As we enter a pastoral vacancy Sylvia Owen shares an account of God’s faithfulness from over 100 hundred years ago.

The account is especially relevant for us today as we seek to repair the heating in the church and Swift Centre

I want to talk about West Ham Central Mission, of which this church was a part, and the 2 men who made the church what it became and continues to be. Those 2 men are Robert Rowntree Clifford & Isaac Saunders

Robert Rowntree Clifford was the Minister without whom this building would not be here. He came to Plaistow in 1897 to be the Minister of the Barking Road Tabernacle which still stands to this day and is now owned by the Glory church.

Robert Rowntree Clifford was a student at Regents Park College, a Baptist training college, which was then in London, in Stepney Green. He was twice invited to preach at Leighton Buzzard with a view to the pastorate there, the church badly wanted him to be their pastor, but Robert did not feel this was where God wanted him to be.  Then came an approach from the Barking Road Tabernacle here in Plaistow.  Robert came and made such an impression on the people that they invited him to conduct the Sunday School Anniversary.  They issued the invitation to him to be their minister and Robert accepted and so began his life’s ministry; for he remained here in harness at Barking Road in this church until the day of his death over 46 years later.

When Robert first arrived in 1897 the church had been through a very difficult period and he found just how difficult it was to be.  He said many years afterwards, how uphill the struggle was.  It wasn’t so much the £1000 debt they had on the building; it wasn’t so much that there was no heating fitted, but half the deacons had left and many of the church members.  He tried to get them back and went to visit a family only to have the door slammed in his face with the remark, we are respectable here, such was the early reputation of the Barking Road Tabernacle.

Robert needed to establish the reputation of the church in the district and to give fresh confidence to the members.  At the beginning of 1898 the debt was standing at £881 only £21 had been raised!

So Robert went to the congregation with his challenge that they would clear the whole debt by November 7th.  How could such a small community raise so much money in such a short time.  The people responded with enthusiasm and raised £600.  Which left a debt of £280 which in today’s money is around 1 and a quarter million.  Robert was bitterly disappointed, he had really believed the debt would be cleared and so he felt that God had not honoured his faith.  A friend urged him to make another effort to clear the debt, but Robert felt that he had already asked too much of the people and came reluctantly to the decision that after his 2nd anniversary in July he would resign from the pastorate.

Then just before the date fixed for the anniversary he received a letter from a complete stranger, which was to mark the turning point in his life.  The letter was headed ‘Broomfield’, Chelmsford, Essex and signed by Isaac Saunders.  The writer enquired whether the debt from the chapel had been cleared.  Robert replied telling him what had happened and that the church members were exhausted and could do no more.  He received another letter from Isaac Saunders promising him £15 if the people would make a last effort.  It was just before the anniversary and Robert had made up his mind that his resignation would have to go to the deacons that week, but believing that anyone who could promise £15 might be able to give more he set off for Chelmsford.  When he arrived at the station he asked for a house called Broomfield but was told that there was not a house but a village 2 miles out of Chelmsford so Robert began the walk to the village.  When he got to Broomfield he made enquires as to where Isaac Saunders lived, Oh they said you must mean old Isaac Saunders who lives in the cottage at the end of the village, so off Robert went to find the cottage, on arriving he knocked on the door and it was opened by an old man well over 80, wearing a leather apron.   Robert said he was looking for Isaac Saunders, come in the old man said.  I wrote to you yesterday and I am very glad to see you.  Robert entered a 2 room cottage and saw evidence of poverty, excuse me Robert said but did you really promise to send me £15 pounds, how could you afford it?.   You see sir, Isaac said I earn £30  a year out of that I set aside £6 for the lord’s work.  I have not done anything with it for 3 years, but since writing to you the Lord has told me to give it to you and with the extra £3.  He opened a box in the corner of the room and took out 3 gold sovereign’s which he passed over to Robert, take these and the fifteen pounds will follow.   Robert was quite taken aback, I can’t take this he said, you can’t afford it you need someone to look after you, ah said the old man with a twinkle in his eye females are expensive.   Robert left with a spring in his step and made his way to the station and getting on the train found himself sitting opposite an old sea captain, so excited was Robert by what had happened that he told the story to the sea captain, the captain said if you will carry on with the work I will give you £5.   Robert got the tram back to Plaistow and sitting opposite to him was one of his church members who had given very generously and he told her the story too, she said if you will go forward I will give you another £10.  At the anniversary, the church secretary decided to make another appeal to clear the debt, but Robert left the pulpit because he was too embarrassed to ask for more.  The debt was cleared and there was a balance of £76 in the hand.

And so; with thanksgiving for the past and the weight of the burden lifted from their shoulders, Robert and his people, set out together, to face larger tasks and greater opportunities.  But without the faith of Isaac Saunders this would not have happened.  Robert’s resignation would have been sent to the deacons and from a human point of view the story of West Ham Central Mission could never have been written.   And this church, this work and this building would never have been.