Hands up who thinks this is a 'success':
I thought I would provide a small success story Westminster Unison had regarding Street Pastors, which were nearly introduced at Westminster City Council. Following a complaint made by myself, and a letter to Newsline, outlining the reasons why a local authority should not pay for the Ascension Trust, an evangelical Christian group, to patrol the streets, I was informed this week that Westminster has now withdrawn the proposal.
or this a 'victory'
After some persistence on my part, however, the Council undertook something called an Equalities Impact Assessment, which had to acknowledge the fact that, under the aims of the scheme Street Pastors could only be recruited from "individuals with a Christian Faith" and was also only open to those "whose relationship lifestyle is in keeping with mainstream Christian teaching" – i.e. no gays or lesbians, thank you.
I have just received confirmation from a slightly embarrassed Council official that the scheme will receive no further public funding, and wanted to share with your readership a small, but satisfying, victory against the encroachment of religion into public life. I would even go out on Friday night to celebrate, but the Street Pastors are still out there after my soul.
I'm caught between bewilderment and boiling blood at the sheer short-sightedness of this 'secularism at any cost' approach. The real losers will be the clubbers, who SP's are there to look out for, help where needed, and be a listening ear for. The police and emergency services jobs will get a little bit harder too. In both cases there'll probably be enough financial support from the churches to make up the difference, but there are obviously some very odd ideas out there of what the Pastors do.
In the last few months I've heard of young children found sleeping rough by SP's on a Saturday night who were got back home, someone else who was about to commit suicide who talked it through with some Street Pastors and changed their mind, fights avoided, vulnerable women protected from people trying to bundle them into cars, you name it. These are the people Street Pastors help.
At the same time if someone asks why we're doing it, they'll get an honest answer. That gives all sorts of opportunities for people to sound off about God, get into deep theological argument, or walk away - and that's completely up to them. At no point is there any attempt to evangelise or exploit people who are slightly worse for wear. If there was, the police would quite rightly tell us to go back home. As it is, police in several areas are actively inviting the local churches to set up Street Pastor initiatives, as it's recognised that they do some good.
So what's the problem? That if a group is motivated by their faith to do something of public benefit, then it shouldn't get any funding. You can be motivated by anything else, and we won't complain, but we can't have Christians doing good, because, well, they're Christians. And? We have a night shelter for the homeless in Yeovil, originally set up by Christians, now passed on to other leadership. And the Lords Larder, which gives out hundreds of food parcels in partnership with Social Services - the clue is in the name. Both work in partnership with secular agencies, and have received support from non-church sources. Does the council have to wait for agnostic charities to set up before it's allowed to fund them, or can it support positive action no matter who does it, or whether or not they are motivated by some kind of faith?
Perhaps the problem is the conviction that there must be an ulterior motive. That wouldn't be unreasonable - every other stranger who acts friendly is usually a salesman or a Scientologist. The church itself sometimes gets in a muddle over 'friendship evangelism' - friends are not friends if they're just people you are getting to know so you can invite them to church. So that suspicion is understandable. And of course if clubbers show some interest in the Christian faith, they'll be encouraged in that. A comparison: our local MP and councillors all represent political parties. They'll work on behalf of constituents of any political conviction, but if those constituents show signs of supporting the LibDems, or whoever, then that will be encouraged, but the help isn't made conditional on people's political viewpoints. Same with Street Pastors - the help isn't conditional, but enquiries are welcomed.
There are clearly a lot of myths about Street Pastors doing the rounds, so lets nail a few:
- SP's main aim is to be a pastoral presence on the streets, to look out for and help the vulnerable where appropriate. They are not 'after your soul'.
- We work in partnership with the police and council, and involve the police in the (quite intensive) training, which all SP's must complete. That includes drug awareness, conflict management, alcohol awareness, youth culture, probation, child protection etc.
- There is no attempt to 'get people when they're vulnerable'. If folk want to talk about God, the SP's are happy to listen. But there's no preaching. The proof of this is simply to see what happens where SP's are in operation - if they were going round Bible bashing people, most clubbers would either run a mile or beat them up. As well as being extremely bad practice, it would be self-defeating. We'd also not have any Street Pastors, as nobody would sign up to that sort of job description.
- People know what we stand for, it's no secret that these are people from the churches, so there's nothing covert or underhand going on.
- The point of the uniforms is so that SP's are recognisable, that there's some 'brand recognition' that these are safe people who'll look after you and make sure you're ok. There's some suggestion that SP's make too much of what they do, and that proper Christians would do it in secret. Fair point, but the uniforms are very helpful - ask anyone else who wears one as part of their work. A complete stranger with no identification turning up to 'help' a group of clubbers would be pretty suspicious.
- Each SP commits to raising the money (around £300 for training, uniforms, etc.) themselves, many are supported by churches, but we find that the local community/agencies want to support the initiative as well. We had one grant in Yeovil from a local councillor who decided to apply on our behalf. If that support is available, then great - the fact that SP's is primarily a Christian charity shouldn't prevent local authorities and agencies from supporting it. The British Humanist Association recently got a grant from national government, but not many people are suggesting they pay it back.
- SP's will deal equally with everyone they come across: male, female, gay, straight, drunk, sober etc. etc.
Meanwhile here is a long list of the awards that SP's have recieved from local communities who appreciate what they do, and here is an account from an Essex MP of what Street Pastors do in Chelmsford. Simon Burns MP quotes the following statistics:
In Lewisham there was a 30% reduction in street crime in the first 13 weeks that they were operating, in Camberwell a 95% reduction and in Peckham 74%. In Chelmsford they have made an immediate and significant impact.
a few other links
positive noises here on ConservativeHome.
Derby police nominate local SP's for award.
SP's praised by police for bringing down crime in Kingston.
Home Office paper which mentions Street Pastors as an example of good public sector/charity partnership in community safety.
Example of what's going on in Taunton, where they offer a 'safe space' for folk to wait for friends and taxis, and recover from a heavy night in a safe place, rather than in a hedge.
Good explanation of the SP ethos in this BBC Scotland report.
SP's in Bridgend praised by police and welcomed by the council.
and so on...
I don't have the stats for Yeovil yet, but we were told by the town centre beat manager a couple of weeks ago that recorded crime had been steadily dropping on a Saturday night since the Street Pastors started up here, and they're very keen for us to do Friday's too. We've just interviewed about 17 applicants to join the team, and hopefully will start doing Friday and Saturday nights from the spring of 2010.
We could run Street Pastors without funding from the council - it would make the £300 fee a bit tougher for some of the folk who do it, but many of them would probably manage to raise it anyway. Even without the funding, we want to do it in partnership with the council and the police, because that's what works best. And local councillors around the UK clearly see it as something worth supporting. Some people may be opposed in principle to anything done by Christians, but there's not much we can do about that except say: come and see what really happens, and then make up your mind.
Final point: it's been argued that Street Pastors should let folk of any faith or none sign up. In some places this happens - there are 'street angel' projects in several towns. However, it seems a little bizarre to insist that if Christians want to get together to do something of benefit to the public, that they have to let anyone else join in. Surely the important thing is that the benefit is open to all, rather than the membership.
It's a positive thing that Christians want to do this, and do it in partnership with the police and the local authority. That partnership is healthier than forcing the church to go it alone, and freezing it out of any partnership because we're motivated by a set of values and beliefs that some other people don't agree with. Even if your vision is of a secular society, that vision will only work if people with faith and people without it are able to live and work together.
PS Blogger comments has gone a bit weird, I keep getting error messages during the review process, so they may take a bit of time to appear.