Why I answered the call back to my roots
Helen Robertson has ministered to prison inmates and girls in the sex industry, but now she’s come back home
Sitting in a broom cupboard in Bethel Church, Oldbury, sevenyear- old Helen Robertson became a Christian.
Little could she imagine that 40 years later, that broom cupboard would become her office!
And she certainly didn’t expect that she would become pastor after almost 20 years ministering to prisoners, prostitutes and addicts.
Helen’s move into ministry began when a friend’s death in the infamous Lockerbie airline bombing spurred her to fully commit to her faith.
“I’d taught in Sunday school, been to church all my life, but my friend’s death made me realise I wasn’t sure where I’d be if that had been me,” Helen says.
“I had this real sense I needed to get serious about God. That night, I recommitted my life to him. I left banking and went to Bible college.”
After studying, Helen began working at Stafford Elim and became involved in outreach.
“Stafford Elim is right by the wall of HMP Stafford. I stood outside the gate and sensed God say, ‘I don’t see the wall and I don’t see the gate.’”
That same week, a lady from the church asked if Helen had thought about prison work. She felt moved to respond and went on to become a part-time prison chaplain.
While rewarding, the work was far from easy.
“The wins were few and far between, but our constant presence there was vital. We saw guys changing their focus and getting ready for life on the outside. There were funny moments too.
“We had Mission Praise songbooks and the guys would ask, ‘Can we sing the arsonists’ theme tune?’ I’d ask what they meant. They’d say, ‘That one that goes ‘blaze Spirit blaze’!”
After three years at Stafford, Helen became a pastor at Coventry Elim and began volunteering for a charity, Embrace, which supports marginalised women.
“We’d drive around the red light district in a car laden with food, hygiene bags and hot drinks. We’d chat, listen and pray with the girls. We offered basic support and worked with the police and other organisations to help them.”
Helen tells of heart-breaking life stories and sadness when women died. But others transformed their lives.
“One night, a girl had robbed a factory and was driving around uninsured, off her head on heroin. I drove her home. She got into rehab and off drugs. Today she’s a criminologist and lecturer in New Zealand.”
Then, in 2014, Helen sensed God calling her back to Bethel Church, Oldbury.
She had visited the church in 2010 and been shocked at what she saw.
“I remembered the church in its heyday. Now, the church was worn out from ministering to the community. Almost absentmindedly, I said to the Lord, ‘I’d love to get my hands on this.’” Three years later, Helen received a call asking if she would consider becoming the pastor at Oldbury. Remembering her prayer, she agreed.
Since then, life has come full circle, with Helen working to nurture faith in the church which fostered her own. To restore the exhausted congregation, she fought expectations to launch a big programme. Instead, she built relationships.
“I just wanted to love them and help them in their faith, families and church life. They’d been so faithful in staying and so active serving the community, but faith is supposed to lead to fruitfulness and instead there was an awful fatigue.”
Helen also decluttered the building to create a clean, functional and welcoming church.
Numbers are growing, with 35 adults increasing to 90 and 2 children rising to 21.
With her congregation in a healthier place, Helen and her team are now gently redeveloping community outreach. The church has a blossoming Alpha course and strong links with other local churches. “I wholeheartedly believe in serving the community, but I’m mindful that anyone can open a nursery or youth club. No one else can be the Church,” she says.
“When you lose the Church and the spiritual dynamic of worshipping together because everyone’s tired from outreach or the building is a tip, what are we saying?
“We’ve worked hard to turn that around in Oldbury. Now, people say, ‘It feels like we’ve come home.’”
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