Will you join the Southend Street Pastors?

Come winter or summer, Southend’s weekend partyland and clubland benefits from the reassuring presence of some good samaritans.

It was acceptable in the ‘80s to rate Southend’s nightlife as the best in the south east, outside of London. Those days may be long gone, but the popular resort is still a major draw, after dark, for many twentysomethings in Essex – as well as those who fit the typical image of ‘boy-racer’, from all over the country.

Added are those who arrive in the town seeking work during the summer months, and there’s a side to Southend-on-Sea which contrasts with it’s more-recent reputation for being the retirement destination of choice for Britain’s pensioners; such a side, latterly known as the ‘night-time economy’, provides plenty of work and attracts a variety of visitors, with all it’s attendant problems.

The yearly National Scooter Rally might only attract peaceful Mods to Southend these days, but the recent phenomena of ‘lager louts’ and ‘binge-drinking’ can be all-too apparent. For the past two years, help has been at hand.

“Street Pasta?”

The weekend of the Southend Airshow 2005 was, as usual, the biggest in the town’s calendar. Held over the Whitsun Bank Holiday period, it coincided with another significant event – the Street Pastors going ‘live’ in Southend. Following on from the success of similar initiatives in Brixton, Birmingham and Manchester, the Street Pastors’ project was among many ideas to become reality as the local churches came together in late 2004, to prepare for a year of social concern, amazing generosity and reaching out to the surrounding community. Entitled ‘Love Southend’, the programme was so successful it became an on-going, unifying way forward in local church life. Whether a myriad of urban regeneration schemes, or handing out free, Fairly-Traded breakfasts to early-morning commuters, Christians from all denominations worked together in personifying the aim of Love Southend – to symbolise the love which God has, for every person, in our town.

May 2005 was the culmination of many weeks’ preparation for seventeen Street Pastors (SPs), volunteers from different local congregations. Using the approved training programme, set out by Ascension Trust – the umbrella organisation for some twenty seven branches in the UK, now, with nine more under consideration – the Southend team began going out, not to preach at people, but to offer a listening ear, or a helping hand to those who fill the pubs, clubs and amusement arcades of the Essex town. Working in teams of four (including one female at least), the SPs will go out between 10.00pm and 4.00am on either Friday or Saturday nights (or both) every weekend, to a ‘patch’ mainly incorporating the High Street, seafront and the clubland of Lucy Road.

Using as a base Clarence Road Baptist Church, the Pastors are instantly recognisable in their familiar uniforms of blue baseball caps, polo shirts and padded-jackets, for extra warmth in the winter months. Back at base, more local Christians will pray for them and the people whom they serve. Sometimes, the SPs will phone back to base with prayer requests, and strangely, certain dangerous situations have calmed on the streets, as a result.

“Street pasties?”

When they first went ‘live’, the Pastors evoked the curiosity of many a drinker and diner. The first suspicion to be overcome, was that here were some sort of manic street preachers. Although willing to answer questions on their beliefs, the Pastors are there primarily to help. This brand of unobtrusive Christianity aims to assist anyone who really needs it. In the first six months of 2007 alone, over 1,000 ‘contacts’ were made with the public, ranging from a shoulder to cry on, to giving directions to lost visitors late at night.

Leader, David Ince: “We are very content to quietly work in the background and endeavour to show God’s love to the community of Southend.”

Southend lacks the public transport infrastructure which London enjoys through the wee small hours, and it’s not unknown for the occasional drinker to be escorted home, when it’s been safe to do so. Many’s the time a Street Pastor will wait with someone until the ambulance arrives – it could be someone collapsed through to much drink, and the Pastor’s presence will prevent them from being robbed or attacked, in their vulnerability. At other times, the person may be directed to the SOS Bus, a mobile, fully-equipped double-decker bus administering First Aid and providing a ‘safe place’, late at night. It’s run by another Love Southend activist, Jon Bastin.

It’s the very presence of the Pastors which often makes all the difference. Teenagers have remarked about how safer they feel, when they see them moving through the crowds. The Pastors have quelled a number of potential flashpoints by their sheer presence – and by talking to rival groups, when things are about to explode. Also, they give away flip-flops in the summer, courtesy of a 10% discount from the local Primark. At night, many women with sore feet walk home bare-footed. They’re usually grateful for the free offer, as the flip-flops prevent cuts and injuries from the broken-glass they navigate on the pavement. Talking of which, the SPs will safely dispose of empty bottles and glasses left lying around. In the same period, 800 items of glass have been removed from the possibility of becoming impromptu weapons, or weapons of criminal damage.

Working closely with the emergency services and endorsed by the police, the work of the Street Pastors symbolises the unconditional love of the God they follow, providing a service to the town they live in.

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