Street pastors was a challenge this week. Sometimes you turn up really excited to see God do stuff, some days you're a bit more nervous ("What can I possibly bring to the table?") and then sometimes, like this week, you suffer from a little streak of arrogance. ("Yes! I will go out this evening and do some good! My presence is clearly important to the success of tonight!" Or something like that.) But God, in all his great wisdom immediately says "Oh no you don't, you cut that out right now. Deflate that big head of yours; don't you forget who's really running this outfit."
So I went out, maybe feeling a little more puffed-up than I really should have, and met the following people:
1) Two homeless guys that work as a double act, sitting in a shop entrance with a board propped up as a wind-breaker and blankets round them. Hedley bought them a cheesburger and chatted with them for a while -me and Steve were on the other side of the street at the time. Now we're heading into autumn there's a definite chill at night and it's only going to get worse. These two hang out together for company and one of them writes poetry. He recited a couple of verses to them about his life which were apparently pretty good. It's easy to forget that just because someone's time is taken up surviving, they still have an urge to express themselves, to create things. They just don't have the outlet.
2) A 50-something year old Romanian woman. I see her a lot selling the Big Issue on the street and we never do more than the usual "How much is that?" "Thank you" exchange, but this night was really quiet so we stopped to chat with her. Turns out she, her husband, and her five kids (4 girls, 1 boy) came over here from Romania 3 years ago looking for work because they couldn't find any at home. Her kids are all grown up now and they and the husband work washing cars in Tesco's car park. She and the daughter sell the Big Issue during the day but at night, when they're all sleeping at home, she comes out and wanders round the town centre, selling roses to couples on a night out. They all share a house, up past Tesco's, but no one who sells Big Issue is especially wealthy or can get a different job. And yet when she said she went to a church and we said so did we, she immediately started telling us how good God was to her. That she prayed all the time, that he made her happy.
3) A guy sitting outside MacDonalds, watching people walk past very quietly. We asked him if he was okay, and he asked if we were Christians. When we nodded he immediately started talking about his life without any prompting at all.
His name was Darren and he was a soldier, recently in Iraq. He was back in England on sick leave after being shot- he pulled up his shirt and showed us the six-inch scar left across his stomach. We asked him what he was doing sitting out there and he said he was just watching life, trying to get his head around it. Since coming back he was finding it very difficult to integrate back into the life he'd had before. Watching everyone walk past on a night out, drinking and getting in fights, he said everyone just seemed so selfish. All they thought about was themselves when there were men out there dying, and how could they do that? They would squabble over the tiniest things and get in fights over nothing, when he had seen people shot on their behalf and they didn't even care, weren't even aware of it. Ever since he came back he'd been given a really hard time by people who said he shouldn't have gone out, he'd had counselling but it hadn't done any good since the counsellor really had no idea what he'd been through. His partner had left him and he didn't see his two kids much any more, and he'd taken to drinking. Although Darren had hope that in the future when he had healed he would be able to turn his life around, what he had seen and done on his tour of duty had fundamentally changed him, as it does a lot of soldiers, and speaking to him in person was a very strange experience.
These men are simply following the orders they have been given. That is their job, and a job that most of us would never consider doing -could never even attempt. They risk their lives, away from home and family, in conditions none of us would put up with, and many of them return home both physically, emotionally and psychologically damaged. We take our freedom so much for granted in this country. Whether or not we agree with the leaders that sent them out there, surely the least we owe people in that kind of situation is sympathy and compassion, because a lot of them have dealt with things that we never will.
4) At the end of the night there was a ruckass when a guy was apparently seen hitting his girlfriend on the street. She was pretty hysterical but also a bit drunk so there is no way of knowing whether he really did or she intigated it, but there was running and yelling and threats. Steve told the police TV crew what was going on, and eventually they reported back that the two had got in a taxi together, having sorted out the worst of it. Of course, as Street Pastors we are not the police, and if things had got nastier I don't know what we would have done. Of course we have a duty to the rest of our team to try and keep ourselves out of harm's way, we certainly aren't bouncers, but it's very difficult (for me anyway) to stand there and hear a big fight like that, and not be able to do anything to help.
All in all it was a very humbling night, and a confusing one. Mainly because I was faced with so many situations that really I could do nothing to help. I can't home those two guys, I can't improve that woman's financial situation, I can't solve domestics and I definitely can't do much for men like Darren. It was like I'd had the carpet pulled out from under me, and I went home asking God "So what am I doing this for? What is the point of me going out there at all when there are so many different kinds of people struggling and suffering in so many different ways, and I can't change any of them. Is this all just a pipe dream? I don't understand."
I had to wait until Sunday for an answer, when we were singing some worship. It's funny how half an hour focussing on God's goodness shrinks all the other problems you thought you had, but I still had all this at the back of my mind. Then the chorus to a song came round:
Our God saves. Our God saves
There is hope in your name
Mourning turns to songs of praise
Our God saves, our God saves
and it hit me. God saves. There is hope in him. The Romanian woman had spoken about it, even Darren had mentioned it; that the knowledge of God brings hope, and hope is the source of life and joy in difficult circumstances. Where God is, wherever God is, and despite people's struggles, they still have this sense of something better beyond themselves. And he does save. He is the one that brings that woman joy, and he is the one that cam heal men of their scars.
It very much put me in my place, and reminded me of how much I still have to learn about the world, but I went out that afternoon praising God for his goodness to us, which is exactly as it should be.