Pastor Mick Flemming’s Church on the Street hit the headlines during Covid-19. He speaks about his own abuse and drug addiction, doing church differently and becoming a spokesperson for the poor and marginalised
With his dark glasses (prescription, not vanity), skinhead and bomber jacket, Mick Fleming is not your average-looking church leader. But then again, his is not an average sort of story.
Born into a working-class Catholic family in Burnley, Fleming’s life took a terrible turn when he was raped on his way to school, aged just eleven. In an unbelievably tragic twist, his older sister died that very same night. Not knowing how to process his pain led to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse, violence and crime.
Eventually, a breakdown and several miraculous encounters led him to find hope and healing in Jesus.
Pastor Mick’s approach to church is equally unorthodox. After finding himself homeless, he says he received a warmer welcome from fellow rough sleepers than from people at his local church.
The experience led him to start Church on the Street, which began with Mick standing outside his local McDonald’s with a suitcase filled with sandwiches, coffee and clothes, talking to people about Jesus.
The ministry now works in three locations across the North West of England “tackling poverty head-on by providing a place for worship, clothing, food, conversation, prayer, love and support”, he says.
Having already spent a decade ministering in one of the poorest communities in England, Fleming was a little nonplussed when the BBC approached him out of the blue during the first Covid-19 lockdown.
The resulting documentary, Poverty and the Pandemic: Burnley’s front line captured the public’s imagination and shone a light on the excruciating effects of deprivation and addiction that are a still too common story in many of our villages, towns and cities.
The media interest was overwhelming at first, Mick says. He received death threats from some quarters, but it was the criticism from other Christians, who questioned whether his focus on social action detracted from sharing the gospel, that really rocked him. Don’t the two go hand-in-hand, he asks me when we speak?
Deadpan in his delivery, Fleming can be hard to read, especially behind his shades. But don’t be fooled. This is a man on a mission, to change the Church – and society in the process.
Tell us about your early childhood. What led you into drug addiction?
I was sexually assaulted on my way to school by a stranger. I had to hide my crying because this man said he’d kill my mum and dad if I told them. I got up in the morning and decided I was going to tell my dad. But when I went downstairs, he said: “Sit down, your sister’s dead.”
The sound that came out my mother – I imagine it’s the sound Jesus made as he took his last breath on the cross. I looked at my mum and dad crying, and I didn’t feel that there was any space for me there.
I went upstairs into my mum’s room. She had some medication for her back, and I don’t know why I took it, but I did. I lay on my bed and floated out of my body. There was no more pain. I think I became a drug addict that day. I used something every day, more or less, from then on.
Did you have any knowledge of God growing up?
My mum and dad were devout Catholics – strict, but very loving. We were forced to go to church, and the teachers at my school were nuns. I was naughty and they used to hit me with a stick and tell me Jesus loved me. I used to think: I don’t think Jesus would hit me with a stick if he loved me. It never really added up. And if that was Jesus, I didn’t really want him, to be honest.
You had a miraculous experience that led you to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Can you tell us about that?
I had a gun, and I had gone to collect a debt. As the guy [I was looking for] came out of the gym, I saw he had two little girls with him. A light started shining from their hands, and it hit me. I couldn’t see, I started to shake and sweat. I was sick and there was blood everywhere. It was just horrendous.
I somehow drove the car to a nearby industrial estate and, probably for the first time since I was a little boy, I prayed. It was a demand more than a prayer: “God, if you’re real, you’d better help me!” I got no reply.
Then I put the gun under my chin and pulled the trigger. Thank God it didn’t go off! I believe that God saved me in that moment, because I knew the firearm couldn’t jam. I don’t know if I thought it was Jesus, but I felt there was something bigger than me out there, and that gave me hope.
Then, I got arrested for a minor offence, and I was sectioned and put into a mental health unit for about four months. There was a nun who used to bring me communion. She’d touch my face and say: “God bless you.” This elderly lady taught me that Jesus did love me.
Leaving the psychiatric unit was where my walk with Jesus began. I didn’t want to leave; I was afraid to go back out into the world. So I started to pray, and I started to have experiences of God.
You saw an angel at the end of your bed. Can you tell us about that?
I was in a homeless hostel, and it was the first time in my life that I was not relying on drugs or alcohol. I had these feelings that I didn’t know what to do with. I didn’t know who I was. So l prayed, and I saw a light at the bottom of the bed.
There was a huge, white being, and my first thought was: I’m going back to the doctor tomorrow, perhaps I need my medication upped. And then the angel spoke. He said: “God wants you to do something – will you do it?” I said: “That depends what it is.” He said: “He wants you to go and stand against this wall” – and he told me where the wall was – “at exactly seven o’clock.”
As it got to quarter to seven, I thought: I’ve got to go. At seven, a man came round the corner. I’d never spoken to him before but he worked at the hostel. He was a recovering drug addict, and was running a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting. So that’s how I got into recovery.
The day after, the angel came again, and said God wanted me to forgive the man who had hurt me, and to tell everybody about Jesus. I told the angel I didn’t want to forgive the man who had hurt me and I never would.
Did you eventually learn to forgive him?
About six months later I was in McDonald’s. There was a guy who [I could tell] was an alcoholic. I got him a drink and a burger and started talking to him. I ended up getting him into [NA] meetings and he got clean.
He died two years later, because he damaged himself with alcohol and drugs, and I never told him that I knew, right from the moment I first saw him, that he was the man who raped me.
The truth is that I arranged to meet him again because I wanted to kill him. I had a knife with me, but I had a realisation in that moment. I thought: I’ve lived with what he did to me for 30 years. I’ve destroyed myself and everybody around me. My sin has been bad enough. Why would I live in somebody else’s?
It was that simple. Peace flooded in. It transformed me. I used to think that forgiveness was putting my arms around somebody and saying: “Don’t worry about it, it’s fine!” That’s not my understanding now.
Was there a moment when you would say you became a Christian?
I met a guy in church who had just come out of prison. He said his prison chaplain had told him Jesus died for his sins, but he didn’t understand what that meant. He’d been to loads of churches, but no one had been able to explain it to him.
I asked: “What did you go to jail for?” He replied: “Burglary.” I said: “OK. I think it’s like this: Imagine there’s this fella on the floor, and everybody’s giving him a kicking because they think he did the burglaries – your burglaries. All he’s got to do to get them to stop is say: ‘It wasn’t me.’ But he doesn’t, because Jesus isn’t a grass.” He said: “What? All my burglaries? Why doesn’t he just grass me up?” And I said: “Because he loves you” [chokes back tears]. We both broke down. I said: “Jesus effing loves you,” and he said: “He effing loves you as well, brother.” And then we got thrown out of the church for swearing. But we found Jesus and our lives were never the same again.
You first hit the public eye when the BBC ran a feature on your work during lockdown. How did it feel to suddenly have so much media attention?
It’s been strange – and it still is! The BBC filmed us because it was lockdown, but it was just what we’d been doing for the past ten years. It wasn’t any different, there was just a greater need. We’re crying with people, praying with people, trying to talk people with mental illnesses out of killing themselves, trying to get them help and support…they just captured a moment of history really.
During Covid, everything was shut. Even the churches were furloughing people. But we’re Church on the Street, so that’s where our church was and is – so we found ways to stay open.
I didn’t break any laws – I did my best anyway. The police tried to arrest me once in a car park – I wasn’t brilliant at not hugging people, because the guys I was hugging were dying. On one street where I was delivering food parcels, three men under 40 killed themselves in three weeks.
They couldn’t hold it together. And I was holding them in my arms and praying for them while they were crying, wanting life – while churches were shut. I might have been wrong in what I did, but I was trying to keep people alive long enough to hear the gospel, because I knew what it had done for me.
When I started to get lots of media interest, it was difficult. But now I know what God’s called me to do: open my mouth around social justice issues and give the gospel. I don’t really care whether people like me. I’ve only got what God’s given me to use, so I don’t apologise for it really.
I get more death threats as a Christian than I did when I was doing the other [criminal] stuff! The things that have been levelled at me did upset me: that I’m just a social worker and I’m not giving the gospel. I just think they’ve misunderstood the gospel.
Did you always see yourself leading a church one day? Or did Church on the Street come from something that you found missing in other places?
When I was homeless, on my first night ever sleeping on the street, I went into a church. They had tea and biscuits and stuff. I was shaking, because if I didn’t drink, I could have a fit. They were nice people, but they couldn’t wait to get rid of me.
When they got me out the door, I heard them bolt it behind me. I walked down the street, and a guy in a shop doorway asked: “Where are you going?” I said: “I don’t know.” He said: “Come and sit here.” He wrapped his quilt around me, put his hat on my head and poured cider into my mouth until the shakes stopped.
I met Jesus in the shop doorway, not in the church. Where else would he have been? I wanted to be part of a church where Jesus was in the shop doorway, and it didn’t exist.
What does an average week look like for you?
We feed people outside, and we have maybe 2,000 people come through the doors [of our drop-in centre, The Hub] every week. We’re open every day except Saturday. We have nurses, doctors and a mental health team here.
We have our own counsellors, hot food, a food bank, showers, a needle exchange, washing machines, opticians, Citizens Advice. And we have prayer and Bible study, right in the middle of all that. On a Sunday, we have our Sunday services.
Sometimes it’s more like running a hospital, but I think that’s what the Church should be. You’ve got Christ in the centre, and you are being “doers of the word” (James 1:22, NKJV). The secular come in, and they end up becoming Christians – not by us preaching at them, but by the work we do.
Is it hard work? Yes. Is it messy? Very. Is it fruitful? [whistles] Galore. It’s like an orchard full of fruit. And seeds are falling from the trees and more trees are growing.
How have you seen things change since the pandemic?
It’s worse now. The need is rising, but the resource is less. We’ve got more working poor and pensioner poverty. Children are undernourished and we’re seeing more disabled people sleeping rough. I could go on and on.
I want to see more investment at a grassroots level. I’d like to see some churches closing their doors, having a rethink, restructuring and then: Let’s go out and meet the need! Let’s not worry about Caesar giving us money, let’s worry about God providing for the work we’re doing. We set this up with £10. It was all I had. God will provide if you’re doing what he wants you to do.
We need to repent so that God can move – this church included – we haven’t provided for the poor as we should have done. Wherever we are, there are people who are lonely, lost, upset, hungry. If you live in an affluent place, there are still old people who are lonely.
There are still middle-class women drinking themselves to death, pretending they’re OK. The Church needs to step up and serve these people.
Let’s look at ourselves and restructure for the times we’re in. And let’s not do what we’ve always done. Stained-glass windows won’t feed children. There’s a place for that, of course, but we’ve got to love people and care for them and meet the need. Now’s the time for that.
Mick Fleming’s new book, Blown Away (SPCK) is available now
To hear the full interview, listen to Premier Christian Radio at 8pm on Saturday 3 December or download ‘The Profile’ podcast