Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cheltenham Street Pastors First Anniversary

A service commisioning twelve new Street Pastors and celebrating one year of Street Pators in Cheltenham at Cambray Baptist Church. A message shared by Richard Cleaves of Highbury.

Perfect Love Casts out Fear

It was 4-10 on a Saturday morning a month or so ago that I found myself in the company of four of our Street Pastors as we made our way back to the Salvation Army at the end of what I was told had been a quiet evening, but not an uneventful one.

It was one of our older Street Pastors who said something to me that has stayed with me ever since.

“I think quite differently about going out into Cheltenham in the evening now! I used to be fearful of all the young people. Now I realise they are with very few exceptions lovely people who are looking out for each other. I no longer feel such a fear about going into Cheltenham in the evening”

I used to be fearful … I no longer feel such a feel.

What she said registered with me because over the years I have sensed that people over a certain age, and I count myself among those who are over a certain age, find Cheltenham at night a scary place. Indeed I have sensed a very real ‘fear’ of the town centre after dark among many of an older generation. It is the kind of fear that has almost made the town centre after dark a no-go area for many.

It is a fear I have shared.

In catching the vision for Street Pastors the churches have Cheltenham have made it clear that that is a fear that we must not run away from and allow simply to take a hold of our town centre. It is rather a fear that needs to be faced, a fear that needs to be addressed.

Street Pastors addresses that fear in a number of ways.

First, groundless fears can be allayed.

What my friend was sharing with me I too had observed. Actually the great majority of young people who are out on a Friday night and Saturday night are looking out for each other, are simply there to have a good time, in just the way every generation has done. It’s no bad thing that our increasing number of Street Pastors can feed that kind of observation back into the thinking of people who have exaggerated fears of Cheltenham after dark.

But … and it is an important ‘but’. It is quite apparent from the police and from Accident and Emergency that things do happen that are pretty scary, fuelled as they are by our society’s current inability to respond appropriately to the alcohol crisis.

In that context fear is no bad thing, giving rise to a proper caution.

This is where the Street Pastor initiative really comes into its own. It seeks to add into the mix of the night time economy simply a presence that is there to help where help is needed. But in doing that it takes seriously the kind of fear that it is proper to have.

The Street Pastors organisation recognises that

Justifiable fears must be respected.

In doing that it takes a leaf out of Jesus’ book. When sending out his friends into what in its own way was an equally scary world, Jesus urged them to be

Wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Yes, be gentle as a dove, but also as wise as a serpent.

It is simply the ‘presence’ of the Street Pastors in that ‘gentle way’ that can make all the difference. But that presence is also underpinned with the wisdom of a serpent. As those who are being commissioned tonight know only too well, however enthusiastic and keen, Street Pastors only go out once they have completed a rigorous training programme, that addresses issues around alcohol, drugs, violence and so much more.

Street Pastors only go out in pairs, and always with two lots of pairs keeping within sight of each other. One of the pair is in constant touch through an ear piece and microphone with the night-safe radio network that links all those involved in the clubs and in security with the police control room, while the other of the pair has a mobile phone linking them directly with the remaining pair of the team of six who are back at the base in the Salvation Army.

After an hour and a half with two pairs, I then stayed back for an hour and a half at the base.

We were listening into the radio channel. It wasn’t long before we heard one of our Street Pastors calling in to the Police control room. It looked as if a fight was about to start on the Strand. They requested the control room to turn the cameras in that direction. Within a couple of minutes a police officer had arrived. But only one. His presence was enough to stop the fight breaking out, but it was still ugly. Only a couple of minutes later we heard the Police Control room calling our Street Pastors. A young girl had all but passed out and police were in attendance at Boots Corner. Our Street Pastors walked over to Boots Corner and took over from the police. They talked gently with the young girl, shared water with her, got her back to her feet and at her request walked her home. Meanwhile the police were able to reinforce their colleague on the Strand.

The next day the Echo did not report a fight on the Strand, A & E did not have to cope with any injuries from what could have become an ugly incident and no ambulance was called out to the young girl. And none of those things got into any statistics because you cannot report what did not happen!

The presence of those Street Pastors made all the difference as they were as wise as serpents and as gentle as is a dove.

I sat in on the very start of the training of those who have been commissioned tonight. It was great to see the enthusiasm and the commitment of everyone there as people from their 20’s to their 70’s introduced themselves. Right at the outset one thing was made absolutely clear by the trainer.

Street Pastors is not about ‘evangelising’ or ‘proselytising’. It had hardly happened, the trainer said, but when it had arisen Street Pastors is absolutely clear – anyone using Street Pastors as a platform to evangelise will be asked to leave the organisation.

What motivates us all in Street Pastors, those in the management group, those behind the scenes, as much as those who go on the streets is our shared Christian commitment to the God who is described in that passage from 1 John 4. This is what motivates us.

Let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God, and knows God.

For us who are Street Pastors what counts is not so much the strength of our love for God, but rather the wonder of God’s love for us.

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to the atoning sacrifice for our sins, the means by which our sins are forgiven.

God is love.

That’s what drives us. But what the Street Pastor does is not to evangelise with some kind of tract.

It is simply to be there to help, embodying that kind of love by sweeping up broken glass with a dustpan and brush, by handing out a pair of flip flops to a girl whose high heeled shoes have let her down and who is trying to get home in bare feet over pavements sometimes strewn with broken glass, it is handing out a simple bottle of water.

It is the gentleness of the loving presence that is all important and that makes all the difference.

It was in the third shift of that night that I found myself walking with those four street pastors past the Everyman Theatre up Regent’s Street towards Marks and Spencer.

Just ahead of us as the road narrows was a group of three or four thirty-something men. They were hurling abuse, nasty abuse, at a larger group who were facing down from the other end of what is quite a narrow stretch of road. It was ugly. The four street pastors knew what they were going to do; I wasn’t quite so sure. They had had the training. I hadn’t. What’s more they were wearing the Street Pstors uniform – I too was in uniform, but I felt as if I stuck out like a sore thumb in my white anorak with a yellow flurescent jacket over it. I felt that fear coming on.

I joined the other four in simply walking past the first group and towards the top of the head. We were walking in that slow pace I always associated with the opening credits of the Bill. The abuse was now going over our heads. But it was apparent that the ones behind us were now walking away towards the theatre. All but one of the gang ahead of us drifted away up the High Street.

But one remained. One of our team recognised him from his clothing. He had been thrown out of a couple of pubs and had been causing trouble through the evening.

He accosted us and asked us who we were and what we were doing. I guess from a distance the uniforms had clearly shown we were something ‘official’. As soon as he learned we were street pastors, he turned all his invective, abuse and wrath on God. By now a young couple of freshers had joined us, she with bare feet. One of our Street pastors turned to them. The boy wanted to join in the conversation. We were willing him just to take the girl away. Then very gently, one of the Street Pastors simply listened and shared his view of God and God’s love. Ten or fifteen minutes later, we had learned of a pretty horrible situation that young man was in. We had shared something with him at his instigation of that love of God that motivated us. And by that time the anger we had encountered twenty minutes before had gone. He went his way, no longer part of ‘a gang’.

Again, there were no broken windows or limbs for the Echo to report the next night

It was one of those many moments when we were simply living out that kind of love that John speaks of that goes to the heart of our Christian faith.

And with that kind of love something else happens. Something happens to that fear which we are so wanting to address.

God is love, John tells us. And those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world.

Then comes the insight that is so vital.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear …

Groundless fears can be allayed … but that is not enough!

Justifiable fears must be respected … but that is not enough!

Street Pastors offers something more … the conviction that

Perfect love casts out fear.

We are in the business of casting out fear.

We do that simply by embodying in simple acts of kindness and timely gestures of help, the love that is the very nature of God.

That’s what was so significant in what friend Kathleen had to say that evening

“I used to be fearful … I no longer feel such a fear”

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

What is that holds us to that conviction?

What is it that makes us want to be in the business of driving out fear?

We love because he first loved us.

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