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Sheppey Church - Beginnings

Brenda Riddle takes us back to the beginnings of Sheppey Evangelical Church.

Do you ever wonder who built your church and what prompted them - and why choose the site that it stands on?  For some of us it's an easy question to answer. Peter and I were there at its inception.

A little over 35 years ago God brought together a group of people living on the Isle of Sheppey and that's when our wonderful story began. George and Ann Wiggins had advertised in the local Post Office and the FIEC Christian magazine, inviting 'like-minded people' to meet them on a Saturday afternoon in September 1985, to see if we'd be interested in joining them in a time of prayer and to discuss what they felt about Christianity. 

There were approximately 16 of us, comprising mostly of small families. We didn't know each other. Some weren't Christians. Some had been wondering in the wilderness between churches for a while but the factor we had in common was that of a sense of restlessness or dissatisfaction. For all of us, our church experiences had been disappointing or upsetting. We weren't sure where this was taking us but as a result of that first meeting, we decided to meet again two weeks later at the Wiggin's home for informal worship. 

Led by George we kept meeting like this for a couple of months and a few more people joined us. We soon came to the conclusion that we needed more space. So we rented Leysdown's tired village hall, which was set among seaside holiday camps; an array of fish-n-chip shops, cafes and arcades.

Growing numbers 

The numbers continued to grow and in September 1986 an American couple with their four children put their heads around the door and asked if they could come in. They'd joined the mission field and were living in a small bungalow up on the cliffs. Their first assignment was to salvage a struggling Christian Book Shop no bigger than a garden shed and located on the mainland in Sittingbourne. They were also instructed to offer their services to a local Church. God was weaving together a very interesting church of people.  

Before long we decided that the village hall was not big enough. During the summer months we took the children across the road and used the bus shelter for lessons. It wasn't very satisfactory though with passing holiday makers creating a lot of distractions. The pub kindly offered us their bar-room, but that didn't work either. The new distractions were caused by two whopping great Alsatian guard dogs padding around looking menacing and the clunking and flashing of multiple slot machines, randomly kicking in and drawing on the children's concentration. What would we do in the winter we wondered? We needed a separate room for Sunday School.  

We moved to a large workmen's porter-cabin in a field. It had been sited there as a temporary community hall for a recently built housing estate. The children poured out of the estate and very quickly we had 40 children and several teenagers attending Sunday School.  

An unexpected dimension to our congregation were the prison inmates on work release, who were painting the cabin at the same time as we met for church. We were warned not to speak with them, but when the guards disappeared to the pub, they'd stop their work and listen to our services. Pretty soon they were making prayer requests and we saw God answer some of them too.

We held our first Carol/Nativity presentation that Christmas and the turn-out was phenomenal. We got permission for the inmates to attend and they in turn invited their families. As a thank you they made us a cross and a little offering box made out of matchsticks. Needless to say, the offering box quickly 'vanished' but we still have the matchstick cross on the wall.

The blizzards

January 1986 was the year that most of the country remembers being hit by severe blizzards. For us at the eastern end of the Island, travel was impossible. Twenty-foot snow drifts separated us from civilisation and brought down the power lines too. The army eventually dug us out about 10 days later.  

For us it was an exciting diversion. Everyone pitched in to help the elderly and farmers distributed bread and potatoes. There were no roads visible, therefore no traffic! Instead, a magnificent array of snowmen peppered the landscape. For our Florida friends, the Veldbooms, it was a disaster. Their bungalow seriously leaked snow and they didn't possess warm and appropriate clothing or footwear! Eventually, we helped them resolved these problems - except for footwear. No one had boots big enough for Don or their son Paul, so they had to resort to wearing carrier bags over their trainers!

New property  

Yet again, we needed to improve our church accommodation. We were spending too much valuable time creating a worshipful atmosphere each Sunday and the rent had doubled! Ann Wiggins recalled working as an office junior for Gilbert Kirby, who was now chairman of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion. So, she wrote to him asking for help for our fledgling Church. In response three trustees visited us and, to cut a long story short, they told us to find a property and they would buy it. The God-incidence of this was that the Connexion had recently sold two properties and the money wasn't ring-fenced. We'd already spotted two units in a little shopping parade. Our side comprised a fish-n-chip shop with all the frying equipment and a second-hand furniture shop which smelt of musty furniture.

There was a tremendous amount of work needed to transform this building into a place of worship for our Lord. Were the Hebrews as excited when they made the Tabernacle?  Were the masons as euphoric as they chipped away at the stones for Canterbury Cathedral?  It would take many chapters to detail the work we did - the practical gifts and meals, delivered by those who cooked better than they laid bricks, and the outrageous bargains we sourced to create what we have today. Every detail, from the ceiling to the floor, were blessing from God. However, the biggest blessing was the connection we made with our community, the love for one another that grew out of working for the Lord and the hilarious laughter as we laboured into the night. There are so many things that have happened over the years since then; what is recorded here is now only remembered by a few - but still too precious to be forgotten. 

Lasting friendships and memories

To this day we have treasured a firm personal friendship with the Veldboom's. They returned to the States after their three years of duty. A testimony to their serving hearts is the memory of them painting the church walls right up to the day before they left us. Since then, they have been instrumental in arranging occasional mission team visits from the US to help us in various outreach projects. 

Pastors have come and moved on. Peter and Joe were home-grown from within the congregation, but the man with the vision was George Wiggins. A modest man, much loved by those who remember him, now resting in the arms of Christ. We look forward to meeting him one day and remembering all the adventures we shared.

One of the overriding factors in the development of Sheppey Church was that each time we moved or changed our practices, it was borne out of a sense of dissatisfaction (a burr under our saddles). The lesson we've learned is that although God is unchanging, His intentions are to change and refine us into His image.  

Brenda Riddle

Sheppey Evangelical Church