On June 30, two people fell ill in the small Wiltshire town of Amesbury, close to where Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury in March. It was later established that Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Ross had been in contact with the same substance; Dawn Sturgess died on Sunday evening. Locations they had visited beforehand were sealed off, including Amesbury Baptist Church. Its minister Rev Barry Davis gives his account of the incident and its effect on the congregation.
It was 5 am on Wednesday and my wife awoke to hear my mobile ringing downstairs. She went downstairs, picked it up and glanced at the display – 'six missed calls'. By this time, I had joined her, and I listened attentively. 'This is a message for Rev Barry Davis, would he please contact officer Z on this number.'
Nervously I rang back and was informed that five people who had attended our community fun day had become ill and had been taken to Salisbury hospital, and that my church had now been cordoned off. Had we poisoned them with our hog roast being undercooked? Could it have been the food donations we give to local families in our area?
A sickness arose in my stomach. We had had such a lovely day on Saturday with over 200 joining us, enjoying the bouncy castles and the assault course, and watching ferrets racing. One of our Fijian members had cooked food in their traditional style which was a welcome addition this year to the food served. We have been holding this event for the past six years, in a community field opposite the church.
I quickly showered and went down to our local police station, entering with my Wiltshire Police Chaplains badge. Inside I was greeted by an inspector I knew well and officer Z to whom I had just spoken. 'I'm sure it's nothing to worry about,' he said, but at that time little was known beyond sketchy information. Little did we know then and in a way, I was glad.
Throughout the day I expected to hear that others had also become ill, but there were no further developments. We did though, became aware that it was only two individuals who were critically ill in hospital rather than the original four or five that had been mooted. This brought relief that we had not caused any ill effects by the food that was provided at our event.
Later that evening with photographs that were released on the news, we realised that the man had not only attended our hog roast but had direct contact with two of our church members while there. It wasn't until the 10 o'clock news that the devastating truth was revealed to the world. We ensured those who had had contact sought advice and were cleared of any health risk. Our thoughts and prayers were focused very much on the couple, who we became aware were Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, and the many agencies working tirelessly to save their lives.
Once the word Novichok was mentioned my phone went crazy, and that of our church secretary – in May I had started the first part of my sabbatical and had left his number as a pastoral response in my absence. We had not updated our answering machine and his name and number was available to all who rang the church. Unfortunately, he had already been misquoted and criticised for his remarks, which made me reluctant to be interviewed. He offered to meet with ITV and a time was agreed. I accompanied him and watched his professional response.
This single crew was soon joined by every news agency in the UK as well as international colleagues such as Australia's Channel 7. It was not long before I was interviewed and filmed and in doing so it relieved some of the stress that had built up in me. Like most of us I had been subject to stressful situations in my life but never at the world's call with the spotlight on Amesbury Baptist Church, which at the time was one of only three places cordoned off. The implications for those who use our building were a worry as many rely on an income from the use of the building and for those who attend support groups there such as Alcoholics Anonymous and children's charity Spurgeons. I also felt sorry for our faithful butcher, whose hog roaster sat inside our conservatory entrance awaiting collection, knowing he will be losing business.
In one week I have received 118 emails of good will and prayer from 'my batch' at Regents Park College, my regional minister (numerous times), many other Baptist churches and many Christians in the UK and abroad, with countless phone calls. I hopefully have replied to them all, even if only with 'bless you and thank you'. Other local Baptist ministers have phoned me offering their support and both the Anglican and Methodist ministers in Amesbury have offered their churches for our use, as well as two local schools.
I have no doubt that this will be a long haul and in the scheme of things, I realise it will be months before we get our building back. But that is all it is – a building, for the church will still gather. It is those who use our premises that will lose out financially. However I have been able to witness and share with our community all that which goes on day by day, in the life of any church. Daily I meet with the police who man the premises 24 hours, informing them of the work sadly not happening. Most are not local, so I can repeat myself and share the good work happening all around the country by Christians serving in their own communities.
I knew God was in this, of course. This tragic event would have happened regardless of Amesbury Baptist Church but for some reason Charlie attended our hog roast, was clearly in need and was ministered to by two of the women in our church. This resulted in our church building being cordoned off, as one of the places visited by Charlie and as a result highlighting us, in this unprecedented way, as a church, to all. The verses from Psalm 46.1-3: 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult' are ones that spoke to me and which I read out at the beginning of our Sunday service.
We now are a mobile church, all our church resources are locked in our church building. God has taken us out of our comfort zone. It is exciting and while we enjoyed the use of a local community hall last Sunday we do not plan to box ourselves into another building but rather to engage with our community and are seeking to be led to wherever God wants us and in what he wishes to do with us.
It is now over a week later and we have heard of the sad death of Dawn. Our thoughts and prayers continue for her three children, and for Charlie. We know that such atrocities bring communities together and people turn to God. We strongly believe that God will do something from this, something remarkable and that is both exciting and scary.
Rev Barry Davis is the minister of Amesbury Baptist Church.