What do you do when there’s drunken aggro after closing time? Send in the street pastors

They are invaluable back-up to the police, calming things down with kind words — and chips

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

Martin Surl, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Gloucestershire, has been buying flipflops. Hundreds of them. Not for the police, but for a local Christian volunteer team of ‘street pastors’. Earlier this year, Surl announced a £40,000 grant to cover the group’s training and resources. ‘Some things are better delivered by people who aren’t the police,’ he says.

What street pastors deliver is hard to sum up in a few words. When I first encountered them a couple of years ago in their uniform of baseball caps and blue jackets, both with ‘STREET PASTOR’ printed across them, I thought they were going to ask me whether I was saved. But street pastors are not street preachers. They are, instead, a friendly presence — ‘non-judgmental’ is a word they often use — who offer help to anyone who needs it. They do ‘everything you can think of’, says Surl. ‘If you have a young girl there who’s drunk too much, they will look after her.’ That, by the way, is what the flipflops are for: high heels, Surl observes, ‘aren’t very effective when you’ve had a few beers or the equivalent’.

Street pastors hand out bottled water, accompany drunk people to the right bus or a safe taxi, minister to the homeless, clear up broken glass, give a listening ear to the miserable, and are on hand to defuse tension. The results of these accumulated tiny gestures are remarkable. Since 2003, when the initiative was founded (they are now active in over 280 UK locations), street pastors have been repeatedly credited with reducing crime. In 2012, Salisbury Inspector Andy Noble remarked: ‘Violent offences are 12 to 15 per cent lower than this time last year and I would attribute much of that to what the street pastors are doing.’ In Kingston, after violent crime around the town centre almost halved between 2005 and 2009, Superintendent Paul McGregor praised the street pastors’ ‘tremendous work’ as a key factor.

You can find many similar stories from around the country. ‘Almost every London borough now has a street pastors team,’ notes the Met website, ‘and the most immediate result in every case has been the drop in crime in areas where teams have been working.’ Martin Surl confirms this. Cheltenham, he says, ‘would be much, much harder to police without the street pastors. I used to be a bobby years ago in Cheltenham. It is just such a nicer atmosphere.’

Street pastors receive 50 hours of training, much of it in street awareness. But their solutions aren’t always sophisticated. Paul Summersby of Stroud Street Pastors — one of the teams backed by Martin Surl — recalls one recent night out: ‘There were two lads who were intent on doing each other some physical damage and were trying to hit each other — not very successfully, because they were too drunk.’ The team went and bought some chips. ‘That took the sting out of the situation. They were more than happy to stand and eat chips with us rather than swing at each other. You appeal to people’s basic instincts, don’t you? The smell of chips for free is hard to say no to.’

The logic of it — overcoming street violence with chips — is typical of street pastors’ weirdly effective unworldliness. They start the evening with a Bible reading and prayer, and claim their work is only possible because others are praying for them. This spirituality makes itself felt not through any ostentatious zeal but rather, I sense, through a feeling that it is entirely natural to be out at 2 a.m. helping people get home. The comment they hear most often, according to Summersby, is ‘You’re mad.’ Still, there is no doubt, he says, that ‘the vast majority of people do have a respect for people who work from a faith perspective’.

The Greenwich team, who I joined for an evening last week, was founded a few years ago by a Baptist pastor in Woolwich. She got up one morning to find the body of a murdered young man on the church doorstep. It felt like a direct question from God. Her answer was to join the street pastors.

The quartet I accompanied — Irene, Eddy, Philip and Beverley, all middle-aged to varying degrees — are longtime residents of the area and have watched it come through some difficult times. Woolwich was badly bruised by the 2011 riots. ‘I signed up to join street pastors two weeks before that,’ says Beverley. ‘And then everyone said: you’re crazy.’ Two years later, Lee Rigby was murdered around here, and far-right parties tried to capitalise on the moment. The community rallied, the different faith groups met, and the tension died down. But it still lingers. It’s hard for the police just to be a friendly neutral presence. That’s where street pastors come in.

Out with the Greenwich team, I noticed two things. The first is that almost everything they do is utterly mundane and obvious. Our first stop is at a couple of corner shops, just to say hello, ask how business is, talk about the weather. When we pass a rough sleeper in a doorway, they go over, check what he needs and offer him an extra blanket; afterwards, they can inform homelessness services. When a drunk man comes out of the pub, a couple of the team wander over to make sure he knows where he’s going. When we pass a few skater kids, Philip pauses for a chat. It is pretty low-level stuff — but it is exactly the low-level stuff which can be missing from British cities, especially after dark. The second thing I noticed was my mood steadily lifting: the street pastors’ good cheer is infectious.

Philip points out that you don’t know how momentous brief meetings can be. ‘A few years ago there was a man on the Golden Gate Bridge who left a note saying that if one person smiled at him or said hello, he wouldn’t jump. And sadly no one did.’ He prefers to think in terms of ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘outputs’: they focus on the individual encounter instead of worrying about how they are changing things. Beverley agrees: ‘If you did it thinking you’re making a difference, it’d be frustrating, because you can’t always see what difference you’re making.’ The irony being that, according to police chiefs all over the country, they are making a difference. If you want to cut crime, one of the best ways to start is with small talk and the smell of chips.

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  • freddiethegreat

    ” He prefers to think in terms of ‘outcomes’ rather than ‘outputs’ ” – The essential difference between government and Christianity

    • Graham Ledger

      “By their fruits shall they be known.” Street Pastors walk alongside and do what is necessary. Obviously there are plenty of people above who rather tell people witnessing practically that they are wrong. Sad!

  • Bill Thomas

    An interesting piece. Seems a bit weird to me. However, each to their own.

    You may find that the slammers who patrol their streets to “keep them safe” by attacking white girls, blokes drinking alcohol, anyone they don’t like the look of etc… would take exception to your lauding what are, in effect, quirky vigilantes…..

    • Martyn Moss

      Vigilantes are people who take the law into their own hands and seek revenge. Street Pastors express love and compassion to people and hope it rubs off on those around. Which from my own experience as a Street Pastor it does.

    • MisterDavid

      It is a bit weird – because no one else is doing it.
      So it’s a good kind of weird.

  • Dominic Stockford

    They’re not ‘pastors’ in any sense. They’re merely people looking after fools who get themselves drunk. Which is perfectly fine, if you want to do that.

    • Timothy Mcmaster

      I wonder what sense of Pastor you are thinking about? In all churches a pastor is someone who cares for the well-being of the congregation. Street pastors just take the same philosophy out of the building to places where caring is also needed.

      • Dominic Stockford

        A pastor’s job is not to aid and abet, and offer comfort to those in the process of committing sin. It is to rebuke and chastise them, and point them to Christ’s truth.

        • Timothy Mcmaster

          Street Pastors don’t “aid and abet” sinners they comfort and assist those in need. You clearly subscribe to a very different concept of Chrisitianity than I do it you believe that Jesus’ example is to chastise and rebuke those who have sinned rather than to love and forgive them.

        • I would say they are administering pastoral care to the wayward helping them avoid committing further sins than they already have done on the night. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

        • colchar

          Christ’s truth? No sky fairy nonsense needed here.

        • Martyn Moss

          For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:17. He did this through love and compassion to all. Try to be a little more like Him rather than being judgmental and full of condemnation. And perhaps more people would want to get to know Him better. Through the work of Street Pastors and their non invasive approach, you’d actually be very surprised at how many express an interest to know more.

          • Dominic Stockford

            Jesus did not comfort those who were in the act of committing sin – he rebuked them. Quotes from Jesus:

            1. Go, and sin no more.

            2. He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

            3. When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers. ”

            4. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

            Paul picks up the theme:

            5. It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
            I could go on all day. The real problem the people lying drunk on the street have is that they do not know their sinfulness, and they do not recognise their only Saviour. ‘Being nice’ to them will never teach them either.

          • Martyn Moss

            But in almost every instant you mention he got along side them and healed them first not judging them first. We can all find a Bible quote to support our arguments because we are human and only see what we want to see. And it is still ultimately Jesus who will judge and not us. I could equally quote many from the Bible who sinned but were loved by and were close to God e.g Abraham, David, Samson, Rahab etc. to name but a few. I was once one of those on the street who did not know their sinfulness in more ways than one and I thought my life was great and had no wish to change it. But Jesus reached out to me in a loving and compassion way which changed my life. No mention of my sins.I accepted and confessed them myself when I gave my life to Him. I would think there are more people who come to Christ who are approached in a loving way rather than have sin and damnation thrust down their throats. No one likes to be told they are sinners and shut their ears to it. But treated lovingly and compassionately they become far more amenable. Whilst I’m not judging you, can you honestly and truthfully say you have never committed a sin and I believe that in God’s eyes all sins are equal. Jesus called his disciples and by association us. to be “fishers of men” and to “spread the good news”. yes people need to know the errors of their ways but that comes in time in self revelation through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. God Bless you Dominic

          • Dominic Stockford

            Of course I have sinned, and I still do. But no-one who did not tell me of that sin did me any favours before I came to Christ. Being transformed by Christ is His work, and the wonder of what the Bible teaches is that it is utterly unchanged by us. Whoever God wishes to save will be saved, whoever He wishes to be lost will be lost. Our works do not change the action of God in such things. It was free and utterly undeserved grace that saved each of us from the consequences of our sin, not a nice bloke doing something nice.

        • Annette Kupke

          And what is the sin, in your opinion, Dominic Stockford, committed by a freezing homeless man who needs a sleeping bag, by a student who got separated from his friends during a night out and doesn’t know how to get home, by a busker who is grateful for a cup of coffee, or by girls with hurting feet? In my view, it is not a sin to wear high heel shoes, or even to drink a bit too much. I’m more inclined to call it a sin to be judgemental and uncaring. If you feel the need to rebuke, you might want to have a look at our government, I hear they are currently in the business of bombing people, because it’s not enough for them to starve the poor and the disabled.

          • Dominic Stockford

            “In my view, it is not a sin to wear high heel shoes, or even to drink a bit too much.”
            It is not your view or my view that matters, it is God’s view, revealed to us in the Bible, and the promiscuity and drunken behaviour of the people ‘out on the razzle’ are clearly condemned there, frequently.

        • Eric

          The only people Jesus rebuked were the religious folks criticizing his kindness to the unsaved.

          Look to the pattern of Jesus of meeting a need (food, water, healing) and pointing to an alternative. You ought to give your scripture some context, so I shall help you…

          1) Go sin no more (saved woman from death)
          2) Go get your husband (gave the woman water and talked to her despite it being against jewish law)
          3) Entered the temple (He drove out religious people, brought in blind and lame and healed them)
          4) 10 leppers – (Jesus healed all 10 leppers!)
          5) Sexual immorality – Paul is rebuking the saved, not the unsaved.

          Paul indeed says something about being nice to the unsaved: “It’s the kindness of God that leads you to repentance (Rm 2:4).

          We as Christians are supposed to live as Jesus lived (1 John 2:6). Street pastors sound like they are fulfilling that mission.

          • Dominic Stockford

            “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Rather more accurate and fuller Romans quote, which makes it clear it is nothing to do with this at all, nothing to do with the saved talking to the saved, but with God’s mercy towards the unsaved.

            What is really interesting is that all my critics here tend towards ‘Did God really say’, and that they are desperate to show that ‘good works’ show faith – but as the Bible is clear, even the pagans do as much, and, more pertinently, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

            A pastors task is laid out clearly in the Book of Common Prayer: ” ARE you
            persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing (as required of necessity to eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture? WILL you then give your faithful diligence always so to minister the doctrine and sacraments, and the discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded, and as this Church and Realm hath received the same, according to the commandments of God; so that you may teach the people committed to your cure and charge with all diligence to keep and observe the same? WILL you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word; and to use both publick and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your cures, as need shall require, and
            occasion shall be given? WILL you be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh? WILL you be diligent to frame and fashion your own selves, and your families, according to the doctrine of Christ; and to make both yourselves and them, as much as in you lieth, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ? WILL you maintain and set forwards, as much as lieth in you, quietness, peace, and love, among all Christian people, and specially among them that are or shall be committed to your charge?”

          • Eric

            Galatians 2:20 – “I no longer live, but Christ lives through me.” – the kindness of God comes from the saints which have been given ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17-19). We have been united with God and his kindness is demonstrated through the saints. We ought to live differently so that we are demanded for explanation (1 Peter 3:15). We are instructed to do good deeds to all people (Galatians 6:9; Matthew 5:16) and love our neighbor. I am flabbergasted we are debating about being kind to people (gasp) even while they are sinning. Jesus showed the woman who was caught in the act of adultery kindness.

          • Dominic Stockford

            Christ came not to make people feel good about themselves, but to save them to eternity. The task of Christians is to do what no-one else will or can do, and preach sin and salvation, and Christ crucified to them. Without that they have eternal destruction.

            Further, you clearly haven’t read my original comment about ‘being nice’, I quote: “Which is perfectly fine, if you want to do that.”

          • Eric

            What no one else can do? Are you kidding? Do you think it would news for someone who is drunk to discover that debauchery is a sin? Come on. The role of christians is to be equipped for the works of service (Eph 4:11-16).

            By the way, Christ came to give us life and life abundantly (John 10:10) and to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Who said anything about making people feel good about themselves? Being kind and nice are not the same thing btw.

            When the street pastors who are sober and serving, that gives an awesome example for someone who is incapacitated and at their lowest to assess their life in contrast to a believer. Its the perfect opportunity for them to inquire about “this God you love.” What better demonstration for the transformation on God than this kind of selfless service?

          • Dominic Stockford

            Actions of men do not save. Only the grace of God, freely given by him to those he chooses to give it to, can bring anyone to salvation. Only Christians can preach of the salvation won by Christ’s death on the cross, because only Christians know it to be true. And the Gospel can only be preached through words.

          • Eric

            Ah, I see you are Calvinist and believe in predestination. 

            Every passage Jesus spoke on receiving salvation has the response of man (Jn 1:12, Jn 3:16,  Jn 5:24, Jn 10:9, rev 3:20, mark 16:16, Romans 10:9, acts 2:21; 16:31 and on and on). 

            I am not sure what you are motivated by, but I am motivated to love people and demonstrate Jesus to them so they too will choose life. We might as well stop here as you believe everyone who is destined to be saved will be saved regardless. I couldn’t disagree more. 

          • DocDeegs

            “The gospel can only be preached by words” -rubbish. People judge you far more by your actions than your words, talk is cheap”. There is no point trying to talk to someone on the street at 2am about salvation, you have not been invited to and unless you have Aspergers Syndrome I sure you appreciate that you won’t get anywhere.

          • BC

            If you believe in the sky fairy?

          • Dominic Stockford

            No, He did do this whether or not you believe in Him.

    • Grant Melville

      Yes, I know what you mean. I support what they do, I think it’s a good idea. It is, however, a misappropriation of the term ‘pastor’. A pastor shepherds the flock, it’s a spiritual gift. The work is spiritual. That’s not to say that a person who has the spiritual gift of a pastor can’t or shouldn’t turn his hand to practical tasks, but these things shouldn’t be confused with shepherding in the spiritual sense.

      Yet, this is only to be expected, since ‘pastor’ has become a title and an office to which men are appointed by other men. Ordination has become the business of churches and committees, rather than the movement of the Holy Spirit. In Christendom, so much which is really and essentially of Christ has been given up, and other things which are useless and worthless – things of the world – have been taken on.

      • Dominic Stockford

        It is a good idea – it is Mr Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ in action, and as the Bible says, ‘even the pagans do as much’. Christians need to do what only Christians can do, which is offer eternal hope in the person of Jesus Christ. Thank you for your clarity of understanding.

        • Grant Melville

          That’s exactly it. My concern is that – among the denominations at least – official charity work has eclipsed evangelism. It’s deemed more important to be kind to people than to cause them a moment’s discomfort by speaking about the reality of sin. Of course we should be kind to people. But – as you’ve pointed out yourself – deceiving people about the reality of the sin condition is the opposite of kind: it’s the worst possible thing we can do to a person, to lull them into a false sense of security. Coming to know the Lord Jesus as Saviour brings a real sense of security.

          I feel that this highlights an issue with what’s called evangelism these days (and it’s not a recent issue, sadly). In order to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ and make the gospel somehow ‘acceptable’, any mention of the sin question is whitewashed out. This is, quite frankly, a delusion. I sit under the sound of the gospel each week (and occasionally preach it) and what I hear is a message of God’s great love, grace and mercy, and Christ presented as Saviour in all His attractiveness. The question of sin is addressed, the pressing need of man is fully explained. The result isn’t a hellfire and damnation preaching. The result is a full gospel. I heard of an excellent preaching (one which I wasn’t present at) which the preacher began by saying, “God has been offended!”. The gospel is the “glad tidings”, the good news. That doesn’t, in any sense, exclude the truth that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Against a background of darkness, the glad tidings of God shine all the more brightly.

          • Dominic Stockford

            Excellent post. Put far better than I have done.

    • Chamber Pot

      They are nevertheless doing G-d’s work when G-d fails to help ‘ three kinds of people: fools, children, and drunkards.

      • Dominic Stockford

        An illogical comment.

  • God Bless the street Pastors.

  • Annette Kupke

    The people of Summersby don’t seem to be very nice, if they really call their street pastors mad (though perhaps that’s just sloppy journalism.) Anyway, I can vouch for the people of Stirling, who tend to call us “street angels” or “friends of Jesus” or simply “good people” and who encourage us so much with their many positive comments. And we’re getting lots of hugs. 🙂

  • chump23

    Among the maddest of the discussions I’ve seen here. Cafod should pack it in too, I suppose. Instead of physically helping people and showing the grace of God by example, aid workers should stick to writing theological treatise btl on the speccie website. Awesome. Just awesome.

  • Nicholas Tesdorf

    They are ‘Pastors’ in the true Biblical and Spiritual sense of the word. They are people looking after their Brothers and Christ’s lost flock.

    • Chamber Pot

      They could teach that coward, Welby, something about being a shepherd to his flock.

  • hogsnort

    A bit like the Sharia patrols then?

    • Chamber Pot

      Nothing like it, and not funny, and you know this very well.

      The word ‘non-judgmental’ sums up that difference.

  • Nancyewinter

    Some New Zealand towns and cities have Maori wardens who as lay people with some skills,help and encourage safety in the busier streets or crowded concerts at night.

  • Chamber Pot

    Can we also bring back the Guardian Angels on London Transport please ?

  • Ipsidixit

    There are a number of reasons why I ought to admire the Street Pastors and the work they do – and I do indeed admire them. However, I switched off when I read the words about ‘far right’ trying to capitalise on Lee Rigbys assassination. Someone ought to point out to the speaker that you can’t get further to the right than an organisation that views every non member as subhuman, murders anyone who disagrees with its teaching, stones women and gays, blows up the buildings of other faith groups, etc. Yes I’m referring to Mohammedanism. Others are not right wing simply because they react angrily to Moslem atrocities.