Through autumn 2022 the sense of impending doom was palpable. Utility bills soaring. Food prices rising. Government support in limbo. Many of our churches were already supporting people for whom the bare essentials of life were beyond reach. The coronavirus pandemic had exacerbated the already existing loneliness and poverty epidemics.
Already weary from two long years of Covid disruption, and wondering what the future held for our congregations, was there anything churches could do?
So the District offered up grants for up to £500 and within weeks of the first conversations about how our churches could act as warm welcoming spaces, non-judgmental alternatives to being alone or cold, applications for grants started flooding in. Some were adaptations of existing activities – extra hours, wider advertising, making the switch from a price list to pay as you feel. Others were bold new experiments. Others still the spur to act on ideas which had been percolating for some time. As a District we have supported forty churches with warm space grants totalling £20,000.
Deacon Emily Hoe-Crook said: "Like many other churches there's been a mixed response – some weeks hardly any takers, other times we've had a fair few people and some really worthwhile conversations.
"We had the Cafe space at our disposal, and a small band of faithful volunteers, and a great Seated Exercise class leader who was keen to offer classes to run parallel with Warm Space. Additionally, I brought many board games from home, and we invested in an all-singing all-dancing license which allowed us to show films (plus cake... lots and lots of cake...).
"We've had several homeless people come to take shelter on one of our recently purchased sofas, have a slab of cake and some gentle conversation – one gentleman in particular likes to share his stories and introduce us to his style of gospel music.
"On one occasion a young woman came in seeking a safe space to talk, pray, and receive anointing with oil. This lady is a keen musician but doesn't have her own instruments, so she spent a blissful half an hour playing the grand piano in church – that encounter felt very much like an opportunity to show God's love, both through her and us.
"Another time one of our dear members who lives with Alzheimers was able to come with a friend and share in coffee and cake, much to the delight of church friends who don't get to see her very often – that was a delight.
"So, despite some weeks feeling 'slow', Warm Space at The Crossing Church has seen both familiar and new faces come inside for the warmth of hot drinks and fellowship, and we have seen that unique encounters can happen when the doors are open and the kettle's on."
Great Houghton initially opened at tea time one day a week expecting to attract young families on their way home from school. Sadly, this did not attract much interest so they changed their hours and now open from lunchtime onwards one day a week and it now busy every week.
One week, a young mother arrived with her two children and was very soon joined by another mother with hers. They pulled two tables together and the children went to play with the toys in the corner. After a little while another woman arrived on her own but carrying two small parcels in colourful wrapping paper. As the time went on, they were joined by other adults and children who all came and sat around the same tables.
A hot meal was served which everyone seemed to enjoy and then the final arrival was a person who turned out to be the father of the first two children (the birthday children) and he brought with him a cake and candles.
The few parcels on the table were opened with great excitement and then everyone in the room joined in singing "Happy Birthday" before the small party returned home. The volunteers felt privileged to be part of such a special occasion and to see so much enjoyment in the faces of the children and their parents.
The chapel at Birdwell also offers a warm space at the same time as it is open for Food bank collections which means the people attending can have access to many other services, IT, Dial, digital champions, to name a few. Throughout the day there are games, an exercise club, a prayer meeting and a Lego club. Of course, warm food and lots of fellowship is available throughout the day. This is what a couple of the regulars have to say.
Lee aged 47, "Over the last couple of months Warm Spaces has been a very big help in my life on arriving to the space I've always been greeted by good friendly people that were more than happy to help me with a warm meal every time, they helped me with food parcels and gave me help regarding my energy bill from getting too much to keep up with. Now I am getting a lot of help with benefits that I did not know how to claim by myself through the DIAL advisor at the Chapel, I'm so glad that some people do care these days, it has gave me hope that I did not really have before , I met new people every time I went who had similar problems to me and had a few laughs playing board games that I hadn't played in years, it's been a big help to me thank you."
Mike, "I have been going to the warm space project at the Chapel in Birdwell since it began. Going there has saved me financially on heating bills. Run by volunteers, I've always received a warm welcome. There's always a smile and welcome, a nice garden for summer and company if you are lonely or down of spirit. There is a debt and benefit advice service working out of the Chapel called Dial which helped me with my PIP claim. There is, also a digital champion's course which I've attended on occasion. This is a good place to be and is what it says on the tin 'warm'."
Dore Methodist Church joined "People Keeping Well in S17" in response to the coronavirus lockdowns. This co-ordinating group was established to identify and attempt to meet needs in the area, bringing together councillors, council officers and representatives of voluntary groups and faith communities. Being part of the group informed the opening of their Coffee Club, which became their warm space.
The warm spaces offered in the Rotherham & Dearne Valley Circuit have all been slightly different. The churches at Furlong Road in Bolton on Dearne, Central in Aston, St John's in Swinton, Clifton and Wickersley in Rotherham have all been opened up to support their local communities.
At Furlong Road we have offered games and fellowship, hot drinks along with soup and a roll. Furlong Road Church Steward June Walker said of their warm space, the feedback to her was "People have got to know each other better and understand each other better."
At St John's the church initially adapted their T-Junction which has been running on a Wednesday to provide the warm space in Swinton. As well as the usual coffee, fellowship, hymn singing and monthly communion, soup and a roll was added for anyone who needed it.
From the turn of the year the church at St John's have been working with the local community café Honeypot who were to lose their home in the local council building while refurbishment took place. This would have been the loss of a daily warm space in Swinton. Instead they have been housed in the church Monday to Friday and are providing this valuable amenity and warm space between 10am and 2pm.
Rev Jenny Park spoke of the Warm Spaces across the circuit. She said, "People have got to know one another in fellowship in providing the warm space".
Neil Harland, District Mission Enabler said: "The closer our church is to the heartbeat of our neighbourhood, the better chance we have of recognising its pulse. And the more likely community leaders are to treat us as a trusted partner. Investing in developing relationships of trust makes a difference. When did you last invite your local councillor to visit an event or regular group at your church? Do your stewards ever share a coffee with other local faith leaders? If there is a local community forum or resident's association, decide who from the church will show their face and report back. What if you stopped one thing your church does together and instead spent this time volunteering for local charities? If you use Facebook, join your local online community and comment positively on things other people have posted.
"Yes this does take time, but the result will be your experiments being more likely to hit the spot. Even in an increasingly atomized culture, the number and depth of local connections between our church members and our neighbours is vital for the impact of warm spaces or any other venture.
"Being shy is not unusual. Opening the door of a public building and becoming the guest of strangers can be terrifying. Deciding that today is the day I will leave my flat and make some new friends can require enormous will power. Especially if you have learned to live with being judged.
"Polite persistence has been key for many of our warm spaces. They have invited again and again. Streets have been pounded, posters attached to public notice boards, leaflets pushed through thousands of letterboxes. Personal invitations have been extended. Social media and websites have had a part to play too.
"Wording has mattered too. Emphasises have been tweaked, and positive reasons for coming articulated more clearly.
"At the time of writing, feedback from our warm spaces is still being collated, but it is already clear that collectively invitations have been accepted by hundreds of members of our congregations, hundreds more who don't currently join us for worship, and hundreds of new people we had not yet met before."