The street at night can be a lonely – and dangerous – place, even if you have a home to go to. Fortunately for us, some of our streets are patrolled by kindly, practical volunteers – the Street Pastors. Luke Randall is one of them.
The Revd Les Isaac was born in Antigua and came to the UK as a young child, growing up in north London with his parents. He experienced gangs and street violence in his teens, becoming a Rastafarian in his search for hope. Then, in his late teens, Les became a Christian. In 2003 he founded the Street Pastors movement, gaining an OBE in 2012 for his work in fostering community cohesion.
The umbrella organisation to Street Pastors is the charity Ascension Trust, which was started 30 years ago. Starting with just a handful of volunteers in Brixton, there are now Street Pastors across more than 250 towns and cities around the UK, with over 20,000 people trained to be involved.
Street Pastors are volunteers from different church backgrounds, all trained and DBS-checked, who provide practical help to vulnerable people, such as the homeless, or those under the influence of drink or drugs, as well as just being a friendly non-judgmental face on the streets, available to chat to anyone.
I became a Street Pastor about 15 years ago in the Greater London area. Having been a Christian for many years, I felt I wanted to do something outside the Church to help people. A Street Pastor neighbour invited me to come out as an ‘observer’. I was blown away by the great reception we got from the young people on the streets, and the ability to support and care for rough sleepers. “Not for me though,” I thought, “I’m too much of an introvert and I don’t have great people skills.”
I went out as an observer a second time, and at the end of the evening the team encouraged me to do the training.
My training was in Brixton; I really enjoyed it, meeting a wide range of people and wandering round Brixton market at lunch time. Training takes place locally or regionally, and is made up of core sessions and a programme of other sessions that are tailored to the local context and needs.
Over the years I have seen many moving, sad, funny, extraordinary, amazing – and more – encounters. These encounters encouraged me, with fellow Street Pastor Sue Shaw, to write the book Stories from the Streets (published in 2020). The book gives lots of stories from around the UK and Antigua, as well as background information about Street Pastors, drugs, the homeless, and more.
The main objectives of Street Pastors can be summarised as: ‘To care for, listen to and help people who are out on the streets’. Typically, Street Pastors patrol in teams of men and women, usually from 10 pm to 4 am on Fridays and Saturdays.
The concept of the ‘urban trinity’ is key to the work of Street Pastors. This is the relationship between the Local Authority, Police and Church. Street Pastors strive to work with and alongside local authorities, registered services, local businesses such as clubs and pubs, and the blue light services.
Bejoy Pal, the current CEO of Ascension Trust, tells of a recent encounter on the streets of Preston: “The police seem to have an unwritten rule, never to mention the ‘Q’ word (quiet). We have experienced something similar when, as the night draws to a close, we suggest it might be ‘time to go back to the cars’. Because then something always seems to happen!
“This particular night was no exception. Cold and damp, we had decided to call it a night at around 3 am, and were walking back to our cars. Approaching us was a man in his late 20s. In a hurry, it seemed. As he neared us, he slowed and looked at us. He stopped. We stopped. ‘Are you Christians?’ he asked, ‘I don’t suppose you have a Bible I could have, do you?’
“It was one of those moments when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, the atmosphere completely changed as we said yes, we did, and started talking to him, digging out a Bible from the rucksack.
“He was a drug dealer, started out young and made his way up the rungs of the business, and was now quite important in the scheme of things. Recently, he had been having thoughts that this was not what he should be doing with his life, and he had decided that he wanted ‘out’.
“However, he knew that that this job was not something he could just walk away from, people would come after him, hurt him, or worse still. ‘But I know,’ he said, holding the Bible in his hand, ‘THIS is the answer.’
“We chatted a little bit more, and one of us prayed with him. Then off he went quickly into town. We have never seen him since. We may never know how our presence changes lives and takes people one more step along their faith journey. We chat to many, and are seen by many more. We care, we listen and we help. We pray, we have faith, we experience the miracles of God.”
In recent years the role of Street Pastors has expanded to include Rail Pastors, Response Pastors and School Pastors.
Rail Pastors are a response to the tragedy of suicides on the railways. Volunteers patrol at a number of railway locations where there have been suicides.
Response Pastors are experienced Street Pastors, who receive additional focused training so they can respond to crisis-level events within 24 hours. They have been present in the aftermath of several tragedies, such as the Shoreham Air Crash (2015), the London Bridge terrorist attack (2017), the Grenfell Tower fire (2017) and the Streatham High Street terrorist attack (2020).
School Pastors are trained volunteers based in and around the school community, where they offer friendship and safety and provide care.
Following another incident that was reported in the Shropshire Star (11th November 2022), the Mayor of Shrewsbury commented, “I went out with the Street Pastors two weeks ago. There was a young female who was spiked. She came to the outside of one of the nightclubs and collapsed on the pavement. If the Street Pastors hadn’t been there, she wouldn’t have made it. Her heart stopped. They had to defib her, there on the street.”
This incident comes against rising awareness of cases of violence against women and girls in the town, with a number of live police investigations.
Roy Beaumont has been coordinator of Street Pastors in Plymouth since 2011. Roy remembered an episode from earlier this year. “We were asked to help a man lying on the ground, sobbing and repeating ‘I just want to end it all.’ I sat down beside him and asked what the matter was and through tears he told me his father had died the day before his 21st birthday and even though he was now 48, the pain had not gone, and that he drank to numb that pain.
“I nodded in understanding, thinking, ‘What on earth do I say here?’ As I listened, the thought came to me to ask, ‘How old was your father when he died?’ ‘Forty-seven,’ came the reply.
“The penny dropped and I remembered that my father had also died at age 47, when I was 21 and on the day before my brother’s 18th birthday. I told him this and felt a bridge had been built.
“Remembering some of our training, I suggested that while suicide might seem like the easy option, it wouldn’t solve the problem; rather it would pass the problem on to someone else, maybe like his elderly mother, who he’d mentioned that he looked after. Did he think his father would want him to do this? ‘No.’
“He had also told me that he was constantly in pain with his back, another reason why he wanted to end it all. I gently offered to pray for healing, which he gladly accepted. As I prayed, my words flowed into also speaking God’s healing and peace into his heart. Wham! It was like a light had been turned on. He brightened up, smiled and, now crying tears of joy and relief, told us that he’d lost his father, but I had now been a father to him!
“He asked why we do what we do and I was able to tell him that God loved us so we go out to serve God, helping others for Him. He readily accepted the encouragement that he wasn’t born to end it all, but to live a full life, and that it was no coincidence that we had walked past at that time. ‘You’ve saved my life,’ he said and hugged us in gratitude as we left.
“Thinking about it afterwards I was gobsmacked with the whole episode – for us to ‘happen’ to meet this man whose father, like mine, had died at age 47, the day before his/my brother’s birthday. God cared so much for him that He arranged a ‘coincidental’ meeting with just the right Street Pastor at just the right time.”
A key motto for both the Ascension Trust and Street Pastors is: ‘Reaching out to where you are’. They do this by seeking out the least, the last, and the lost, and bringing them into a place of safety and hope.
And Les Isaac? He continues to challenge the status quo; Sajid Javid was inspired to quit the Government last year after hearing Les teach on integrity at a Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast in Westminster.
Whilst 20 years is a milestone to celebrate, there’s a lot still to do. If you’d like to find out more about what’s involved, visit www.streetpastors.org
Stories from the Streets, by Luke Randall and Sue Shaw, is available via https://www.storiesfromthestreets.org/