Rev Tracy Marlow, lead evangelist at St Helier’s Centre of Mission, explains why she feels God handpicked her to take his hope to such a deprived neighbourhood
I came to Christ when I was about 30. I walked past a building that I’d walked past many times before. And for some reason, on that day, I just looked up, and I saw these words: “Come to me, all who are weary, and I will give you rest” [Matthew 11:28]. I had three small children and a husband that was in and out of hospital and so I felt I’d always been weary. As I looked up, I wondered: “What does that rest mean?” But aside from once for a wedding, I’d never been inside a church building so it took about two weeks for me to work up the courage to go inside.
A woman named Marian was at the church door and she seemed so pleased to see me. I didn’t know whether you were supposed to bow as you entered or where to stand once inside – or anything else! All I knew about church was what I had seen on TV. But Marian made me feel really welcomed so I went a few times and took the children. Each time I felt welcomed and loved. At that point I still didn’t understand what they were saying from the front, but I felt it was a good place. There was a teenage girl in the music group and her face was glowing. I thought: “I want what she’s got!”
The Church felt – and still feels – really middle class
This was all pre-Alpha. I was introduced to a booklet and corresponding course called Two Ways to Live, which stated six key points: God created the universe; God created humanity; we rejected him; Jesus came; Jesus died; Jesus rose again. And we have a choice whether or not to accept these points. It was very black and white. I said to the woman who was leading me through it: “I’m in the middle.” And she replied: “There is no ‘in the middle’.” She went on to say that anyone doing the course is seeking or else they wouldn’t be sitting there. And so I prayed and asked Jesus to come into my life. And he did.
In the Mills & Boon romance novels, there is always a man who says he will die for you; the rescuer. And that’s exactly how I felt when I encountered God. I felt valued and loved and also felt hope for the first time ever. I’d literally never experienced hope before. But things didn’t change overnight. Almost all my life I had been surrounded by criminality and abuse; it was just how it was.
So there was still this big struggle. I read the scripture in 1 Corinthians 7:13-14, which says that wives should stay with their unbelieving husbands, but my marriage wasn’t good. It got to a point where I knew I had to leave. Now I was a Christian, I felt strong enough to get out of it and felt strongly that it didn’t disqualify me from God’s plans for me.
I started working at Church Army’s St Helier Centre of Mission in 2021 as the lead evangelist. When I first became a Christian I was working as a teaching assistant, although I didn’t have any qualifications. But the hope I had as a new Christian propelled me to start going for things previously out of reach. I worked for Soul in The City, an outreach initiative in Central London, I managed a youth group, led women’s groups and was involved in kids’ ministry.
I really sensed God’s prompting to work for his Church. But I come from a housing estate and the Church felt – and still feels – really middle class, with leaders often being university educated. Even so, I went up for ordination and, although I had never written an essay before in my life, I was awarded a distinction!
We run drop-in centres so rather than expecting people to come to church, we go to them. We run a café once a month where an NHS-funded doctor comes in to share information or help people who come in with questions. We know that if you go to your regular doctor you get ten minutes, and you’re only allowed to talk about one problem. But here you can talk about everything – including mental health and the menopause or whatever it is you need. We have representatives from the local council to offer advice on grants and benefits.
We also run a community choir, a Zumba class, a women’s centre and coffee mornings that anyone can attend. We find these provide great opportunities to have conversations about spiritual things and pray with people. Opportunities you might not have on a Sunday.
The hope I had as a new Christian propelled me to start going for things previously out of reach
As a church leader, it’s so easy to get burnout. It was a steep learning curve, because we hit the ground running, but Church Army has been hugely supportive. They have provided us with a ‘reflective supervisor’, who sits down with us to take stock of everything we are doing and advises us when we need to slow down. I’m also doing a course on effective leadership, which is about looking after yourself. As I’m giving advice in my community, I’ve realised that I really need to model it.
We encourage each other with what we see God doing here Last year we had 20 people sign up for Alpha from the local housing estate and then we baptised 15 of them in September! They keep coming back, they’re being discipled and they’re going out and telling others. That’s always going to be the greatest thing. We have this custom after every church service where we say: “Are you ready to go out and change the world?” and the congregation always shouts: “YES!”
Rev Tracy Marlow is the lead evangelist at St Helier’s Centre of Mission, which covers the St Helier Estate in the London Borough of Sutton. Built as a garden city in the 1920s and 1930s, the St Helier Estate is now recognised as having high levels of deprivation, unemployment, single parents, elderly people and people with long-term disabling illness. 31 per cent of all households with children are lone-parent households. Large parts of the parish are amongst the 20 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods in the country. The Centre of Mission’s focus is to bring Christian hope and life to the community. Find out more at churcharmy.org/mission/sthelier/