Sunday, 8 December 2013

Street Pastors

At the start of the year, as part of my grand plan to get behind what to many people might be closed doors, I proposed getting round all our town centre churches and finding out what happens in them.  To this end I attended a service in the Unitarian Church on High Street, took part in an Easter Vigil at St Alkmund’s and joined the celebration for the 60th Anniversary of the Queen's Coronation at Shrewsbury Abbey.  I meant to get into St Julian’s, both to meet its owner, Andrew Wright and attend one of the services there of the Shrewsbury Evangelical Fellowship, but never made it.  Ditto St Chad’s, which I feel slightly sheepish about because it’s the biggest church in town.  St Mary’s is decommissioned, but I’ve been in there a few times for craft and vintage fairs.  Then there’s Central, the new name for the revamped Baptist Church on Claremont Street. I took a look round there earlier this year, courtesy of Charles Crosland, Shrewsbury Baptist Church's minister - and it was there that I first heard about Shrewsbury's Street Pastors.

Street Pastors are a group of people who go out into Shrewsbury town centre on Friday and Saturday nights, aiming to be there to help people who get themselves into trouble.  Currently there are around 280 Street Pastor projects up and running in cities, towns and villages around the UK. In Shrewsbury they’ve been going for a few years now and their distinctive caps and jackets have become as much a part of the night time economy as the police and other community services.   If trouble’s brewing in a particular part of town, doormen or police often call in the street pastors, not because their role is to get involved in sorting out fights but because their presence is recognized as having a calming influence.

‘Many times it’s been said to us that now we’re here things will calm down,’ said Street Pastor Steve Jones. ‘And it might be hard to explain exactly why, but they do.’

I'm telling you this because today, in the outskirts of Shrewsbury, I attended church to witness the commissioning of Steve Jones, Jane Lamb and Pauline Jones as street pastors. The church in question was  Holy Trinity, Meole Brace,  and at the end of the service I sat with the newly commissioned street pastors and asked them to tell me a bit about their work.  

‘We go out in teams of four,’ said Jane. ‘Around 9.00pm we’ll set off, doing a recce of the town.  We start in Central where we meet for prayer, then we head out round the Rowley’s House area, where there are number of clubs, then up past the Shrewsbury Hotel in the direction of the Salopian and the Premier Inn. Then we’ll loop round the station and up Castle Gates, up Castle Street, down Pride Hill, along Fish Street, along High Street - almost all the way round town in fact, getting a feel for what sort of night it is.’

The town has its moods. I know this as a resident.  Sometimes its nights are quiet, but sometimes you can almost catch a hint of something coming on the wind. ‘We might get a shout,’ said Pauline. ‘Something’s kicking off somewhere and we’ll head off towards it. We may do this as a foursome, or we may split into pairs.  The idea of pairing is that, whatever we’re doing, one other person is always keeping an eye on us.  We’re never left alone.’

‘There are twenty-four of us altogether,’ said Jane. ‘From all the churches in Shrewsbury. Mostly we’ll find ourselves handing out water to dehydrated revelers, flipflops for sore feet and blankets for partygoers who may be out on the street and getting cold.’

Sometimes, Steve said, too much alcohol made people disoriented or distressed. They’d be on their own, maybe separated from their friends, and the street pastors would help to get them back to the rest of their group or point them in the right direction home.  Tragically, over the years Shrewsbury has had a record of river deaths, as high as six or seven per annum, attributable to night time reveling. That’s the figure Steve gave me, anyway.  But since the street pastors started up, he said, that figure has dropped to none.

Though not all attendees at Holy Trinity [Pauline is a Roman Catholic] the commissioning of Steve, Jane and Pauline was carried out by local vicar, Phil Cansdale.   He took his hat off to the street pastors, he said.  Whatever the weather, they'd be out in the night making sure that people were safe and bringing them the love of God. There was nothing fancy about what they were doing.  It was practical and straightforward. It was about being there if what was needed was a listening ear, or a friend, or indeed a blanket.  It was about making Shrewsbury's streets a  better place to be at night.

‘People ask us what are street pastors,’ Jane said.  ‘Some of them know already because they’ve encountered street pastors in other cities, maybe when they were away at college or something like that.  But, even so, they want to know why we’re doing it and, when they find out we’re not paid [another favourite question], they want to know that even more.  And, you know, the answer’s always the same. We do it because we want to show people that we love them and God does too. In all sorts of little ways.  Even with flipflops.’

Jane’s been a street pastor before, down in Plymouth where she trained six years ago.  Steve and Pauline are more new to street pastoring, but they’ve been on the streets now for several months.  Mostly what they do is well received. Shropshire people, they said, were mostly very sweet, if not always exactly delightful, throwing up one moment, apologizing for it the next.    

How hard, I wanted to know, was it keeping going through the night?  ‘At some point we’ll stop for a bit of a break,’ Pauline said.  ‘We’ll head back  to Central where we’re based, and there’ll be coffee, tea and toast for us. It’s warm in there, so it’s easy not to want to go out again.  But we do.’

Some time during the morning – in the service, I think, rather than the conversation afterwards - the word ‘angels’ cropped up, the street pastors being likened to them in the calming effect their presence can have. That likeness puts me in mind of a film mentioned in My Tonight From Shrewsbury a few weeks ago, directed by Wim Wenders, the legendary German film-maker,  playwright, author and photographer, who for many years has been the president of the European Film Academy in Berlin. In 'Wings of Desire', Wender’s silent and invisible grey-mac angels stood at people’s shoulders, looking out for them, watching over their lives, in ways too subtle to explain affecting how people felt about the world around them. 

There was a sadness, though, about Wenders’ angels, as though when looking in upon humanity they were witnessing something wonderful that could never be theirs.  Well, this morning in Meole Brace church, I didn’t detect anything sad about the street-pastors - rather to the contrary in fact.  Plainly what they were doing, as well as benefiting Shrewsbury was benefiting them too.  ‘On a weekly basis we acknowledge our dependence on God,’ Steve said.  ‘We rely on his guidance to help us. That’s what being a street pastor is all about.’

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