Christians are volunteering to walk the streets late into the night to give practical help and demonstrate God’s love. Emma John discovers that these Street Pastors are making an impact - local police are cooperating, crime rates are dropping and people’s negative assumptions about Christians are being challenged.

In the street there’s a tell-tale yellow board. Police Warning, it announces. Fatal incident last Tuesday 2.21am. Did you see anything?

The street is Kingsland High Road in the London borough of Hackney, where yellow boards of this kind are a common sight. I glance at my watch. It is not far off 2am. I live less than a mile from here, and know this place well enough to know that I should be not walking around it this late at night. Hackney, home to the infamous ‘murder mile’, has a reputation for guns and gangs, and one of the highest rates of street crime in the capital. Most of it happens in the early hours.

I am not alone, however. Walking alongside me are five members of Hackney’s Street Pastors team. Members of local churches, these men and women freely volunteer their time to walk the streets, engage with the community, and be a reassuring presence in the neighbourhood. Their vision – one they realise on a weekly basis – is to bring peace, hope and love to an underprivileged and often dangerous part of the city.

It’s a vision they share with 450 others nationwide. Street Pastors was founded in Brixton in 2003 with 18 volunteers; it now has teams in towns and cities all over the UK, including Birmingham and Manchester’s Moss Side. Most operate on Friday and Saturday evenings, when nightlife is at its peak. Volunteers, who work on monthly rotas, range from 18-year-olds to grandparents, and come from every element of the church spectrum. It’s a powerful demonstration of a unified church coming together simply to demonstrate Christ’s love.

In the murder mile

Hackney’s team began in 2003 with six members; it now has 39, and tonight the streets will be blessed with a double crew, thanks to a recent influx of recruits. We gather at Faithful Ministries, a small church located on the notorious murder mile, from which Rev Joyce Daley co-ordinates the Hackney Initiative. Daley briefs the group; it has been a troublesome week, with several gangs smashing cars. It’s 10.30pm and, before we leave, the tiny building fills with the sound of prayer, praise and song as the team ask for God’s blessing on the hours ahead.

Kingsland High Road is buzzing. It’s a multi-ethnic street that encompasses several different communities – among them Nigerian, Turkish, Cypriot and Kurdish – and each has its own patch of restaurants, bars and clubs. Teenagers hang around on street corners; the barber shops are still open, and inside old men are drinking coffee and playing chess.

The main activity for any Street Pastor is simply to talk, and to listen, to those they meet. They spread out in small groups – each with a designated leader – and their uniform of blue jackets and baseball caps, with the words ‘Street Pastor’ emblazoned across them, sparks recognition among some, curiosity in others. Bouncers nod from doorways; some now know certain Street Pastors well and beckon them over for a chat.

“There’s a silent respect for the word pastor,” says Joyce. “We have talked to crack dealers, heroin addicts, the lot. And when they see us, they’ll generally behave themselves.” Nevertheless, conflict and violence is an unavoidable part of the street life. Street Pastors aim to prevent and minimize it, by protecting the vulnerable, and by acting as pacifiers in inflammatory situations. “It’s good to walk a bunch of teenage girls home so they’re back in safe hands,” says Colin, one of the team leaders. “I would like to think if it was my daughter that someone would care for her in that same way.”

We turn down an alleyway that the Hackney team know well. They often come here: it leads to a nightclub with a reputation for drug dealing and the atmosphere – the alleyway is a hang-out for users – is often fractious. Yet just their presence, tonight, is enough to spread calm. There have been hairy moments. Joyce recalls when her team came across a young man, high on crack, threatening a stranger at a bus stop with a machete. “He decided he was going to take this guy’s head off. We just kept talking to him and telling him ‘This isn’t happening tonight’.” She says it’s important not to be afraid, but to trust in God for protection. And in three years of operations, not a single Street Pastor has been harmed, here in Hackney or in any part of Britain. “We have never had so much as a stubbed toe or a splinter,” smiles Joyce.

[subhead] Show and tell

It’s the early hours, and the streets have become quieter. At a bus stop the team waits with an elderly woman until her bus arrives; Colin discusses the World Cup with two guys drinking from cans. He has an easy way with people and seems to leave every conversation with a new friend. “A burning desire to help people should be the main reason you want to become a Street Pastor,” says Coling. “Because, yes, it’s great to preach the gospel, but if I can show people the message then that’s ten times better than speaking.” During the day, this 29-year-old is a civil engineer. “I’m just interested in a concrete and steel jungle,” he laughs. “Put roads in, put buildings up, turn green fields into offices. This is my atonement!”

Also out on patrol tonight is Superintendent Leroy Logan, of the Metropolitan Police. Street Pastors exists as part of what Joyce calls the ‘urban trinity’ – police, church and community – and Logan is here to see their work from the ground. “We work with Street Pastors at every level of policing,” explains Logan, who has been amazed by their achievements. “They have a real significant impact in reducing the heat out of situations.”

It was Logan, himself a Christian, who helped Street Pastors establish its training procedures and its operational protocols from the outset. Recruits have to complete a 12-session course – spread out over 12 weeks – before they can wear the jacket. It covers various aspects from drugs awareness to basic self defence and first aid; but for Colin, becoming streetwise was the most vital lesson. He had already had a near escape when, breaking up a fight, he failed to see a hammer in the assailant’s pocket. “We did a lot of roleplays, and they taught us to be vigilant and what to look for when you’re in a situation,” he explains. “That’s so practical. When you go on the streets there’s an awareness of where you are who’s around you and what’s going on.”

Crucially, the training also teaches about the various agencies and structures in place to help those with social problems so that when Street Pastors confront issues like homelessness, addiction and abuse, they can refer people on to someone who can help them. Because Street Pastors isn’t just about a gospel of peace; it’s also about a gospel of new hope.

Sickened by rising crimeThe concept of Street Pastors was conceived by Rev Les Isaac, Rev David Shosanya and Detective Ian Crichlow eight years ago. It is currently being developed by Les Isaac. He was sickened by the rising levels of crime and antisocial behaviour in the UK, especially after one visit to Derby, where he saw a group of youths terrorising local residents. “I was amazed particularly at how young these children were. They didn’t fear the law, and intimidated the whole community. There were no boundaries.”

He felt that God had “an agenda” for the church “to respond to this very high level of violence that’s in the world today.” But how? Tackling crime, violence and culture of disrespect was not, as he puts it, “running a toddlers’ group”. He could see that churches wanted to help, but didn’t know what they could do.

Isaacs sensed that something radical was needed. “We have to be men and women who are willing to take risks, to step outside the comfort zone,” he says.“We have got to ask ourselves how do we bring about peace in minds, homes, hearts and communities today. We can retreat to the suburbs and countryside and think we are safe. Or we can focus on Jesus and his will and say ‘We are part of the solution.’”

Months of in-depth research followed as Isaacs prepared a study on what that solution might be. He ended up in Jamaica, whose population has both the highest church attendance in the world, and the highest homicide rate. The church there had learned the benefits of collaborative, long-term mission that met people at their point of need. The seeds of Street Pastors were sown, and, back home, Isaacs shared his vision of a multi-denominational outfit that would engage with the community in a practical manner.

It was, for him, a simple matter of doing “what church does best – loving people and loving the marginalised”. But take-up was disappointing. Although hundreds of church leaders were invited to take part in the scheme, Isaacs began with only 18 volunteers, 14 of them women. Undeterred, he launched the scheme in his home borough of Lambeth.

There are now dozens of towns and cities clamouring to be part of the scheme. “We are doing something people want,” says Isaacs. It can’t be denied – reactions on the street in Hackney are overwhelmingly positive, from young and old alike (there’s an added amazement when people realise Street Pastors are not paid for their time). But more importantly, Isaacs has figures that suggest the Street Pastors are considerably reducing crime. In Lewisham, street disorder is 30% down in the areas where Street Pastors operate; in Southwark that figure is even more startling – with a 74% reduction in Camberwell (based on Met Police Disorder Data).

Seaside communitySouthend put their first team on the streets in May last year. A seaside community, it faces completely different challenges to an inner-city area like Hackney, with a night-time population that swells as revellers descend en masse for late-night drinking and dancing. Walk down the high street at 8.30pm and it feels like a ghost town. Exactly an hour later, there’s a boisterous game of football in the mall and the place is teeming with dressed-up girls and dressed-down lads on their night out. You can already hear the sound of bottles being smashed in the street.

One of the initiatives the Southend Street Pastors have begun is to pick up and bin the many stray bottles they find strewn around. Bottle attacks are among the most common forms of violence here. “I’ve seen a girl who’s had a glass smashed on her for no reason, just because someone had a glass,” says Adam, one of the team leaders. “It really does help, gives less objects for people to use on each other.”

“You’ll seen the change in people coming down the high street,” says David Ince, who heads up the Southend operation. “Come 2 o’clock in the morning they can be a totally different person, because they’re fuelled up with drink or drugs.” Unlike London, transport facilities don’t operate here late at night, and getting home is a major problem. “If they have to loiter round they get bored and things can kick off.”

The dynamic of the Street Pastors operation here couldn’t be more different from its Hackney cousin. There, the large majority of volunteers were in their 20s and 30s, black, often ministering to those older than themselves. Several of the Southend group are in their 40s and 50s; the average age on the street is little more than 18. In Hackney, danger seems to lurk in the quiet and shadowy backstreets and corners. Here, trouble announces itself with loud cries and raucous laughs, as partyers spill noisily down the pavement, swigging alcopops and lager.

Down by the seafront, teenagers are gathered round their cars, bonnets up, woofers blaring. A group of young lads, no older than 15, are trying to find the train station. Suspicious at first, they seem delighted to discover that the Street Pastors aren’t going to lecture them, just give them directions.

A tall, wiry man named Mick approaches the group, brandishing a set of keys. Mick, who has been living on the streets for seven years, is well known to the Street Pastors; tonight he has come to thank them for their support and help. He has a new flat. “And I’m out doing sandwich runs,” he adds. “Put that word out for your people, ‘cos they’re doing the world of good.” One of the team phones back to base – a prayer team is covering the evening’s work and likes to hear good news.

Police liaisonA police van draws up to compare notes with the Street Pastors. Some forces were sceptical when Street Pastors was first formed; now many Street Pastors groups are partly funded by them. Street Pastors inform the local duty officer before they go patrolling, and the police in turn share information, and often suggest trouble spots they would particularly like covered. It has been a quiet night so far, but the team are well aware that this is a regular pattern. Chucking out time – 2am – is when things heat up, and brawls outside the clubs are common. It’s then that the uniform does its best work, says Mark, a Street Pastor who has seen a number of fights. “You go in there and they look round and see someone in uniform and once their brain has got out of fight mode you can start talking to them, distracting them.”

So off we head to Lucy Road, which houses the town’s three largest clubs. Moments after closing time a large fight spills out of the club and onto the street. The police are on the scene in seconds, and gone almost as quickly. But the Street Pastors stay around to see if anyone needs help.

As the crowd disperses, it reveals a typical sight – a young woman lying unconscious on the pavement, her brother vainly trying to bring her round. Chris has had a few himself, and he’s pretty agitated. As two of the Street Pastors tend to his sister Mary, he explains that he’s just found out her boyfriend is in hospital. “We were inside, we didn’t know what happened,” he says. “We’d had a couple of fights in there, he came out here and was smacked on the back of the head.”

Two of the Street Pastors stay with Mary, and put a call in to the ‘SOS Bus’, a voluntary first-aid centre manned by St John’s Ambulance helpers, who send out their rapid response vehicle. Another member of the team talks to Chris and calms him down. Mary’s not able to get back into her high heels, but that doesn’t matter – the Street Pastors carry flipflops, which they give out for just such occasions. Half an hour later, they’re putting the pair in a taxi. It’s 4am before the Street Pastors make it back to base for their debrief.

Practical loveIt’s the kind of selfless, patient kindness towards strangers that anyone familiar with the tale of the Good Samaritan would recognise – and yet it is profoundly changing people’s image of Christianity. Scott, who came out the club at the same time as Chris and Mary, has watched the whole event unfold. “When I saw they were Street Pastors I thought, ‘Oh no, they’re going to bash on about the Bible’,” he observes. “But I think it’s brilliant what they do. It takes a lot for someone to do that, people are so caught up in their own lives. You treat others how you’d want to be treated, don’t you? If I was laying on the floor or in bother I’d want someone who’d stop for me.” Isaacs believes that a practical demonstration of love is one of the most powerful forms of evangelism. “People know more about what we don’t agree with and believe than what we do believe,” he says. “But here we are going to give people two the most valuable components of life: love and time.” And it’s not just those out on the streets who are feeling the benefit. Volunteers are having such a great time that both Joyce and David admit that in the summer months, it can be difficult to persuade their teams to go home at the end of a night.

In one year, Southend has become such a successful and popular venture that Ince has had requests for help in setting up Street Pastors from several neighbouring East Anglian towns. Meanwhile Isaacs has just launched his first two Street Pastors teams overseas, in Antigua and Jamaica. The possibilities seem limitless. “It’s something that’s sustainable because it’s so local and so practical,” says Isaacs. “It works.”Emma John is a freelance journalist.