I’ve had such an amazing journey

Sitting in a Norwich court, passing judgement time and again on young women working as prostitutes, magistrate Theresa Cumbers felt she could no longer carry on.

These women were the same age as her daughter. Their punishment was a fine. The way in which they were going to fulfil that fine was to carry on doing the very thing they were being prohibited from doing. If they didn’t pay the fine, they would go to prison.

It was a self-perpetuating problem with no one attempting to break the cycle. Theresa felt God calling her to take that step.

“I knew for certain that I was on the wrong side of the bench. My place was alongside these women, helping them not punishing them.”

It was 1992, and with two other magistrates who were similarly motivated, she formed the Magdalene Project. With five staff and 25 volunteers, the project reached out to women on the street, provided a drop-in centre and gave basic educational training. Many lives were changed and relationships were built with other similar groups and agencies, including

Beyond the Streets, which now has more than 55 groups working in the UK. Theresa has since spoken about the work to groups and organisations, and written a book about her experience called Low Cost – High Price, giving a moving account of the women she met and the challenges she confronted in her own life. She was born in the East End of London at the beginning of the Second World War, the youngest of seven children. She remembers air raids, and she also recalls hearing the sound of the Salvation Army band every Sunday afternoon marching down the street. She’d run out to join them and would be given a tambourine to play. “No one else in our family ever had anything to do with church, but I learned the old hymns and songs,” she says. “From those dear, old-time Salvationists I learned that Jesus loved me.”

But it was a tragedy later in life that led Theresa to make a commitment of faith. She was 42 when her husband was killed in a road accident and she was forced to bring up her two young children alone. There were problems in the insurance claim, so she was left with no money and forced to find an income. Through a friend, she became a partner in a mortgage and insurance brokerage, and took on duties in local professional organisations and as a magistrate. She had been attending meetings of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International (FGBMFI) shortly before her husband’s death, and it was after hearing one of the testimonies there that she gave her life to the Lord. She later saw her two children also converted through these meetings, and now most of her family are members of the Salvation Army. Excited by all that God had been doing in her life, Theresa remembers praying a prayer in 1989: “‘Whatever you want to do with the rest of my life, I give it all to you.” Shortly after, the business was declared bankrupt, she had to stand down as a magistrate and she lost everything.

But little by little the family gained a beautiful old farmhouse as their new home, financial needs were met and Theresa was able to carry out the work with the women in Norwich whom she was so desperate to help.

“My story is a good story,” she says. “It is a hard one, but I’ve learned that even when our emotions are hurt, we’ve got a strength and a hope in the Lord and the Holy Spirit.” Despite the fact that Theresa has pursued retirement by stepping back from this work in 2006, she remains tireless in her desire to help others in need.

“With love and much practical help, through the cooperation of many wonderful people and different agencies, we have found that these women and men could be enabled to break free of their past and begin a new life,” she says. She is now keen to get alongside people in the rural community.

Living in a small market town on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, and despite battling ill health, she leads a team of volunteers and despite battling ill health, she leads a team of volunteers in running a furniture exchange and food bank, as well as a tea shop, all in one location just a short walk from the high street.

It’s called Sharel and is a community-based project which seeks, with the support of the charity Step Norwich, to provide practical and emotional support to families and individuals to combat poverty. What’s more, it’s a place where people can on getting themselves back on the right track.

“I didn’t look for this work – the Lord opened the door for me,” she says. She remembers the first three families who were all in terrible situations, needing help. “When I talk about success stories, it is because they had support, someone who believed in them, who would give them time, who could see they were dropping through the net.”

Getting alongside these people, at just the right moment, can help them take control of their lives again, she says. She longs for more people to be called to do this work. “I’ve had such an amazing journey. I’ve learned so much and I want to continue learning and encouraging others.”

Find out more
+ For more information about the work of Sharel visit www.stepnorwkh.org.uk or call 01502 341625
+ Learn more about Theresa from Low Cost – High Price, by Theresa Cumbers and Martin Down. Authentic ISBN 9781860247989 £8.99

Catherine Larner is a freelance writer and journalist based in Suffolk