One of my long standing community activist interests, and one I have written about previously in my “Outside the Camp” book, is being a Street Pastor. I haven’t done a tour of duty for a while now, due to other commitments and for health reasons, but it is a work that continues to interest me because it continues to make a difference for many of those who are on the streets when we are, for a whole variety of reasons, in our town centre, in the early hours of the morning, usually on a Friday or Saturday night. By “town centre”, I refer to my own town of Southend. A similar pattern exists throughout many of the towns and cities in the UK and beyond.
I have just been watching the just released You Tube video that gives an insight into the work and is something I am happy to plug here. To my amazement, and just after I decided to make this blog, I discovered I’m also on it! One of my mantras is my wanting to make a difference and there is plenty of evidence on the video that Street Pastors do just that. The work is important to me because of my particular interest in the homeless, and in more ways than most people realize Street Pastors contribute to the grand goal of helping the homeless, by such things as providing hot drinks or blankets or by being empathetic listeners. But the homeless is only one part of the Southend night time economy, for by going out on the streets the Street Pastors touch a broad breadth of what happens during those hours of 10pm to 3or4 am and, importantly, are able to make a difference by helping to maintain peace and safety on our streets and touch the lives of individuals in ways we may never know.
Let me say first before any of my non believing readers decides to switch off: while Street Pastors is an unapologetically Christian initiative, it is one of the most outward looking and ecumenical, in the best sense of the word, organizations that I know. Street Pastors are down to earth people, often having experienced life in the raw, who have a pretty simple motive: to show the love of God. Individual Street Pastors are often quite different in outlook and background and this make for some interesting exchanges. They engage with almost the entire range of local life in a winsome, empathetic and practical way, such as exchanging banter, cheerily greeting or by small acts of kindness such as giving out directions, flip flops or lollipops, without bringing religion into it at all, unless invited to do so. But we do pray that God may lead us and that His will is done and He gets all the glory – and that happens. If people want prayer or to know more about the Christian faith, that happens too!
It has both surprised and disappointed me in the past that more people don’t take up the work and I have often felt there is a potential to do much more e.g. covering all the slots for going out, joining up with a yet to exist all night drop in centre, where there is prayer, by the spectrum of Christians in the town, and a place where rough sleepers and stranded revelers can stay, and linked to all the relevant agencies, and following up those we do meet (although, as the video showed, we sometimes see the results years later and maybe never), or something even wackier such as taking over one of the empty office blocks and making it a place of refuge and shelter for the needy, where people are genuinely helped and not just redirected like what happens when you manipulate the flipper on a pinball machine – but then this is what old men do – dream dreams! Thinking of pinball machines, one of the things I like about Street Pastors is that more often than not we don’t just signpost people but we walk with them in the journey to find solutions to pressing needs.
What Street Pastors shows is there is no excuse for any of us when we wake up in the morning to say what is the point of getting out of bed? As a particular spiritual hero of mine, Chuck Colson, said when he was once asked that question, shortly before he died: “I have another day and another opportunity to extend the Kingdom of God”. Street Pastoring is one way to do this. I sometimes reflect on having once wished that Street Pastors were around 30 years ago when I had more energy and free time to go out than I do now, but who can argue with God? We do what we are given to do, and do it as best we can, as unprofitable servants of our Lord and Master.