By Ruth Garvey-Williams
It’s a freezing Friday night on the streets of Derry. By10pm the end-of-the-week celebration is just getting started. Nightclubs are filling up, while those too young to get in congregate on the city walls or vacant benches.
Into this picture walks an unlikely group. The Street Pastorsfrom Derry’s Cornerstone City Fellowship have hit the streets every Friday night for the last three years. Armed with hot tea, coffee and soup and dressed in high-visibility waterproof jackets, the volunteers are there to demonstrate God’s unconditional love.
Giving out free drinks and chatting with people who are drunk, might not seem the most effective local church activity. Yet the Street Pastorshave made a significant impact.
“From our point of view, they play an invaluable role,” shared Paul Deacon, City Centre Inspector with the PSNI (police). “They are always there regardless of the weather, handing out teas and coffees. It is hard to put a figure on it, but we have noticed that the amount of assaults, anti-social behaviour and vandalism has reduced since the Street Pastors began working in Derry. We are always glad to see them!”
People are baffled by the Street Pastors. They ask, “Why are you doing this?” The response? - “Because you matter.”
Norman McCorkell who runs the programme described how the Street Pastors began.
“Three years ago we looked at different areas of the city and what was going on. We asked: How can our church empower its people to give something to the city that is helping; not preaching but practically working out what we believe.”
The church soon discovered that one of the biggest problems for the city was a growing trend of under-age and binge drinking.
Derry City Council website states: “Binge drinking culture is common with both teenagers and young adults alike. Ireland has one of the highest proportions of 14-15 year old binge drinkers in Europe (Alcohol Concern report on Stockholm Conference).”
Learning of a similar project in England, Cornerstone City Fellowship launched Street Pastors as their response to the city’s problems.
“We care about our city,” Norman said. “The police and the council understand that they cannot fix the alcohol problem. We also have avery high rate of suicide and depression.”
“We are not preaching but providing a listening ear. We help those who are drunk to sober up with a hot drink and provide a safe place for people who feel in danger.”
From initial suspicion, the attitude of local authorities has changed radically. The church now serves on the city’s Civic Alcohol Forum – one of only two member organisations actively addressing the alcohol problem.
“Week on week we are sowing seeds,” Norman explained. “Some nights we get a chance to talk or pray with people, some nights we don’t. People tell you where to go and where to put your coffee!”
“Some nights it is so cold, you would rather close the door and get something nice to eat. But seeing someone’s life transformed makes it worthwhile.”
“Two months ago, I met a 16-year-old who was drinking every Friday night, down at the city walls. He was well-read and had all the awkward questions. After a while, he would stand with us for the whole evening.
“We shared honestly that we did not have answers to all his questions. Finally he came to our Sunday night event and made a commitment to follow Jesus. He has given up drinking, goes to our youth group and has an on-going relationship with God.”
Want your church to make an impact in your town or city? Norman McCorkell recommends “Servolution” by Dino Rizzo. He says, “It’s a MUST READ for people considering serving their culture, their city, their community.”
Scripture for the day