“What’s in your hand?” Many times prayers for God to use a person or church are answered with that simple question. But when you have a congregation of 1,000 or even 100, the answers may be so many, it could take time to even figure out where to start. But for Winchester Assembly, a church of just 10, the options would seem to be limited, if there even was an option.
Yet this tiny church is preparing to use what God has given them to open a home for women in need of a hand up — the Agape Hope House.
Located about 45 miles west of Springfield, the Illinois state capital, Winchester is a community of about 1,700. Cindy Colbert has been leading the small Assembly of God congregation in the community for the past three years.
Colbert, 53, didn’t come from a Christian family with a heart for reaching rural communities. In fact, many memories from her young life were far from pleasant as she experienced both physical and sexual abuse.
“Until I was 23 years old, I never heard the Lord’s name except in vain,” she says. “When I was 17, I became pregnant by a man who was 20 years older than me.” By 1993, Colbert had married another man and had three young children.
However, life wasn’t easy, and she believes that if she had somebody who could have given her a hand up and showed her the love of Jesus earlier in life, many things in her life would have been different.
“I wouldn’t have sought out or remained in abusive relationships if I had someplace to go and someone to show me a better way,” she says.
But in 1994, after a neighbor lived out Jesus before her and then gave her a Bible, which she began to read voraciously, she turned to God and began her Christian journey. She also started doing career foster care and slowly building a vision for helping women, especially those with children, who needed a hand up.
“Over the years (1994-2007), we did all types of foster care,” Colbert says. “The total number of kids we fostered, I’m not sure – we stopped counting at 100.”
Then, from 2007-2012, Colbert began working in a women’s prison. Seeing the hopelessness and high recidivism rate on such a large scale intensified and magnified her vision of someday having a place to offer women an opportunity to successfully transition back into society.
In 2009, Colbert and her husband separated and were later divorced per biblical principles. In 2011, she married her husband, Danny, a man of strong faith and devotion to God.
Colbert says she originally started to feel a call of God upon her life not long after she was born again and Spirit filled, but it wasn’t until 2014 that God opened the doors for her; she and Danny had just begun attending an AG church.
“I originally attended a Southern Baptist church because that’s where my neighbor attended,” Colbert explains. “But then in 2014, God led us to start attending Pittsfield Assembly.”
After sharing her history and her calling with pastor Glen Hammons, he urged her to start pursuing her credentials through the Illinois School of Ministry, and supported her calling with ample encouragement, training, and ministry opportunities.
In 2017 Colbert became a licensed minister and within a year she was ministering in Illinois churches through the district’s Pulpit Supply — filling in at churches where a minister was needed for that Sunday service. Winchester Assembly was one of the churches she filled in for on a repeating basis — and where she now pastors.
“The church is very small,” Colbert says of her congregation that COVID reduced to 10, “but loves big! And now, post-COVID, younger people have begun attending regularly and getting involved.”
AGAPE HOPE HOUSE
A part of the vision for a loving place for women in need of help, which Colbert didn’t realize at the time, was a special connection with her son.
“When my son was a little boy, after church one day he asked me if I knew what agape love was,” Colbert says. “I told him yes and asked him if he knew what it was. He replied, ‘Yes, it’s God’s perfect love and that’s the way I love you, Momma.’ From that moment on, we always ended our conversations with ‘Agape Momma’ and ‘Agape Zachary.’”
In August of 2021, tragedy struck — Zachary was killed in a car accident. The loss was overwhelming as the death of her “Agape son” left a huge void in her heart and life.
“When that happened, I was seeking the Lord — Why did He have me here? What was I supposed to do?” says Colbert, the pain of the loss still evident in her voice. “But one day, I was seeking God and the Lord reminded me of the vision to open a hope house, helping women in need — like I and so many others have often needed.”
But how could such a small church do anything that would make an impact? It would take a considerable amount of money to start a ministry or provide a shelter . . . and then the light came on.
Colbert realized that the church did have something already in hand — the parsonage! She and Danny had purchased a home of their own, and now the parsonage was available for ministry.
Colbert shared the vision and hope of using the parsonage with two missionary teams she had grown close to since becoming the pastor of Winchester Assembly. She asked them to be in prayer about it. Within 48 hours both teams committed to coming alongside of her and offered her the initial guidance she needed to present her vision to the church and the district.
Afterwards, with the blessing of her church and district, Colbert began to investigate changing the parsonage into a home for women who needed shelter — whether for escaping an abusive relationship, a pregnant woman or single mom who had no place to turn, or perhaps a young woman who aged out of the foster system and needed a temporary place to stay.
And what better name than Agape Hope House? The name not only was in recognition of the love Colbert and her son shared, but also what God had been preparing through His agape love in Colbert’s life. And the initials “AHH” — a sigh of relief — is what Colbert believes women will experience through the ministry of the home.
Jim and Chele Brown have been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years, with more than two decades of pastoring in rural communities. The same year that Colbert took leadership of Winchester, the Browns joined the staff of Rural America Ministries (RAM) — a network that works with rural pastors and churches to help them achieve success in ministry. The Browns are currently candidate U.S. missionaries serving with Church Mobilization.
When Chele Brown and Colbert first met, they formed almost an immediate affinity. And later, when Colbert mentioned her dream of creating the Agape Hope House, Brown instantly resonated with the idea as it was something she had dreamed of as well. Brown explains that she had been a foster child who aged out of the system and found herself on the side of the road with no place to turn. She and Jim also served as CASA workers in Illinois for many years.
“I worked on the paperwork and my husband pulled together work teams to begin renovating the house,” Brown says. “Cindy and I have been brainstorming and praying about what God wanted to do in and through the Agape Hope House. Cindy talked with local officials and businesses and created a secure social media site to introduce our project and draw potential donors to the project.”
U.S. missionaries assigned to Church Mobilization, Wilma and Chuck Lormis, also serve as irreplaceable partners in bringing the Agape Hope House vision to life through countless prayers, wisdom, and bringing in work teams to transform the old parsonage into a ministry home.
Of course, the physical remodeling the of parsonage is not the only step to creating a safe haven for women to receive a hand up.
“We have been working to educate ourselves, assessing our resources,” Brown says. “We created contracts, applications, waiting lists, and we’re working on a format for teaching needed skills as we also disciple them into a greater relationship with Christ.”
Colbert is currently working with the community to network with other resources to assist with providing life skills classes, finance classes, and opportunities for further education to help women break out of the grip of poverty.
In a small church in a small town the one thing that is vital for success of any type of ministry is community buy-in. And in the eyes of Brown, Colbert has that.
“One of things that I was impressed with is how the community is embracing Pastor Cindy,” Brown says. “The church is predominantly older people, but a lot of people have connected to her within the community. What’s more, they have heard about Agape Hope House and people are wanting to help.”
Even the police are connecting with her.
“The police department is very supportive,” Colbert says. “When someone has a need in the community, they refer people to me and, when appropriate, call on me to assist in times of crisis.”
Colbert explains that each woman who comes into the home will work with a team to develop a customized life plan. She’s also collecting extra appliances and furniture items so that when women move out, Agape Hope House can help set them up in their new locations.
“The people in town — and from other communities — have really been stepping up and they’re excited about this,” Brown notes. “People have been offering clothing, canned goods, eggs, and other groceries, which have been a Godsend. And with deer season not that far away, I know there are a lot of deer hunters who will donate meat that we can store in the freezers.”
The district has been supportive of Winchester AG’s efforts and two missionary teams are also working to help complete the building. Once the building is complete, passes inspection, and the insurance company signs off, Colbert says the Agape Hope House will be able to house three women and their children.
For now, though, work continues and needs still exist for completing the home.
“It’s heartbreaking to have to turn people away right now,” Colbert says, “We have provided transitional housing for one emergency placement and her newborn, but we’re not quite ready to ‘officially’ open — insurance won’t cover more than one family unit living in the home at a time until the renovations are complete and we have things like fire ladders installed.”
Although for now Colbert will be heading up oversight and the daily running of Agape Hope House, she says that they hope to one day expand and create a larger facility for women (and eventually men with similar transitional needs) on the outskirts of town.
Brown, who is passionate about Agape Hope House, puts the effort of Colbert, her congregation, and the community into a “God perspective.”
“As part of our assessment process, my husband often asks a pastor, ‘What’s in your hand? David had a sling, Moses had a stick and that was all it took to get their job done,’” Brown says. “Cindy had already discovered she had a parsonage . . . too many churches use the excuse of being too small or we don’t have the finances. If it’s God’s purpose, He will send you what you need or use what you already have.”