Francis Gardom finds himself on the streets late at night – again!
Several years ago I retired from the Special Constabulary. I had enjoyed ten years patrolling the streets of Lewisham every Friday evening, and retirement left a gap waiting to be filled. A few weeks ago, The Times described the work of the Street Pastors, subtitled The New Crimefighters: how church patrols are reducing violence on our streets. This looked promising, and their website
‘A Street Pastor is a church leader/minister or member with a concern for society, in particular young people who see themselves to be excluded and marginalized, and who is willing to engage people where they are, in terms of their thinking (i.e. their perspective on life) and location (i.e. where they hang out, be it on the streets, in the pubs and clubs, or at parties, etc).
‘As the Street Pastor gets to know people in the community he/she will find out what their needs are and what can be done to help. A presence of Street Pastors will earn credibility in the community, so that people know that the Church is there for them in a practical way. The role is not about preaching heaven and hell, but one of listening, caring and helping – working in an unconditional way.
‘To be a Street Pastor you need to be over 18 (no upper age limit), a church member and able to commit to a 12-session training course in three groups of four Saturdays over a year. The course includes subjects such as counselling skills, drugs awareness, sociology, knowing your community, role and responsibility, and street safety. Each Street Pastor team consists of at least three groups of four, each of which will work a minimum of one night a month.’
The good news was that Lewisham is one of the areas of London where they operate. Their coordinator, Eustace Constance, agreed that I should go out with them on a trial run to see how I got on.
I presented myself at their Catford base on a recent Saturday evening at 10 p.m. They issued me with their regulation jacket with the words Street Pastor prominently emblazoned on the back, and a cap, similarly inscribed. After a short briefing-and-prayer session we went to New Cross.
SPs always work in pairs, never singly. Our group consisted of Dave, the leader who is a secondary schoolteacher in Peckham; Tracey, a young mother and child-carer from Downham; and Peter, an engineer. All are churchgoers who see being an SP as part of their ministry.
SPs enjoy the wholehearted support of the local police. My son, a policeman in Bristol, tells me that since the SPs started there, the crime-rate at closing-time has dropped spectacularly! The visible presence of SPs on its own, has a significantly calming effect on the majority of the mildly tipsy, whereas the presence of a uniformed policeman might induce them to behave stupidly. So our first action was to log-on with the local police to tell them that we were going on duty.
We walked to a large local night-club. I became aware immediately of the welcome which the SPs received from the security guards of whom the club employs a number. They recognized us, as did some of the night-revellers who were queuing up to have their identity cards checked. There was no question that our presence there was anything but welcome. Because it was a (relatively) quiet night, we only stayed for about ten minutes and then moved off down the street promising to return should the situation require.
Impressive too was the number of shops open till well after midnight, especially Afro-Caribbean ones; hairdressers, grocers, take-aways, and other small businesses were all busy, as of course were the minicab firms.
Dave, our leader, makes a special point of visiting those who work in the all-night filling stations. They get lonely and bored, and someone coming in for a chat and breaking the monotony is always welcome.
What did we do? Well, as the quotation above states, SPs are not engaged in the business of preaching. In the Times article one of them is quoted as saying ‘People might think, ‘Oh, they’re from the church, happy-clappy, they have just come along to Bible-bash;’ but we’re not concerned with preaching to people. Our approach is care, listen, help.’
SPs in other words assist people who have had too much to drink to get home; to direct those who have lost their way; to know where the local buses and trains run from and to – in short, to have a working knowledge of the locality. Occasionally it is appropriate to talk at greater length with someone in obvious distress, though seriously awkward or dangerous situations are to be avoided. Occasionally the police request the SPs not to visit a particular area on a given evening.
End of a night
Most of those we met had not heard of SPs. However, those who asked us about it were invariably positive in their response. We always made it clear that SPs is a church-based initiative, and several of those who talked to us admitted to being practising Christians too.
We had one or two short stops for extemporary prayer amongst ourselves in quiet locations. We commended to God’s care those with whom we had spoken. These breaks lasted barely five minutes each, but they reminded us about whose business we were occupied.
At 2 am we drove back to HQ, handed in our uniforms and went our separate ways to a most welcome bed!
Let me commend Street Pastors as an admirable expression of cooperation between the police, communities, and Christians of widely differing traditions. I much look forward to my training sessions.