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
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
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
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