From the Rectory
March 2010

Matthew 25:31-46
'For as much as you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters you did it to me.'

Street Pastors; One Year On: An Update

When I was in hospital just before Christmas having surgery on my shoulder, I came to appreciate what it was like to be the patient and not the visitor at the bedside. I wasn't there long enough for any of you to visit me, but I did receive telephone calls and emails from some of you asking how I was, and was there anything that you could do to help. That response clearly resonates with the above reading from Matthew: Christian discipleship in action.

A couple of years ago Lesley Cunningham and I slept in cardboard boxes one night in Winchester to raise money for the homeless. It was uncomfortable and cold. Again I did appreciate something of what it is like to wake up with no food or washing facilities and with my bones aching from the hard ground, as the homeless do, day after day: a small experience for me, but a valuable insight nevertheless; an experience which also relates to the reading.

That reading from Matthew is often used by the Southampton Street Pastors to encourage and inspire them to go out into the night-time economy, and undertake the work that Jesus bids them do. To do it for our brothers and sisters as if we were doing it for him. I'd like now to give you a little update on the work that is currently being done by this group of committed Christians during the wee small hours in the city centre, just about a mile from here. They go out every Friday and Saturday night of the year. That included last year, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

The Street Pastors scheme was planned right here in this Church. A hundred Churches in Southampton were invited to take part and thirty-four are now engaged in some way. There are forty-eight Street Pastors and a team of Prayer Partners. We have a full-time co-ordinator and are based in the YMCA building at the top of London Road. Richard Jacob and I are Street Pastors and one other person from this Church is looking to see if God is calling him to this work as well. A new group is now being trained, which will enable more teams to go out on more evenings.

We have been fortunate to secure all the funding necessary from various bodies, amongst them, the Police, the City Council, the University and many of the Churches. We gave over 700 from this Church towards the running costs. Because of the nature of the work and the results which are recorded and documented we are sure of future funding. Street Pastors are making a big difference to the streets of Southampton city centre at the week-ends; we have proof of it and the acknowledgement and support of the police to back it up.

The people involved come from every Church tradition and style, but with one common uniting purpose, to care, to listen and to help those who are in need or vulnerable. When different Church traditions meet for worship we are often shocked at the differences of style, all 'bells and smells' or too 'happy-clappy', or whatever else, for our comfort. When the Street Pastors are working together there are no such concerns or worries, we just get on with it, and work together in God's name and to his glory.

Because of the operation on my shoulder I had to drop out of active duty for two months. It can be quite rough out there, you do get jostled and pushed at times and I couldn't afford any further injury. My last duty was on Friday 5th. February. It rained all night long, and I discovered that the uniform that we are given is not as weatherproof as I might have wished. I arrived at headquarters at 9.30p.m for a briefing, preparation and prayer, then off we went, five of us. We had mobile phone links with the YMCA and a direct radio link with the police. I arrived back home at 5.00 a.m with the birds singing. Lys got up for work at 6.00 a.m. - we were like ships that pass in the night, a night which was both eventful and challenging.

If you walk down London Road or around Bedford Place in the daytime it is relatively quiet and calm, but during the night hours it is very noisy, very crowded, and illuminated as if it were the middle of the day. How the residents who actually live in that area manage I cannot imagine. We patrolled from the top of London Road right down to the back of Debenhams and through the parks. We made this circuit three times. I'm not sure how many miles that adds up too. One break for coffee and to warm up at 1.30a.m and then back out. It's good exercise if nothing else.

Whilst on patrol we collect any glass on the streets, broken or whole, and dispose of it. It is then no longer available as dangerous weapons. One night over seventy glass bottles were removed from the street and its revellers. The Police report that on the evenings that Street Pastors are out on the streets violent crime in the city centre of Southampton is reduced by 15%. Our record keeping proves it, and that's why the Police are ready to fund us in the way that they do.

The first major encounter we had was with three young girls, who said they were fifteen years old. They had lost their friend, also fifteen. They were drunk and didn't want to ask the police for help, but after talking to them we managed to persuade them that they could help. We eventually found the lost girl collapsed beneath the Bargate tower. Between them they had drunk a litre of Vodka, the lost girl thought she might be pregnant and was incapable of standing up. She was sitting in her own vomit. We re-united them and after some gentle TLC they staggered off home towards St. Mary's together. They found the whole experience frightening but hopefully they will be more responsible next time they go out together, although I somehow doubt it.

The second major incident was an encounter with a young man of twenty-eight. We were summoned by the police to meet them at the back of the Peacocks store, Above Bar. The man had collapsed amongst the bins, his trousers were round his ankles and he couldn't stand. I managed to get his trousers up and fastened, not a terribly nice experience, but necessary, and between us we walked him around until he could stand up. He became violent, and after about an hour of trying to help him, he collapsed at the back of Debenhams banging his head. We wrapped him in a blanket and called a Paramedic who said the man had drunk to excess and then overdosed on drugs. He then called an ambulance which took him off to hospital and we stayed until they had gone.

Outside of what used to be the Tyrell and Green Department Store there was a lot of blood on the pavement resulting from an incident when a broken nose and a broken arm resulted. Several shop windows had been smashed. There were crowds of young people running about, drinking from wine bottles, semi clad and shouting their heads off; a truly shocking picture for anyone who came to visit the city that night.

The last event of the night again involved a young woman. She had come over from the Isle of Wight to meet up with friends from Southampton, and to party. They had gone back to Thornhill without her. Her handbag had been stolen, along with her bank cards, driving licence and keys. All she had was her mobile phone, but she was too drunk and hysterical to use it. We calmed her down and walked her to the Police Station in the Civic Centre. We arranged for her to cancel her bank cards over the phone in the police station and eventually managed to phone her friends using her phone. The police then drove her to Thornhill. It was now 4.10 a.m.

We walked back to the YMCA, unpacked and stored our equipment, made out the logs and reports and went our separate ways. My experience is no different to that of the other groups any night that they go out, as I'm sure Richard will substantiate. Incidents will vary, but the level of violence and drunkenness is the same. What a sorry state we have gotten ourselves into.

What is the answer? I really am challenged by this. Who is really responsible? Well, I think perhaps we all are, and unless we respond ourselves to such a challenge it will get no better. What I do know is that without the Street Pastors things would be even worse. We do what we can, and I think that we all went home feeling that we'd been of some assistance to some very vulnerable young people. We'd done what the gospel reading asks of us.

Yours for Christ's sake.