Street ministries, under such umbrella titles as ‘Street Pastors’ or ‘Street Angels’ have been around a few decades in England, owing much to the work of the Salvation Army. These Christian ministries take a middle way between evangelism and social action. There is a book to yet be written echoing the famous ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’, which could be entitled, ‘The Cross and Lollipop’.
Because armed with lollies, chocolate bars and hot soup, street pastors are out in cities and towns, when there hundreds of (mostly) young folk ‘clubbing and pubbing’, that is going to nightclubs and public houses (bars). There are other people to be encountered such as the street homeless; men and women, some little older than children forced to sleep rough; and there are others making money from the night economy, prostitutes and drug dealers.
Alton is a small, market town in rural Hampshire, we do not have clubs, nor street prostitution, nor open drug dealing; yet we have people sleeping in doorways and drugs are prevalent and ubiquitous – but come Friday and Saturday night, many people go to the pubs to drink and socialise.
Since November 2014, the local churches of Alton, Hampshire, have combined to send a team of four or five people to mingle with Saturday night revellers. We are identifiable by our hi-vis vests, that have ‘ALTON TOWN PASTORS’ across the back and ATP (with the T written as the Cross) emblazoned on the front. We call ourselves pastors because we administer pastoral care, not because we need to be ‘Pastors’, ordained church ministers or priests. We readily identify ourselves as Christians, but leave the turn of any conversation to God. Sometimes people want to simply chat about inconsequential matters, their week at work, etc; some, their tongues loosened by alcohol, want to speak about sorrows, regrets, dilemmas, bereavement; we have been overwhelmed at times by the trust shown us by their disclosure of their deepest and darkest issues. We offer a listening ear and prayer.
While some are not interested in hearing the Gospel and make it clear that is not for them, few have openly rejected us as Christians, and, praise God, we have had many, many opportunities to proclaim the Good News. We have given out leaflets and Gospels of Mark or John. We have a ‘business card’ with our contact details, and a message ‘Bring God’s love to Alton’ on one side while on the reverse is printed is John 3:16.
However, most moving of all to most people is our witness, it seems; from the simple act of handing out lollies and wanting nothing in return (most people want to pay, or donate but we decline their offers), to their astonishment that we would want to leave our firesides on winter’s nights for their sake. They see us helping people almost unconscious with drink or weeping over a broken relationship and somehow this demonstrates more powerfully than words Gods love. Alton Town Pastors is the most simple of ministries – it is those with the joy of belief mixing with those lost, desperate and yet to find belief.