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Incumbent's initiative helps vagrant community

31 October 2014

KEITH BLUNDY/AEGIS ASSOCIATES

Rapport: the Revd Chris Fuller 

Rapport: the Revd Chris Fuller 

VAGRANTS gathering in the former churchyard of a town-centre church have been helped and dispersed thanks to an initiative led by the parish's new priest.

When the Revd Christopher Fuller arrived last year at St Hilda's, in the Tyneside fishing port of South Shields, he found a gang of up to a dozen drug- and alcohol-dependent people gathering regularly outside the Grade II listed church.

He immediately decided to engage with them, in an effort to help with their problems and to protect his congregation and passers-by from anti-social behaviour. By inviting them into St Hilda's once a week, for coffee and a chat, he hoped to gain their confidence and then, supported by various social agencies, help them to improve their lives.

It took a year to establish a rapport, but now two women have been alcohol-free for four months, and one man has also stopped drinking and plans to marry his girlfriend in the church.

"This summer, we had no instances of anyone sitting in the church grounds getting drunk," Mr Fuller said on Monday. "But there are still a few hardcore, very vulnerable people, on the streets, sleeping rough; so there is still plenty of work to be done.

"I was conscious, pretty much from day one, that we had a gathering of the local 'alcoholics association' in our churchyard. It started by chance when we decided to have a juice bar outside; we run a Saturday coffee-shop in church, and wanted to expand it outside to get closer to people.

"One or two of these guys sidled over to see what we were doing, and we started to get know them and discover their issues. Part of my role here is to set up a town-centre chaplaincy; so the two seemed to marry quite nicely.

"My wife, Mary, works very closely with me, and we have got quite close to one or two of them. The police describe them as my flock."

A chance meeting with a probation officer led to a partnership in running the weekly church meeting. "It's very informal," Mr Fuller said. "They just come in and sit at the back. The lady from probation is trusted and very good at listening; so it's a relaxed environment where they share what they want to share, and, if we can signpost them towards the right agency, then we do. They see it as a bit of a sanctuary, which in a sense is what the church has always been."

The initiative has been so successful that Mr Fuller has been discussing with the local council and various social-aid groups how to expand it.

His small congregation of 25 mainly older people has accepted the situation well, he said. "It was a little bit scary at first, but they are comfortable with it now. These characters are just treated like everybody else. It's just doing church a different way."

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