Every week all over the UK, countless volunteers put on their “Street Pastors” uniforms and head out onto the streets of our towns and cities to “Listen, Help and care”. Typically after praying together, these volunteers from the local churches in the areas they serve, go on patrol at 10:00PM and don’t get home until after 4AM. That’s when they are most needed, when people are drunk, lonely vulnerable or isolated.
Sandy Gunn helps to co-ordinate the work of Street Pastors across Scotland, and is a regular on the patrols of his local patch in Perth. He’s a passionate advocate for the ministry that Street Pastors provide and came to Solas to tell us all about it.
“When Les Isaac started Street Pastors in Brixton in London in 2003, he wanted the church to present an alternative to the crime and sadness of the streets. His first 18 volunteers went out to represent Jesus on the streets, listening, caring and looking after people”, Sandy told me. “Since then it has spread across the UK, and there are 20 Street Pastors groups across Scotland now.” Sandy explained.
While each local initiative is run independently, Street Pastors Scotland acts as an umbrella-body, standardising training, skills, equipment, procedures and quality assurance; so that while each community can respond to local needs, there is a consistent standard of care.
I asked Sandy how he became involved.
“I was working as a Church of Scotland minister in the town and was invited along and was immediately hooked!”, he enthused.
Every city is different, but Perth’s streets can sometimes be very quiet – especially on their midweek shifts. Sandy Gunn observes that sometimes the quiet shifts can be the most significant ones. When the streets are deserted, girls walking home alone can feel especially vulnerable, and welcome the reassuring presence of a trusted, uniformed volunteer. Equally, people walking alone on those nights often want someone to talk to, and there is more time to give them when things are quiet – and some of the most profound conversations occur.
Sandy described some typical events on a Street Pastors night shift.
“We walk the streets, make eye-contact with folk and ask how they are doing” he says. “We are familiar faces in the town, and people often come up and chat to us. A common thing people say to us is ‘What’s a Street Pastor?’ and we always tell them that we are volunteers who are there to listen, help and care. We don’t start conversations by talking about our Christian faith, because we don’t need to – and it would send people a mile away. We do not go in ‘proselytising’, and making people think that we are having a go at them. Instead we listen, ask questions and begin conversations with people where they are at and see where it goes. Sometimes people will have a go at us because we are known as a Christian organisation. I remember one person wanting to start a row with us about religion and war; but instead of getting drawn into an argument, my colleague said to the guy, ‘I’m so pleased to meet you, I wish there were more people like you in the world who really care about justice and right and wrong.’ The guy’s attitude totally changed. As the conversation developed it turned out that years ago he had had a very sad bereavement and then had been unable to talk about it; but opened up to us. Now if we had started by talking about Christianity, he would have walked off, but by the end we were discussing the evidence of the resurrection and he went home to read Psalm 73.”
Having said that they are not there to preach at people, Sandy explained that that doesn’t mean that Street Pastors hide their faith.
“Even secularists would say that if you are asked a question about what you believe you are entitled to answer”, he pointed out, and as a result of going out, meeting people and serving them “We seldom have a night when we do not have a spiritual conversation. One man said to me, I don’t like drinking – but it’s better than sitting in on my own on a Saturday night. Often these conversations find their way to talking about Jesus.”
People sometimes ask Street Pastors about hope. Covid, climate change, recession and price-hikes and wars all conspire to take away people’s hope. Sandy Gunn is an enthusiast for Christian hope. He told me,
“1 Peter 3:15 says always be prepared to give an answer for the hope you have, but do so with gentleness and respect – and people do ask us where we find hope in this world. And we are ready to answer them. Another Bible verse that comes up in conversation often is Romans 8:26 which says that the Holy Spirit prays for us with wordless groans. That surprises people, especially those who are hurting – who picture prayer as chanting in a church; not of closeness to a God who is personal and involved in their pain.”
Street Pastors undergo thorough training before they don the uniform and take to the streets. That training consists of everything from do’s and don’ts, safety, identifying and responding appropriately to mental illness, interactions with the emergency services, to administering Naxolone for opioid drug-overdoses (Scotland only), and how to have jargon-free, concise conversations about faith. Street Pastors are also trained to deal with revelations of abuse or disclosures about criminality which come their way as they are often trusted with confidential and sensitive information.
While Street Pastors have a ministry to individuals, caring for them practically and having conversations about faith; their work is of great benefit to communities as a whole. The Street Pastors are not part of the police, nor are they ‘spying’ for the authorities; but the police forces across the country do appreciate their work. Sandy summarises, “the police say we make the streets safer”. In many cities the police call on the SP’s to look after people who are just drunk or cold and need to be cared for – freeing them up to attend to more serious crime. In some places like Glasgow Street Pastors run “Safe Spaces”he same for people who don’t need medical treatment but somewhere safe to “sleep it off”.
Sandy Gunn concluded,
“It’s always a joy and never a chore to go out with the Street Pastors. I look forward to it being ‘my turn’ enormously. We do occasionally get a militant atheist who isn’t pleased to see us, but the vast majority of people are very glad we are there. We meet loads of people, help a lot of people and sometimes get to tell them about Jesus.”
The Street Pastors are always looking for new volunteers, prayer and financial supporters and people to come and observe a shift with them to get a taste for this unique ministry. If you’d like to find out how to get involved, or where your nearest local Street Pastors organisation is, go to https://streetpastors.org/