I’d just break my legs or whether it would end.’
“Then I remembered a prayer that we used to pray at school and started praying it:
Lord keep us safe this night
Secure from all our fears
May angels guard us while we sleep
Till morning light appears
That’s when I heard what I now know was God speaking to me. He said: ‘If you don’t find me now, you never will.’ I replied: “I haven’t got time to find you. I’m in a horrific relationship. I’m failing my degree. I’m just in a mess. Could you find me?”
Victoria then fell asleep. She got up the next morning and set out for university. A lady went up to her at the bus stop and out of the blue asked if she wanted to go to church on Sunday. “I said no politely, got on the bus, but then another lady came and sat down near me. She looked at me and said: ‘You need to come to my church on Sunday.’ I told her: ‘I think the church is full of hypocrites; it’s not really my thing.’
“Then I got to my first lecture and two girls in front of me were talking excitedly about something called CU. I asked what it was, assuming it was a nightclub, but they said: ‘It’s Christian Union, would you like to come?’”
God was saying to me: ‘I love this community; I’ve brought you here for a reason’
In the space of half an hour, three different people had invited Victoria to a Christian gathering. She ended up going to the Christian Union, and in the third meeting had her eyes opened to Jesus. On her way home, she felt an urgency to ask him into her heart.
“I remember putting my bag down at the bus stop and saying to God: ‘Lord, can I come into your heart? That’s all I said, but at that moment, I know I was filled with the Holy Spirit.
“I remember feeling so safe. I felt I needed to tell someone what I’d done so I ended up telling my boyfriend, and we split up not long after.
“When I became a Christian, I noticed the poverty all around me in Gorton with fresh eyes. God was saying to me: ‘I love this community; I’ve brought you here for a reason.’”
A vision caught
Victoria had met Andy through her sister and become good friends with him and a year after she became a Christian they got married – on 16 January 1994. They now have two daughters, Emily, now 27 and Abigail, 25.
“When Abigail was three months old, Andy was preaching at different churches and I was at home feeling very sorry for myself. I said: ‘Lord, you know I am sold out for you. I recognise how amazing you are; you’re doing something remarkable on your planet, and I am stuck at home. Is this it?’
“I felt God’s say: ‘Get a pen and paper. I’m going to show you some stuff.’
“I went and sat in the kitchen with a pen and paper, and God showed me a building pulsating with his unconditional love. I felt it. It was eternal, complete, perfect, wonderful, never giving up, safe, strong, defiant love pumping down every street, avenue and cul de sac. Nowhere was overlooked.
“I felt God say: ‘There are people in this community that have been horrifically abused. They will never come into church because of what they’ve experienced. I hear their cry; this building is going to be the mother to the motherless and the father to the fatherless.’
“On the Sunday, I shared the vision at church, but then nothing happened for years. Five years later I’m wrestling with God, saying: ‘You gave me this vision!’ The Holy Spirit whispered: ‘You’re not ready yet.’
“In the waiting, God was teaching me character through being a mum, being a wife and journeying with Jesus.”
The vision birthed
Then, on a cold day in February 2001, some asylum seekers went to Victoria’s church. One was from Angola and his nose was bleeding because of the cold. He was in shorts and T-shirt.
“I was thinking: ‘We need to get him some warm clothes’, and then I heard God say: ‘It’s time.’” So Victoria asked her pastor whether the church could be opened on Wednesdays in order to help those in need, such as asylum seekers. He said “Absolutely” and that is how the Oasis Centre started.
Everything that we do now was born out of listening to people; it was very organic and very slow
“At that time God said: ‘Don’t presume to know what this community needs.’ So I began the journey of loving, listening and learning. Everything that we do now was born out of listening to people; it was very organic and very slow.
“After five years we outgrew that space and needed a bigger hall. So we started using the community centre in the centre of Gorton. I thought we’d be there for about a year or two but we were there for 15 years!
“In those 15 years, we learned what we are still learning: to live like Jesus. I’ve had to apologise so many times to our community when I have got it wrong.”
Getting a permanent base for Oasis
“In 2005, during the first couple of years of Oasis, I remember standing outside our church looking over at this old bank that was almost opposite. I prayed: ‘God, I’d love that to be the building pumping out your unconditioned love.’
“I felt God say: ‘It’s yours, and you’re going to get it for a pound.’ So of course, I told everyone, but nothing seemed to happen with it.”
Victoria then got a letter from someone high up in Manchester City Council saying: “We know the good work you do. We know that you’re interested in this building; we’d like to give it to you for a pound.”
“But in 2010, the government changed, and the new government said to us: ‘Actually, you can’t have it for a pound, we want £380,000 for it.’
“I was devastated as we didn’t have that money, but continued working flat out supporting people. Then in 2013 I felt to prayer walk with my senior team around the building. We walked around praying for seven days. On the last day, when we were finishing, I felt God say: ‘I want you to pray for a Christian planner and Christian surveyor.’
“That was the Wednesday and on the Thursday, I was at home, writing a funding bid when I felt the Holy Spirit say: ‘I’d like you to go to The Message Trust for the day and just pray.’
“I was reluctant and remember saying: ‘Lord, if I don’t do this funding bid, no one else will!’ In the end I went, and in the Message café I met two ladies – one recognised me as she had heard me speak at her church. It turned out one was a planner, and the other’s husband directed a surveyor’s company. They both now work for Oasis! They came on board and, not long after, the council wrote back to us, saying we could have the building for a pound.
“The building was on a 1.6-acre site, but it was all derelict. Our new surveyor suggested I ask the council if we could have that for a pound too. They said yes. Since then, 26 rent-to-buy houses have been built on that land, helping those in our local community.”
Time to move on
“In 2018 my husband and I went on holiday. I felt God say: ‘It’s time for you to step back. You’ve done what I asked you to do.’ I told Andy: ‘I am not going to be running Oasis anymore.’ And he said: ‘God’s told me I’ve got to step down from leading our church.’ So, we were both left thinking: ‘Wow, what’s God got for us?’”
Victoria never guessed that she would be diagnosed with cancer, have a double mastectomy and hysterectomy, then chemotherapy. “But he promised never to leave or forsake us and, through that awful time, I have never been more in love with Jesus.
“I am in recovery now, and what God is calling me to do is to resource the Church. So far, I’ve worked with 23 churches around the UK, and I always say: you start with prayer, a kettle and toaster. Open your doors, and watch what God will do.”
*This is a going home time prayer for some schools, but also a recognised Church of England prayer.
In 2015 the Oasis Centre received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. For more information about the Oasis Centre go to: oasisgorton.org