Monday, January 19, 2009

Street Pastors

It’s not everyone’s idea of the perfect night out. Why would any sensible person pay £300 up front to walk the streets in the small hours of Saturday morning, cleaning up drunks and handing out blankets?

This weekend we’re interviewing 30 people who want to be Street Pastors in Yeovil. The local police have been on at us for a while to get started, so training begins in a fortnight, with patrols starting in early April. The aim is to be out from 10pm to 3 or 4am every week, if we have enough suitable volunteers.

Concerned about crime, drugs and guns amongst local youth in London, inner city pastor Les Isaac set up the first Street Pastor unit in 2003. The idea was to be a listening, serving presence on the streets at the most dangerous time of the week. Six years later there are now well over 2000 Street Pastors in the UK, a number which increased by 45% in 2008.

This is neither a bunch of naive Christian do-gooders, nor is it anything spectacular. The Pastors give out flip-flops as a safe alternative to broken stilletoes, talk to revellers who’ve been separated from their friends and get them back together, chat with gangs who might otherwise spark something off, pick broken glass off the pavement (potential weapon, or potential hospital trip if you step on ot barefoot), and simply sit and listen.

One man was hauled out of the path of a bus, another had collapsed unconscious in a dark alley on a winters night and was found a blanket and taxi home, a better end to the night than hypothermia or mugging.

Volunteers range from 18 to 80, with grannies being especially popular, and in 6 years none has ever been injured. Where police intervention might escalate a situation, the Pastors are seen as friends.

Does it Work?

Street Pastors are up and running in over 60 centres in the UK, from Peckham to Plymouth, Aberdeen to Melton Mowbray, plus the majority of London boroughs (”extraordinary and inspiring” Boris Johnson).

Local reports from police suggest that, in place after place, crime has fallen where Street Pastors are working. In one London study:

data provided by the Police show that in two different crime hotspot areas of London (Peckham and Camberwell) the work of Street Pastors have brought remarkable reductions in the number of crimes. A nine-month police evaluation included comparing the rates for two consecutive annual 13-week periods, that saw a 95% fall in one area and a 74% fall in the other.

When I agreed to do some reporting in the early hours of ‘nasty Friday’, the last Friday before Christmas on which drunken revellers cause havoc in city centres, I thought I might see some vomit, one or two twisted ankles - at worst, a bloody nose from a drunken punch.

Little did I know that, by one o’clock, I would be on my knees in the middle of a busy North London road, attending to a man who was critically ill after somebody stamped on his head stamped during a violent brawl.

the perspective of one police officer in the Midlands:
“On the Saturday night there were two men talking to each other, calming down after an argument, and a third man talking to a street pastor. By speaking to the street pastor that man didn’t get involved with the others and didn’t aggravate the situation. His view was that if he hadn’t engaged with the street pastor he would have got involved. That’s one less violent crime to deal with.

And a few comments from the folk they talk to:
I’m happy to know they’re on the street. They’re like a little boost.”
“What a brilliant idea… they are the peaceful people on the streets.”
They gave me a pair of flip-flops and saved me a lot of pain.”

What’s the Catch?
Why do they do it? There’s no pay, little sleep, and a big sacrifice of time and money. The short answer is ‘compassion’.

A slightly longer answer may be in this piece by Roy Hattersley, not himself a Christian, which notes that Christian faith motivates people to compassion in a way which nothing else does. He writes:

Civilised people do not believe that drug addiction and male prostitution offend against divine ordinance. But those who do are the men and women most willing to change the fetid bandages, replace the sodden sleeping bags and - probably most difficult of all - argue, without a trace of impatience, that the time has come for some serious medical treatment. Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists.

The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand.

No matter what the adverts say, there are people out on a Saturday night who are worrying less and enjoying life more because of people who do believe in God. From the earliest years of Christianity, when believers would stay behind in plague cities to bury the dead and tend the sick long after everyone else had fled, Christian faith has had unrivalled power to motivate acts of service and love. Sure, you don’t need to be a Christian to care sacrificially, but it certainly helps.

St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying “preach the gospel, use words if necessary”. Maybe the best answer to Richard Dawkins is not complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, but just normal people showing an abnormal amount of concern for others.

this post originally appeared on Touching Base, a regular column hosted by the Wardman Wire


  1. ' From the earliest years of Christianity, when believers would stay behind in plague cities to bury the dead....'

    Which city would this be?

  2. I don't think you can use the Street Pastors as evidence that Christians are more caring than non-Christians. How could a non-Christian be involved in something like Street Pastors? If a group of humanists turned up to South Somerset District Council for money to run something similar, would they be given £6,000 to run it for a year? I suggest the answer is probably not.

    I do applaud the Street Pastor project and definitely respect those volunteers that want to work for it, but wouldn't it be better if you didn't exclude people who want to help?

  3. Andy - I hope they would be given the same money, knowing the way the Community Safety Partnership works, they seem to fund a whole range of projects.

    I don't think it's excluding people - I guess we know each other as churches, so it seemed natural to recruit a team through the contacts we currently have, based on the ethos we share. If there's a great big queue of agnostics wanting to be Street Pastors then maybe we'll need to think again! It's significant that people like Hattersley and Matthew Parris (, both atheists, recognise that faith brings something extra to the table.

    Steven - one example is Alexandria in the mid-3rd century, on another occasion the pagan emperor Julian complained that the 'impious Chrisitans support not only their own poor but ours as well'.

  4. So no news yet about the 'earliest years' of Christians staying behind in plague cities to bury the dead?

    Rich people tended to flee as soon as a plague hit a town, leaving the poor behind, who could not afford to move.

  5. Yes, see the end of my previous comment.

  6. Practically David there's not going to be a number of agnostics, atheists or even members of other religions applying to be a street pastor. After all, the Street Pastor website states that to be a Street Pastor you need to be over 18 and a church member.

    I've got no problem about that, but it is a bit off to use something that excludes non-Christians as an example that people with faith care more.

  7. Julian also wrote 'Erect many hostels, one in each city, in order that strangers may enjoy my kindness, not only those of our own faith but also of others whosoever is in want of money. I have just been devising a plan by which you will be able to get supplies. For I have ordered that every year throughout all Galatia 30,000 modii of grain and 60,000 pints of wine shall be provided. The fifth part of these I order to be expended on the poor who serve the priests, and the rest must be distributed from me to strangers and beggars.'

    As always atheists give more to charity than Christians.

    The biggest benefactors in the world are atheists - Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

  8. I'm thrilled at anyone who gives to charity. is an interesting debate on the topic.

    "it is a bit off to use something that excludes non-Christians as an example that people with faith care more."
    that wasn't what I was trying to say, but I admit that's how it comes across, my apologies. Good job I'm not drafting speeches for Obama. Or anyone else for that matter.