Belonging and Hope: Offered at the Neighborhood Secondhand Store

By Tim Hoiland on June 27, 2016

When Bob and Keren Heppe arrived in London as missionaries in 1994, they could not have foreseen what shape their eventual ministry would take, but they had some inklings.

“Our team had the conviction that the church should present a gospel that not only offered salvation in terms of forgiveness and eternal life, but also provide the means by which broken image-bearers can become functional and productive in community,” Bob says. In addition to engaging in church planting, the Heppes felt led to provide economic opportunities, “particularly for people who didn’t have great education, who couldn’t get jobs, or were stuck in jobs that didn’t provide very much dignity or much purpose to them.”

As a way of building relationships and sharing the gospel, Keren and other teammates began volunteering at a charity shop (or secondhand store) connected to a church in Southall, a South Asian neighborhood in London. Soon it became clear that such a shop created relational and evangelistic opportunities.

“From those early beginnings we discovered people would come into the shop, buy South Asian clothes, and return week after week,” Keren said. In fact, the first member of New Life Masih Ghar, the church the team was working together to start, was a friend they initially met at the shop.

Through New Life Masih Ghar, Bob and Keren soon met an Indian young woman from Kenya named Muno, who had come to England to pursue a master’s degree. A Christian with a Sikh background, Muno was surprised to meet other Christians – primarily from South Asian countries – who had Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh backgrounds. Until this point, she had felt alone in her newfound faith.

When Muno completed her degree, she wanted to stay in Southall to serve in some way through the church. Simultaneously, a real estate agent who was well known to the Heppes was closing her office and offered her building to the team. The building happened to be in an ideal location, in the heart of the ministry area of New Life Masih Ghar, on a road where thousands of South Asians passed by each day. Feeling ill equipped but sensing a providential combination of need and opportunity, the Serge team opened the first ASHA Charity Shop in 2001.

ASHA means hope in several North Indian languages. “We put our ASHA sign up and local people recognized that it was an Indian charity shop,” Keren recalls. “They had never seen such a thing. Donations just started pouring in from Indian and Pakistani Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.”

The team had three broad goals for the shop. First, they wanted it to be a hub for evangelism and community in their ministry area. Second, they wanted to provide real jobs for people who needed them. And finally, they wanted to generate income for the kingdom; enough income to cover not just paychecks, rents, and utility bills, but also to fund ministry needs locally and in the developing world, particularly in South Asia, the place so many of their neighbors had once called home.

After hiring Muno, the shop started to build a customer base, selling secondhand South Asian clothing, accessories, and household items. Within a year, the business was earning enough to employ another part-time worker. Meanwhile their hopes for evangelistic opportunities were abundantly realized.

Today, ASHA has expanded to five locations throughout London and has 20 full- or part-time employees. Year by year, the shops are able to hire more people while contributing larger amounts to fund ministry locally and internationally. From 2002 to 2015, more than $130,000 has been donated to ministries in India, Pakistan, and Uganda, and more than $210,000 has gone to support local Asian Christian ministry leaders in London. This year they anticipate giving $90,000 toward ministry locally and in the developing world. Four of the shops are closely connected to local churches, with plans underway for additional ministry opportunities in conjunction with the fifth.

Bob and Keren are quick to acknowledge that this has happened through countless hours contributed by Serge staff in London and local church members.

The ASHA shops have become treasured community gathering places – for church members and neighbors alike. Sometimes, people stop by simply to have a cup of tea and to chat. “People may not be willing to go to a church, but they are willing to go to the shop,” says Keren. “We always play Indian Christian music, hold prayer meetings, and have Bible studies. Today we estimate that about 40 percent of the people in our church are connected through the shop.”

Pat Vander Waal leads some of the Bible studies hosted in an ASHA shop. She loves to see the way people feel at home at ASHA. “We’ve recently had a woman from North Africa who regularly travels quite a distance to come to the shop.” Pat says. “I asked her why she makes all of this effort to come in and she just said, ‘I love the atmosphere of the shop. It’s so warm.’”

Keren recalls that it has not been easy to reach this point. “I remember one day there was so much suspicion and unrest among staff that Bob and I had to come in, ask all the customers to leave, and call an impromptu staff meeting,” she said. “We were at a crisis point and even told the staff if things didn’t change we may need to close the shop. Fortunately that did not happen.”

The vision of hiring staff in need also has presented challenges. “We do not hire based on the employee’s existing skills,” Keren says. “Rather we seek to employ many people who have little or no work experience, but need a job. While people can learn quickly, it takes a while to adjust to having a work schedule, customer service practices, and working as a team.”

The ASHA shop is part of Serge’s broader Business for Transformation (B4T) model, which emphasizes combining business and more traditional missionary ventures as a way to share the gospel, mainly among least-reached populations.

Throughout the world, Serge missionaries have launched businesses ranging from a tourist/hospitality service, to a bakery, to small-business consulting services. Each of these ventures aims to provide avenues for missionaries to establish cross-cultural relationships in natural ways, while creating jobs for members of the community.

The B4T model is rooted in the belief that people need to not only hear the good news, but also to see the gospel demonstrated through just relationships, compassionate care, and economic blessing. That’s why each venture is a legitimate business, genuinely offering the product or service they advertise. Each business is also designed to become locally profitable, even if that is not fully possible at the outset.

Along the way, the Heppes sensed another benefit the ASHA shops could bring to their neighborhoods and churches. “In some ways, Christians who have a full-time vocational ministry career are a confusing example to the people we’re trying to reach and to disciple,” he says. “They see our lifestyle, and they get confused and think: ‘If I become committed like them then I’ll get paid.’”

Paraphrasing Paul in 1 Corinthians 9, Bob says, “I work with my hands because I don’t want people to misunderstand why I preach the gospel, and I don’t want them to say, ‘You’re preaching this because you get something from it.’” He continues, “If someone comes along and says, ‘I want to be like you, dedicated to Jesus’ we want to make sure they’re not saying, ‘I want to live off money from America’ but ‘I want to serve Jesus, and I’m willing to work hard to do it.’” While Bob affirms the practice of missionaries supported financially to preach the gospel, he also sees how being involved in income-generating kingdom business helps blunt the impression the apostle Paul was so concerned about.

In recent years, Serge missionaries in London have seen a growing number of asylum seekers come to their churches. Because they are not yet allowed to work legally in the United Kingdom, these families have acute financial needs. Fortunately, churches have been able to care for them – in part with money donated by the ASHA shops to a diaconal fund for that purpose.

Today Serge has an assessment process that potential “Business for Transformation” staff need to engage before coming on board. Keren laughs when she remembers the start of ASHA and acknowledges that they wouldn’t have made it through assessment, let alone moved on to found all of these shops. Yet today, they are consulting with others across the mission on ways to do similar work.

“People ask why ASHA is successful,” Keren says. “I just say, God’s grace and mercy.”

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About Tim Hoiland