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Manchester gets a taste of high-viz shepherding

06 June 2014

Street Pastors have gone international - and the movement is still growing, says Gavin Drake


MORE than 150 Street Pastors from around the world took to the streets of Manchester city centre last Friday night for the Big Night Out, the movement's biggest ever deployment. It was part of an international Street Pastors Practitioners' Conference held at Manchester Cathedral. The conference attracted about 500 delegates.

The founder of the Street Pastors movement, the Revd Les Isaacs, described the large-scale patrol as "a really delightful moment", and "a major boost for Manchester city centre".

At a briefing before the Street Pastors took to the streets, he joked: "The police are saying, 'Flipping heck, we didn't realise that there were so many of you.' With over 11,000 people, every weekend there must be around 3000 people going out on the streets. We are not on our own. Tonight we are saying this is just a glimpse of some of us."

The Street Pastors were also given a briefing from Sgt Ronnie Nelson, of Greater Manchester Police, who described the city as "the commercial and cultural hub for 2.5 million people".

The city centre, he said, was 2.2 square miles, in which 23,000 people lived, and which had more than 500 licensed premises. "We have a large student and gay community here, and a vibrant night-time economy, which you are about to experience. But, if you are on the Cinderella shift, finishing at midnight, you won't actually see a lot of it."

He said that more than 50 police officers were on the ground that night to deal with alcohol-related crime, anti-social behaviour, and a new trend of robberies committed on bicycles.

The issues facing the police in Manchester were "much like any other city", he told the Church Times. "We have problems with alcohol misuse, shoplifting, thefts, and people struggling to get by and who fall between gaps within society come to our attention.

"Street Pastors are great, because they provide us with another way of approaching a problem. We know, as the police, that we are not a one-stop solution to every problem. . . What we are is a first line, where people will call us; and whatever problems we come across, the criminal-justice system, a court appearance, prison, isn't always the answer.

"What we are looking at are different ways of sorting out problems which, traditionally, haven't been the way [we've done things], but now we are working smarter - we think about what we do, and we look at organisations and people that are willing to help, and it's great to see such large numbers here tonight that want to come on board with that. We welcome it. . . It's a fabulous addition to the city."

Those taking part in the Big Night Out were split into groups of about ten people, with an experienced team-leader. All those who had previously completed the compulsory training, provided by the Ascension Trust, wore distinctive blue uniforms, clearly marking them out as Street Pastors. Others wore high-visibility tabards marked with the word "Observer".

After the briefing and a short prayer, they were sent to their designated areas to patrol. Members of one group had not walked 100 yards from the temporary "Cathedral on the Streets" building outside the cathedral before they received their first approach from a member of the public.

Two Street Pastors stopped to talk to the man, who asked for prayer, while the others moved just far enough away to provide privacy, but close enough to offer support.

Across the road, the group walked along Dean Street, where there were two more encounters. One was a person asking for directions; another was one of several homeless people sheltering in doorways that the team would encounter that evening.

"We always stop and offer to talk to homeless people," a team leader, Graham Radcliffe, from the Oldham South Street Pastors, said. "We are often the only people prepared to do so."

Oldham South was one of several Street Pastors' groups operating in the Greater Manchester area; but the city-centre group was small. "We are hoping that this initiative will be a boost, and kick-start the Manchester city-centre group," Mr Radcliffe explained.

A short time into the patrol, the group was approached by a best man on a stag night, who said that he had lost the groom. A chat followed, and the group was soon joined by the husband-to-be.

As the Street Pastors walked past the many bars on Deansgate, the doormen were happy to see them, shaking the hand of all the team members, knowing that they play a big part in helping to ease tensions.

"Many doormen will call on the Street Pastors if they're going to eject somebody from the premises," Mr Radcliffe explained. "They know that if they simply throw somebody out, the problem doesn't go away; but if we can assist, even if it's just helping them to find a taxi, then that makes a difference."

One of the members of Mr Radcliffe's group was the treasurer of the Antigua and Barbuda Street Pastors, Lestroy Samuel. "We operate in St John's, the capital city of Antigua," he said. "The problems we face are the same as here: alcohol, drugs, and so on; but there is a lot of poverty in Antigua. We also see a lot of street gambling, with people playing for quite large amounts of money."

He was impressed by the strong links between the Street Pastors and the police in the UK, and hoped to develop the links when he returned to the Caribbean. "We met the police chief when we started the group, and he was very receptive to what we were going to do. But that was five years ago. . . We don't relate in the way the police here do," he said. "We're not that close."

The strong connection between the police and Street Pastors was demonstrated by the involvement of the Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, who told delegates on Friday that the founder of the police service, Sir Robert Peel, would have approved of Street Pastors.

The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd David Walker, said on Saturday morning that the Street Pastors were like a "viral mission" that, like the Early Church, spreads, because people see how good it is, and want to be a part of it. "You don't need a degree in theology; you don't need a social work qualification; any committed Christian with a desire to find some role within a Street Pastors team can do it. "Too many services, too many social services, too many public services are only available at the convenience of the person who is providing them. . . That's not the attitude of Street Pastors. You are out on the streets where the people are. You are not there at 11 o'clock on a Monday morning because that's convenient; you're there at 11 o'clock on a Friday night, because that's when the need arises. It is a service that is accessible. It is there at the point of need."

Last week's international conference was the second such event held since Street Pastors began operating in Brixton, south London, in 2003. There are 11,000 Street Pastors in the UK, and the movement now operates in places as diverse as Chico, in California, and Badagry, in Nigeria. This year, a group began operating for the first time in Jamaica.

Ros Davies, a spokesperson for the Ascension Trust, which co-ordinates the Street Pastors movement, said that the ministry is now expanding to provide "Retail Pastors - an invited presence in shopping centres; and Schools Pastors - providing a presence in and around schools, and taking assemblies."

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