Illuminate Soho is 2 years old!

As part of our celebrations, read more as Lu and Ellie share the story of providing chaplaincy in nightlife industries… 

What is nightlife chaplaincy, and how did you start doing this work?
Ellie: For me, nightlife chaplaincy is being present and in the industry and being able to offer whatever support the people there need. It’s a ministry of presence. We spend time getting to know people, seeing if they need support, without an agenda other than to love them. The nightlife industry is a space that people think God doesn’t love and that He isn’t present because the church isn’t there. By extension they think God doesn’t love them and that makes me feel sad. I want to change that and to show people that God’s love is for them. 

Lu: I love the nightlife scene, nightclubs, dancing, the music – being in that space. And when I became a Christian I didn’t want to live a party lifestyle in the same way as I had done but I wanted to intertwine the new love I had for God with the love I had for the nightlife. And that’s where nightlife ministry was birthed. My years working with 24-7 Prayer in Ibiza further stirred my heart for the nightlife industry. And seeing God show his love and goodness to the people I met in Ibiza made me want to make a way for that to happen in London too. 

What aspects of your personal journey do you feel prepared you for this role?

Ellie: My first experience in the nightlife industry was on a clubbing holiday to Ibiza. I was the only Christian in the group and we went out together, and they would take drugs and I wouldn’t. I loved the music and the dancing and together we all had such a great time. And for the first time in my life, talking about my faith was so easy. We would sit and chat and they would ask me about my lifestyle and faith. The fact that I would be there with them and be so comfortable to live in my truth was really powerful to them. And I realised how natural it was, and I wanted to do this more. It’s a place that I love and love to be and yet can stand out as a Christian.

Lu: I feel like I have encountered so much of God’s love over the years, and I just want to share that with people.  Before I became a Christian, I was so captured by the love in Christians, wondering ‘what is it that they have? What are they filled with? Why are they such lovers of life and each other?’ And then I experienced God’s love for myself and now I just want to share that with others. Being able to strike up a conversation, take an interest in people’s lives, listen, pray with them – watching people experience God’s love and kindness through it – anyone can do that. Anyone can love the person in front of them…
Why do you think chaplaincy is important in the nightlife economy?

Lu: Because it’s where people go to let off steam – in the highs and lows of life. People often use dancing, drugs and alcohol to drown out the emotions they are feeling. And so we are able to have really heartfelt conversations just by being there. Conversations that people didn’t want to have with the friends they’d come with. People come in with holistic needs and often we are the only people available to offer the care people didn’t know they needed.
In the strip clubs, the women have often had a rushed commute, and when they see us there is a moment of pause, to share or debrief about their day before they start work. We often find these are moments of vulnerability where we can show care and where people open up and receive prayer.

This is pioneering work which often means you are working without a road map. What are some of the things you have learned along the way?

Lu: In the beginning when we were prayer walking, we learned a lot about patience, perseverance and petition. God taught us so much through the first 18 months of praying weekly around Soho, outside the brothels and strip clubs. We quickly learned to pray prayers of hope and redemption, and to listen to what His heart was for the streets where we walked. I felt like I got to know God so much better just through the prayer walking; learning His heart for the area and the people. As we experienced more of His love this then fuelled us when we started the ministry 

Ellie: As we were praying we didn’t have an idea how we would start the ministry and we had to depend on God’s timing to open the doors. We learned to trust Him that He had the full plan when we didn’t and knew what should happen. And I really believe that if we had not listened so intently and had moved too quickly we wouldn’t have the ministry that we have today. Even though we created strategy and applied the wisdom of our previous experience, the main reason we are doing what we are is because we listened to God and let Him lead us. 

Lu: We have also learned a lot about debriefing and self care along the way. Every night we are in Soho, we take time to prepare spiritually and check in with one another before we go into the clubs and after we leave. Looking after one another and ensuring that we have good accountability as a team has made us really strong and resilient.
We also make sure to take time to celebrate the team and praise God for everything He does – no matter how small.

What are some of the challenges you have experienced?

Ellie: I really hate small talk – and it’s been a personal challenge to overcome through this work. I have learned to strike up conversations and have embraced my own personality, learning how to do that authentically. I feel like I have learned to be myself in the chaplain role. It’s also an ongoing challenge to make sure that our only agenda is to love people. To face up to my own prejudices and judgements and to continuously check my motives.

Lu: When we first started going to a club and didn’t know anyone it could feel really awkward. And we have learned to say that the awesome is in the awkward – to push through, and then out of the blue, we will end up having an amazing conversation or the opportunity to pray with someone. And now we have so many amazing stories – it’s worth pushing through for those moments. The small talk is often the gateway to developing those relationships. I’ve also learned a lot about leading a team and how to train volunteers when they come from really different backgrounds. We’ve learned a lot from feedback and realised how much we need to mentor people over time to best equip them for chaplaincy in nightlife industries.  

What drew you specifically to set up Illuminate Soho?

Lu: We had seen God do so much in the clubs in Ibiza and we really wanted to see that happen in London. Many of the women who work in Ibiza in the summer come to London to work during the off season and so there was a continuity with some of the relationships that we had built too. Third spaces are universal – there will be clubs in every city and the work we had been doing in Ibiza reflected a need that exists everywhere where there are strip clubs.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to set up nightlife chaplaincy in their country or locality?

Lu: Start prayer walking, listen, get a sense of what God is already doing in that place. He is always on the move and He has only put it on your heart because it’s already on His heart. Take time and enjoy watching something unfold as you pray and, as Ellie was saying about timing, don’t rush. Find people who will do this with you and start by praying together. 
Have the humility to allow something new to emerge.

Ellie: Go in without an agenda. Your country or locality may well look different to Ibiza or London and so the way someone else does it may not reflect the needs where you are. So taking time to listen to what is right for where you are is so important. Also, listen to the people in the industry and that will inform your plan so that you are really catering for the needs where you are and not just importing a project. Try to connect with people who have done similar things in your locality so that you can draw on their wisdom and experience, and make sure you and your team get relevant training. 

Why brownies?

Lu: I mean, why not brownies?! In ibiza we would take brownies into the clubs for the women and staff. We would be baking up to 200 brownies a week. We saw how much people loved them, it’s a taste of goodness; a little luxury and a small way to show the women that we loved them. It became a tool to start conversations and share who we were, and an opportunity to share God’s love.

Ellie: Even if someone is in a place where they don’t want to interact with us, we are able to give this small free gift, no strings attached, and share a little flavour of God’s love with them anyway. These little brownies are surprisingly powerful gifts!
In Soho, we have also had the opportunity to share other gifts too. On Valentines we have taken in a rose for each woman with a little scripture verse on a tag, letting them know how much God loves them and how precious they are – and we had so many conversations though those. We also gave them a luxury chocolate calendar at Christmas. These have been little ways to build trust and friendship. Chaplaincy allows us to get creative about how we love people and gifts are another language of love. It ends up being much more than just a brownie!
Soon Illuminate Soho will be celebrating its 2 year anniversary. What are some of the things you are celebrating?

Lu: During lockdown and since, many of the women we had built relationships with over the past years began reaching out and seeking God for themselves. It has become such a normal part of our interactions to offer prayer and some of the women have learned to pray even if they would say they are not Christians. We have held weekly online drop in sessions to chat and to pray with them in the challenges that this season has brought to them as individuals.

Ellie: Over the two years of being welcomed into the clubs, we were able to bring in a culture of prayer. The women and staff we met have become so eager for prayer – for themselves, praying for each other and sometimes for us. We never had that as an agenda, but because prayer is such an integral part of what we do, it’s become a part of the culture of the clubs. And now it’s a part of their lives too.
Do you have a particular story or highlight that you’d like to share?

Lu: Earlier this year we put on an Alpha course for the women we’d met in the clubs. One of the women we invited stayed up all night before the first session cooking some food for us and came even though the timing was hard for her before work. At the end of Alpha we had seen such a softening of her heart and a growing desire to know God, not just ask Him for things. When we asked her what she’d learned she said – ‘I’ve really learned that you can pray for anything – not just the big stuff – that God is interested in me and the details of my life’.

Ellie: At the start, some of the women were suspicious about us and questioning us, but it was encouraging to see other women step in, support us, and explain exactly why we were there. Sometimes the women explain to their customers who we are too – saying things like, ‘these are the Christians  – they come here and pray for us.’  Those are awkward but wonderful moments!

Has anything been surprising about being in this role?

Ellie: How welcome we have been in the clubs. God has really opened the doors and given us favour so that we can become a part of the fabric of the clubs. And we have seen Him answer so many prayers for each of the people we’ve met. 
I think I had a misconception at the start that it might be difficult to connect with the women and find common ground. But I’ve learned how all humans are connected and we will always find something that is common ground. Each of the women we meet have had such varied life experiences and even though I may never have worked in a strip club, as we talk there are always things in our lives that overlap and it’s been easier than I expected to show love and care.

What is the impact you want to see in nightlife industries over the next 10 years and how can we be praying?

Lu: To see strip club chaplaincy normalised throughout the industry. And to see it normalised for Christians to be ministering in third spaces like strip clubs. For the wider church to become more involved through financial support and providing volunteers and covering the work in prayer. 
That God would raise up people with this heart and instill the confidence and drive to step into this kind of chaplaincy role. For the opportunity to work alongside people that have this heart, and to support them with training and our experience as they establish nightlife ministries where they are. 
Ellie: I am really passionate that churches would understand the vision of chaplaincy in third spaces – especially places that are often seen as taboo – and they would see God moving there and want to get involved. That churches would feel able to be accessible to the types of people who wouldn’t usually feel comfortable going into a church. That they would learn how to make the bridge easy for people to step from third spaces into church. Also for third space specific resources to be created. 

After 5 years as Nightlife Ministries Coordinator for Third Space Ministries, Lu Hardy is moving on to new horizons. We are sad to see her go but so excited for the adventure that God is taking her on. For the next few months, Ellie will be taking on the role while we pray about how God wants us to continue this ministry in the future. 
Join us in wishing Lu the best for the future and keep us in your prayers as we listen to God for His direction.