To the sound of police sirens and with news of a spate of gangrelated stabbings still fresh, Natalie Valios joined a group of street pastors on a Friday night out to dispense secular support to south London’s teenagers
It’s 7.45pm on a dark Friday night and I’m wandering round the graveyard of St Nicholas Church in Sutton, south London, looking for the church office. I can think of places I’d rather be on a dark, Friday night.
This turn of events is because I’m due to meet the town’s street pastors. Street pastors aim to work with young people marginalised from society. They get to know people in the community and build relationships with them to find out their needs and what can be done to help them (see Street Talk).
In Sutton, the group is led by Mark Tomlinson, pastor of St Helier Community Church. Two police officers are here to brief the group before they patrol the streets. Andy Barnes, sergeant in charge of the town centre team with Sutton police, and Alan Pospiech, community support officer with the town centre team, have accompanied them all year. Their initial scepticism faded fast, says Andy.
“To start with I thought it’s going to be a nightmare because there are going to be more people for us to worry about. But they weren’t in your face preaching, which is what I thought would happen. They were willing to deal with things that we don’t have time for. They are happy to sit and have a chat with people for an hour if that’s what they want.”
Alan adds: “There are quite a lot of single drunk females who get separated from their group and it’s reassuring to know that there are friendly people about who make sure they get home safely.”
The street pastors start to arrive: Nick Boddy, Ade Adebayo, Tora and Tom Vesper and Rona Forzani. They are all members of the congregation from local churches. Andy briefs us with the less than reassuring news that “there have been an awful lot of stabbings between groups of youths” in the area recently. It’s no coincidence that Sutton police have just joined the Londonwide knife crime initiative, aptly called Operation Blunt.
“There are a lot of young people at the bottom of the high street who aren’t from Sutton, but from Merton and Croydon because they have dispersal zones there which we don’t. They are turning up here and we have gangs clashing.
“We are having a lot of problems with them – they don’t listen to the police. It’s fantastic that you are going down there because it will be in a non-confrontational way. We want to know why they are there in the wet and cold.”
I’m beginning to think it’s not quite so fantastic that we are going down there. Andy finishes by saying that they are on duty until 2am so “if you need us, call us”. “We will make sure the CCTV is on for you and if you are speaking to someone make sure you are doing this in the light where CCTV can see you.”
Mark says street pastors work in partnership with the police rather than alongside them. “It’s important that young people don’t think we are passing information to them. They need to be able to trust us.” Their aims, he says, are to be a visible and consistent presence on the streets “because young people want to see that people care”.
“Our role isn’t to preach, we only talk to them about God when they ask or if they want us to pray for them. It would scare them off otherwise. We are not trained youth workers, but are going as people who want to express God’s love in practical ways.”
Nick adds: “If we are out every Friday night, young people might start to look for us if they are in trouble. That’s the sort of experience that street pastors in other areas have had.”
Once Andy and Alan have left, the group moves into the church where Mark gives his briefing and then leads the group into prayer: “We want to pray to you, Lord, that you will be leading us to those who need comfort or listening or encouragement. We want to pray that there will be safety to us and those on the streets.”
There are murmurings of assent and they take it in turn to pray. I feel like I’m intruding on a private moment.
By 8.45pm we’re ready to go. Everyone dons jackets and in some cases baseball caps emblazoned with “street pastor”. Just as we leave, it starts to rain. The group splits in two and each moves off. By the time we reach the bottom of the high street it’s 9.05pm and already there are two groups of teenagers – one of boys, one of girls – hanging around outside Asda. I’m curious to see how they’ll respond to us.
The girls call out “Hi, street pastors” and we walk over. They’ve seen the pastors out before and soon strike up a friendly banter.Sixteen-year-old Alice says the girls are waiting for friends before going to the cinema. She’s in favour of the street pastors, saying “it’s a good idea”.
Meanwhile, the lads call to the street pastors. They are friendly, but keep their distance. Mark says: “I’ve seen the group of guys before, but in terms of getting to talk to them it will take a bit of time because of all the bravado. They don’t know the girls, they’re just hanging around; they see a bunch of girls and gravitate towards them.”
We move on and soon come across another group of boys with cans of beer and cigarettes who start saying “no, no, no” as we approach, but then seem happy to talk to the street pastors about why they are out on the streets. “There’s no trouble going on, we’re waiting for a few people and going to a party,” says one.
As we leave, Nick says: “It’s always hard to work out how to pitch your conversation when you meet new groups. I think they ae checking out whether we are community support officers. It’s important to establish our credentials that we are not one of the authorities. It takes time to build up trust.”
Nick became a street pastor because “it’s about taking yourself outside the comfort of the church and doing good work. “I compare the church to a dung heap – it pongs if you keep it altogether but if you spread it around it does the garden good.”
The street pastors also visit all the late night shops, cafés and kebab joints to speak to the owners, asking whether they’ve had any problems and letting them know of their presence. In the late night grocery store the owner tells Mark that they have two problems: shoplifting and under-age children who have been trying to buy alcohol.
He asks Mark whether the street pastors have a help line – which they don’t – so Mark gives his mobile number instead.
Outside, as another police siren starts up, a group of girls is on the pavement in front of the Red Lion pub. They’re dressed for a Friday night out but, at 15, are too young to go inside. Instead, this is how they spend their weekend evenings. They start talking to the street pastors about wanting somewhere they can go dancing.
Charlotte says: “There’s nowhere for under-16s. We want to dance, we need a youth centre or a nightclub. There’s nothing to do except stand on the streets and drink, and we are pestered by the police every 20 minutes.”
They ask people they don’t know to buy them alcohol and bring it outside, she says. By this time – 9.45pm – there are more than 30 young people in this part of the high street. One girl, Shaynee, falls over on the pavement and cuts her hip. Tora goes to the nearby shop to buy antiseptic wipes and a plaster to clean her up. While she’s doing this, a couple of the lads walk over, bottles of beer in their hands, to talk to Mark and Nick, saying: “We’ve seen you before.”
As two more police sirens whoop in the distance, Mark says: “Some of them like to be a bit in your face to start with, a bit intimidating. But most are like this lot, chatty.”
The complaint from Charlotte is nothing new, but it has Mark thinking: “I’d like to be involved in setting up something like a nightclub or a venue and get young DJs in, but keep it clean with no drink or drugs.”
While this has been going on, a man called Bob has come out of the pub with his pint to talk to Nick. “He’s in a well-paid job, but obviously lonely. He started questioning what life is all about and asked if I’d go for a pint with him and have a chat so I gave him my number.”
We head back to the church for a debriefing and a cup of tea to warm up. By 11pm we’re back out again, this time walking to the top end of the high street where most of the bars are congregated. But before we get far we meet Jamie, 16, and his girlfriend, Jazlyn. Jamie seems the worse for wear and I’m surprised when, rather than telling us where to go, he stops and says: “I really need to open up to someone. I’m really fucked up at the moment.”
Mark asks him why he’s feeling like this and Jamie tells him how his evening has gone wrong, “I feel really stressed and I don’t know what it is.”
As they chat to him, Alanna Coombes, the town centre marketing and strategy manager, walks by on her way home after a night out. She stops to introduce herself to Nick and tells me: “Sutton is one of the safest London boroughs and I want to keep it that way. I want people to feel safe when they come to the town centre and the street pastors are really helping in this.”
Meanwhile, Mark is asking Jamie if they can pray for him, to which he says “yes, I want to open up to someone”. It’s taken me a while to decide whether Jamie is genuine, particularly as Jazlyn is looking on with a mixture of bemusement and embarrassment.
After praying, Jamie says: “You’ve relieved the stress. I’m so glad I bumped into you when I wasn’t with my friends otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to speak to you. You have touched me tonight, thank you.”
He swaps numbers with Mark in case he wants to come to any youth events. All street pastors are checked with the Criminal Records Bureau and Mark is the only one who gives his number to young people.
After pausing to talk to the bouncers outside the next pub, we find a homeless man on the steps of Lloyds TSB round the next corner. They start to chat and Mark tells him of a place run by Emmanuel Church in Croydon that accommodates homeless people during the winter.
Just in front of him a woman is handing out fliers to a nearby club. She seems cheerful enough, but when Tora starts talking to her and she realises someone will listen, her story comes pouring out and soon they are in deep conversation. Marta is from the Czech Republic. She is paid £30 for two nights’ work and is upset by the abuse children give her on the streets. In her country, children respect adults, she says.
She wants a job as a cleaner, but she cannot find one because her accent is difficult to understand over the phone. “I believe in God too, but bad stuff happens, things never come good,” she says.
Mark takes her number after Tora suggests one of them help her find a job. Tora says: “It’s a privilege when you get a little window into people’s lives and they open up and chat to you.”
It’s 11.45pm and another police siren sounds. We bump into Andy and Alan halfway up the high street. Alan says there hasn’t been much trouble in the high street but “lots kicked off in the borough between the gangs with knives”.
By midnight we’re back at the church. The other group phones to say that they are accompanying a woman to her bus stop because she feels vulnerable. I hadn’t been sure what to expect, but it wasn’t the response the street pastors received, especially from the young people. Evidently, it really is good to talk.
Street Pastors is an interdenominational church response to urban problems, engaging with people on the streets to care, listen and offer practical help. It is aimed at reducing crime and antisocial behaviour. It was pioneered in London in January 2003 by Rev Les Isaac, director of the Ascension Trust and an Antiguan pastor.
As well as several parts of London, there are projects in Birmingham, Leicester, Wrexham, Manchester, Southend, and Weston super Mare. Earlier this year, one was launched in Antigua too.
Each project is set up by the trust and run by a local co-ordinator in partnership with the police, council and other statutory agencies. The Sutton project has been running for a year.
Street pastors undergo a 12-day training course covering drugs awareness, how social services and the police work; parenting skills and values; and unemploymentrelated issues. In Sutton, the police have provided money to subsidise training.
Contact the author
This article appeared in the 30 November issue under the headline “Pastor don’t preach”