Safe from harm: a church’s role in sheltering victims of modern slavery

Revd Jeremy Cullimore came to ministry late in life. After a varied career in law, PR, and the army, finishing with a stint in Serbia during the Bosnian war, he felt a change of scene was in order. He trained as a vicar and ended up in Lincoln, ready for a slightly quieter life. What awaited was an entirely new challenge. 

St Mary-Le-Wigford Church in central Lincoln

St Mary-Le-Wigford Church in central Lincoln

St Mary-Le-Wigford is the oldest building in Lincoln, but when Revd Jeremy arrived in 2010 it was fast becoming the newest ruin. The roof was leaking, the electrics were shot, and the congregation consisted of a handful of people valiantly struggling to keep the doors open. Revd Jeremy felt a fresh outlook was in order. 

He enlisted the help of a colleague, Revd Liz Jackson, who had been ministering to the homeless of Lincoln. They took over the church hall and held a day centre for the homeless.

During the snowy winter of 2011 56 migrant labourers stranded in Lincoln ended up living in the church hall; there was nowhere else for them to stay. As a result St Mary-Le-Wigford became known as a safe place for the homeless community of Lincoln. 50-60 people would join for a weekly Sunday dinner. It was during this time that the church began to hear about the activities of a local traveller family called the Rooneys. Revd Jeremy describes the stories they heard as “horrifying”. 

They heard how in the evenings the Rooneys would go around the town in a white van, looking for vulnerable people. They would offer them a job, a room and board. Those who went with them would quickly find that the accommodation was a dirty and cramped caravan, they were not paid for their work, and there was little food. Order was kept through threats and violence, with those higher up the food chain ordered to beat up anyone who stepped out of line.

In 2011, four years before the creation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, slavery in the UK was barely spoken about. The idea that there might be slaves on the streets of Lincoln seemed extraordinary. Revd Jeremy turned to intelligence connections from his former career to report what was going on. He also coaxed several people into telling their stories to the police. He hoped that even if they wouldn’t testify in court, they could provide leads the police could use to build a case. 

Revd Jeremy found himself facing the problem head on, as recruiters for the Rooneys began targeting the day centre. The volunteers saw them off, and soon discovered that they had moved outside. It was a short walk from the day centre to the night shelter, and the volunteers were forced to escort their guests from one to the other to avoid the Rooneys' white van. 

Several people escaped the family and sought sanctuary at the church. They were happy to give it but it made them somewhat of a target. On one memorable occasion, Revd Jeremy met Bridget Rooney herself, the matriarch, looking for one escaped slave. 

I leapt across, and there was my church warden, standing there arms akimbo, with Bridget and a couple of heavy boys trying to get in. So we had a stand-off at the door. Bridget had this sort of Roman Catholic, folk-religion thing that the travellers have, and there was I in my dog collar, so I said ‘Come on Bridget. You know that as a priest I can absolve you of your sins or I can bind them to you forever, now what’s it going to be my girl?’ And she was off!
Revd Jeremy in his church in Lincoln 

Revd Jeremy in his church in Lincoln 

Revd Jeremy hopes the Modern Slavery Act 2015 means a situation like theirs couldn’t happen again. The reforms and funding the Act brought are equipping the police to better combat this crime. 

In August 2017 11 members of the Rooney family were convicted of modern slavery and fraud offences. Those convictions, along with more across the country, have made the general public more aware of the problem. 

After the verdict hit the news, Jeremy spoke to several people who said they thought the Rooneys' men might have paved their driveway. They described feeling worried but not knowing what to do. Now the Modern Slavery Helpline provides a place to go to report any concerns.

Revd Jeremy welcomes the work of The Clewer Initiative and the church in this area. “Where the Church of England is best able to support and make it work… is building awareness at the ground. So that somebody who may be concerned about a person doing the drive next door, or working in the field, will know who to phone. They see this sign at the church, and they will know how to report where slavery is probably happening.”

St Mary-Le-Wigford is currently surrounded by scaffolding as building works have taken over the area. When the church is up and running again Revd Jeremy hopes to build on their legacy and use the platform to spread the word about modern slavery in Lincoln. The pride the church feels about sheltering victims is tempered only by the knowledge that exploitation is still going on. As long as it does, their ministry will continue.

Find out more about what dioceses are doing to combat modern slavery on our Diocesan page

Photo by saeed mhmdi on Unsplash