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Faith through friendship

 Joan Sargent was intrigued by her new colleague at work...

ANN did not look any different to the other women in the office. She was warm, fun and immediately likable.

What struck Joan about the new girl were her polite refusals to attend their colourful nights out to the pubs and clubs every weekend. Ann never turned her nose up at the offers or condemned anyone for going, but she always had prior engagements – at church.

"Ann stuck out like a sore thumb," remembers Joan, who grew up in Oldham.

"She wasn't overtly religious or preachy. I admired the way she wasn't worried about what people thought of her going to church. When we all came into work on Mondays after a heavy weekend of partying and goodness knows what, Ann always seemed happy like she'd been enjoying life to the full as well. I was fascinated by that."

Joan soon became bored with the constant weekend partying and one Friday pulled out of an office trip to the nightspots of Blackpool. Instead, riding home on the bus with Ann, she found herself accepting an invitation to a church event that night.

It would change her life.

Now, more than 30 years later, with decades of exciting Christian ministry behind her, 54-year-old Joan still burns with passion for the gospel.

As pastoral co-ordinator of The Spurriergate Centre, in York, she heads up innovative evangelistic work to introduce Christianity to their customers in a way they can understand and relate to.

But it all started with Ann's invitation on the bus.

"I told her I'd love to go to her church and she nearly fell off the seat!" recalls Joan, who worships at St Andrew's CE Church, in Huntington, York.

"I was really interested in her because she was just an ordinary person who had made this step of faith.

"The church was packed with young people and I had a great night. This man who had been in prison shared a testimony about how Jesus had changed his life. I was much more interested in what had happened to Ann. Her story was so simple and real and it appealed to me."

Joan bought a Bible and began going to church regularly.

"I read through the four Gospels and the Book of Acts. I was constantly asking myself if I knew who Jesus Christ was and if I could have a relationship with him."

Joan decided that she did and so committed her life to Him at home on Halloween night.

She said: "I talked to Jesus and said that I wanted to follow Him.

"There was no flashing light but I knew that this was a really important decision and that it was the right thing to do.

"Ultimately I responded to God after receiving an invitation, but the process all started after seeing Ann living out her faith in the office."

Joan has always felt compelled to share her faith and eventually pursued a calling into full-time evangelism. After studying at Bible college she worked in Afghanistan for five years with Central Asian Mission, overcoming many cultural obstacles to spread the gospel.

She now leads a dedicated team at Spurriergate which serves up to 3,000 people every week with good food and drink, Fair Trade goods and a listening ear through its counselling service. The project, which is based in the converted St Michael's Church in the heart of York's shopping hub, opened in 1989 and has gone from strength to strength.

Diners often leave the premises with not only a full stomach, but also spiritual sustenance, thanks to Joan's pioneering Christian outreach work.

"My biggest passion is finding ways to share the gospel in today's world," she said.

"For some of our customers Spurriergate is their church. Our aim is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that people can relate to."

The team has set up a prayer zone in the cafe and encourages customers to leave prayer requests. Alpha courses have also been held there.

During the major Christian festivals, while people are tucking into a Sunday roast, Joan presents the gospel stories in an unobtrusive but challenging way, using striking images, videos and music.

"We get a fantastic response from people and are often able to feed them into churches around York," she said.

Joan said her faith has sustained her through some difficult periods including the death of her twin sister, Sue, and a recent brain tumour, which is now in remission.

"I've not had an easy time just because I'm a Christian," she said.

"Finding God in those really difficult situations has been a great comfort. I know that I can trust Him with whatever life throws at me."

Joan said she owed her former office colleague a great debt of gratitude. However, their encounter would prove just as life-changing for Ann.

"Ann introduced me to Jesus and I introduced her to my brother John and they've been happily married now for 30 years!" added Joan.

"We both did well out of the friendship."