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Sunflowers on the streets of Newquay

Many years ago before I went off to theological college to train to be a Vicar, I went on a lads weekend away to Newquay. My friend Brighty -who was also a Christian- looked up at the campsite which read “18-30’s” (which are notorious for all sorts of drunken behaviour and promiscuity) and we both looked awkward.
The trip had been organised by our friend Andy Dorning and it was surprisingly cheap (Dorning has a gift of getting a good deal!), looking at the sign we both said: “I’m gonna kill him!”

When we had calmed down, we realised that it was just a place to pitch a tent and sleep for a couple of nights, but even so the reputation of the organisation running the site did make me feel awkward.

Anyway, we had a couple of cracking nights out and then on Sunday Morning a few of us said we were going to go off to Church -in fact our whole party decided to go!

“Where you lads off to?” the guy asked as we all got in.

“Church” one of us said, “do you know a good one?”

The guy laughed thinking we were joking!

Then Dorning -who was probably the most blokey of us all- said: “yeah, we love a good night out, but some of us are Christians and we do take our faith seriously!” -At that moment I could have kissed him (well, maybe not actually!) but I was impressed by how relaxed and unashamed he was about the fact that he loved, followed and served Jesus.

Anyway fast forward fifteen years and here I was coming to do Street Angels on the same streets that I had previously partied on!

So, what are Street Angels or Street Pastors (or ‘Pasties’ we used to get called!)? The idea is that we are people who seek to bless the town and the people in the night-time economy, often through small acts of kindness and service -a bottle of water to someone who has had too much to drink, a listening ear to someone who is upset, sweeping away broken bottles and giving out flip-flops for those who are walking with bear-feet.

Angels are part of a larger group of “angels” that work at festivals -and Newquay/Cornwall has a lot of festivals- as part of the wider work of Christians at work in the night-time economy.

Street Pastors insist that all the volunteers are Christians and belong to local Churches, Street Angels allows people who are not Christians to join in with them but must respect our Christian ethos.

As someone who has been a Street Pastor in Kingswood (Bristol) for just over a decade I have often wondered how these young people can hear about and experience Jesus in a way that they can understand and respond too? Standing around at 2:00 in the morning I have realised afresh just how little contact we as Church and Christians have with this generation.

I used to talk about Street Pastors putting a human face on the faceless institution of the Church, and liked one of the previous taglines of Street Pastors: “Church in action on the Streets”, and thought as we were “caring, listening, helping” being a prayerful presence on the street I was struck by the passages such as being “salt and light” and ambassadors for Christ afresh.

I used to feel that the difference between Saturday night on Kingswood High Street and Sunday Morning in the Parish Church was not just a matter of hours but probably about two centuries, literally belonging to two very different worlds. In a small way I believe Street Pastors and Street Angels do something to build a relationship between the two worlds.

Since I became a dad in 2011 to a beautiful little girl, Hope, I have also realised just how vulnerable and dangerous the streets are for our young people, and see and feel something of the parental heart of God looking out with love and pain at his children, and I know when my daughter goes out one day on a night-out I would want Street Pastors to be there to look out for her and help keep her safe.

I arrived in Newquay and met Debbie who was in charge that evening, I had to put on a black ‘Pirans Angels T’shirt’ over what I was wearing alongside a hi-viz jacket, I had a flash back in my head to my previous visits to Newquay and remembered how wild the town had been (and if I’m honest had a pang of fear), yet I remain firmly convinced that Jesus would have been out on the Streets and that for him there were no ‘no go areas’ or people ‘off limits’ for him.

We met the others on patrol that evening, interestingly all women I was the only bloke on the team, and we loaded up our bags with bottles of water, a cheese and tomato sandwich for the homeless people we might come across, lollies and sweets to give out to people, some bible tracts and a Bible, some plastic gloves (and one of us also carried a dustpan and brush and a first aid kit).

We began to pray, and these guys took prayer really seriously, and the Churches in Newquay was soon to be birthing a prayer room “The Prayer Shack” soon to intercede for both Newquay and Cornwall, and was reminded that no great move of God has happened which has not been birthed in prayer first, I thought back to my hometown of Poole and remembered how vibrant the prayer together as local Christians used to be and how it has tragically dwindled.

Carol (one of the Street Angels) told me about a fantastic older lady who used to stay back at base as a prayer pastor with a real fire and gift for intersession, she told me that this lady: “prayed the lap-dancing clubs shut in our town!” (there had been a number) she said: “Demons would panic when they saw her name on the rota!”.

Where-ever Street Pastors/Angels has been established there has often been a drop in crime statistics and I think this is because not only do Street Pastors defuse tensions and look out for vulnerable people (who otherwise are potentially victims of more predatory people) but also because people are sacrificially praying for the Kingdom of God to become manifest in their area, which is a prayer I believe God loves to hear and honours.

As we chatted one of the ladies Elaine showed me that she had painted some rocks with sunflowers on them and she leaves these lying around the town centre, they have written on them words like “you are loved”, “Hope”, “you are precious” and “you matter”, which I thought was a wonderful blessing.

“Why Sunflowers?” I asked.
“Because Sunflowers turn to face the sun!” she replied.

We began to wander through the town slowly together, chatting and bantering with passers-by, we came across a local resident that wanted to chat for a bit long -he was amazing guy covered -and I do mean covered in tattoos and piercings- so much so that a documentary was coming to film him later that month. A few steps later a head emerged from a hedge to ask “what’s a street angel?” -he looked at me and I thought “angelic” probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind when people see me! We chatted a bit to him, and he was blown away by the fact that these ladies come out into Newquay for free as volunteers and served this community. One of the team, gentle pushed a tract into his hand that simply explains what Christians believe, which he look with a look in his eye that made me think “he’s going to read that later” as he surreptitiously put it into his pocket.

As we walked along the beach for a while we came across a group of Campervans and got chatting to the people there, it was clear that some of the work and blessing of Street Angels here in Newquay may not ever be seen by them (as many of the people they encounter are visitors to their town) but they still sow generously with faith and love. Elaine (one of the Street Angels) gave a couple who had just got engaged a stone with “love” written on it, and they promised that this would be on the dashboard of their van from now on. I pray that when they look at it, they may remember us crazy people on a beach in Newquay and the word “Love” will speak to them deeply.

A few minutes later we got a call on the radio and ended up helping a homeless guy who was having a fit in a doorway, an ambulance was called and the Street Angels prayed for him and held his head so when his seizures happened he didn’t bang his head on the concrete steps/wall he was slumped on. We were also joined by some town medics who evidently knew and respected the Street Angels. The Street Angels knew the person in trouble by name. We waited until the ambulance arrived (sadly we heard later that the man -who clearly needed help and treatment- had refused to get into the ambulance).

As we came around a corner we ended up speaking to a club promoter who was unloading electrical equipment from his van who said that they were having a good evening and everyone was happy and quiet, just as another guy wandered past and realising we were Christians began shouting abuse at us which was completely unprovoked and just a little weird, and a bit unsettling. I wondered if something had happened to him in his past which meant he didn’t like Christians but was shocked by the intensity of this. We huddled by a lamp post and prayed for that young man, we didn’t know his circumstances, but God knows him and loves him, and prayed that God would encounter him and bless him.

We saw a guy crying, his mate had his arm around his shoulder, but he didn’t want to talk to us, so we respected his wishes and carried on, but we did pray out of sight and earshot, as I think about the rise in mental health and suicide in young men and how all of us have pain we often try and hide from the world. I thought too about him all dressed up for a night out and thought too about how often life does not turn out as we had expected or hoped.

The tide was coming in and we spoke to a couple on the beach that they needed to make sure they could get back safely, then later we met a stag party, which ended up talking for a while with a stag party one of whom was rather drunk and a bit flirty with the Street Angels.

Then we met a rather large parrot, or rather a guy dressed as a parrot pointing people towards a nightclub, and we ended up having a selfie with the parrot! It reminded me of the craziness of much ministry where we are one moment sympathizing with the hurting or giving water and tissues to a drunk person one moment and the next having a selfie with a Parrot.

Somewhere in the night we returned back to the base for a coffee (was glad of the caffeine, although later when I actually wanted to get to sleep I was less glad of it!) and began to walk up the road, Carol one of the fab Street Angels team who lived locally shared about how in Newquay “pop-up brothels” had started to appear -or that they had discovered their existence, I remembered the day before listening to the guys from “Transform Plymouth Together” saying that human-trafficking was prevalent in the South West but largely unnoticed as everyone assumes that ‘it doesn’t happen here’ or ‘only happens in big cities like London or Birmingham’. We prayed for safety and for these businesses to shut down in this area.

We came across broken glass which we swept away, and chatted to people, visited their homeless project -where the medic team were drinking coffee (again great seeing Christians providing hospitality), and again I was encouraged to see how Christians are seen as a normal and helpful part of the night-time economy. A fight was brewing and the atmosphere changed, the door-staff emerged, and it dissipated. We came across a homeless guy and chatted to him and gave him some sandwiches, we chatted to a group of girls, they again couldn’t believe that we were all volunteers. We had a long conversation with a drunk guy about getting back to his hotel, and in the end, he jumped in a cab!

We then got chatting to some lads, they were all a bit flirty too with the street angels one even said: “I’m old enough to be your mum!” -which didn’t deter him!- Emilia (another Street Angel) had been incredibly successful at getting people to take a gospel flyer managed to get a great conversation with a young lad, so many so that he wanted to take a Bible (which his stuck down the front of his trousers because his pockets were not wide enough to fit it in!).

We wandered back to base as one lad continued to flirt with one of the team, I tried to walk with her as a deterring presence as a couple of girls walked with the other two Street Angels clearly feeling safer walking up the road with them and the rather drunk flirty lad tagged on to the end.

For me the work of Street Angels and Street Pastors reminds me of the prayer of St. Theresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

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