As Maggie Ellis attended church each week to sing songs about justice and being salt and light in society, she came to an uncomfortable realisation.
in conversation with Sam Hailes at New Wine LSE
Aware that those she knew had nowhere to go after being raped and sexually abused, Maggie knew she must act.
“I can’t keep talking about justice and doing nothing about it,” she thought to herself.
That was eleven years ago. Her Sussex based charity Life Centre has since provided face to face counseling for 2000 victims of sexual abuse. It’s a statistic Maggie learned of just days before our interview. “I got a bit tearful when the phone call came in,” she admits.
As well as counselling people face to face, her team of 50 also take phone calls and answer emails and text messages. This has allowed their reach to extend beyond the Sussex borders and support men and women nationwide.
It’s an astonishing achievement for an independently funded charity that started from nothing more than a dream. It’s shocking to realise that despite one in four women being sexually abused in British society, before Life Centre there was no help available in the whole of Sussex.
I can’t keep talking about justice and doing nothing about it
Thanks to what Maggie calls a “post code lottery” and a lack of investment from the government, some counties are still failing to provide support for victims.
What inspired Maggie to take on such a monumental task? The story begins when the counselor was teaching at a secondary school.
Maggie was teaching a 14 year old girl named Jane [not her real name].
“She used to store her sleeping bag in my history cupboard and hang out in my classroom. After a while I discovered she was alcoholic. Her friends would knock on the staffroom door at 8 o'clock in the morning and say ‘Mrs Ellis what shall we do with Jane? She’s drunk.'"
“I’d be giving her cups of black coffee thinking what else can I do? She was so anorexic doctors said her heart could give in at any point. After a long time of building trust with her I discovered her father who was a very upstanding person in our community with a lot of access to children through his work had been consistently having sex with her since she was very little and still was.
“It wasn’t surprising she’d bring her sleeping bag to school and try and sleep anywhere possible other than at home. That influenced me to think we’ve got to get to the root of these problems. She’s a bright girl there’s no reason why she can’t get an education other than she can’t concentrate enough to think at school.”
“To this day my husband and I are like surrogate parents to her 23 years on. She’s now in a really lovely gay relationship which is not surprising because why would you ever want to have sex with a man again after that being her experience? She’s got a professional qualification and in a really fabulous job where she’s giving back to children in a similar situation.”
"First they came..."
It was this experience, combined with Maggie’s Jewish heritage and knowledge that so much of her family had perished in the Holocaust that she knew action had to be taken.
We can’t turn a blind eye in our society and pretend these things aren’t going on when they really are.
Maggie is continually inspired by Pastor Martin Niemöller’s words in 1946. The famous quote is visible on Life Centre’s website: “First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Speaking calmly but with visible passion she says “we can’t turn a blind eye in our society and pretend these things aren’t going on when they really are.”
Inspiration to keep going
Unsuprisingly, Maggie says many people think her work must be “dark and depressing”. She says the only reason it isn’t is because of her Christian faith.
“I profoundly believe and experience the metaphor in 1 John about Jesus coming as a light to the world and light always conquers darkness. I hold onto that in a very real way with every human being. I do completely believe that light always conquers darkness. It’s what we see time and time again.”
How does she keep going in a world filled with so much suffering and difficulty?
“If you think you’re too small to make a difference you’ve never been to bed with a mosquito,” she says with a laugh.
“We’ve got to get stuck in and make a difference to someone’s world somewhere. That’s what I love about Church. We are brilliant at creating teams, getting behind each other and working together. I want to credit my team at Life Centre because it’s everyday people teaming together.”
I do completely believe that light always conquers darkness
“It was just me and a couple of friends having a dream. We weren’t going to sit in the county and do nothing. I hate it when I hear people slagging off the Christian Church. I had a woman working with a church saying ‘churches should…’ and then she’s off! Actually churches up and down this nation are doing absolutely fabulous work in lots of different areas and I just think credit where it’s due. We should be inspired that we can make a difference if we team together, start small and build from there.”
Maggie is full of inspiring words. Rather than complaining at the lack of services in Sussex, she was the answer to her own prayers. Motivated by her Christian faith to reach out to people of all backgrounds and beliefs, she’s counseled hundreds of people through all kinds of problems. Some of those problems are not readily discussed in the church. But in part two of this interview they will be.
If you've been affected by the issues raised in this interview, please visit www.lifecentre.uk.com.
September 10th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes