People volunteering to spend their evenings talking to the dangerously intoxicated and trying to make sure they don’t choke on their own vomit are to be commended. It’s not surprising that so many police officers welcome the presence of Street Pastors. However, I’m going to be a stubborn old secularist and insist that it is inappropriate for the police and other public servants to give Street Pastors their official backing.
Street Pastors have been operating in the UK since 2003. Inspired by a similar project in Jamaica, the scheme was set-up by evangelical Christians at the Ascension Trust. The Street Pastors mission is to engage with vulnerable young people on the street and to “build trust” with them.
This sounds very nice. The Street Pastors deny that they are essentially Bible-bashers looking for easy targets to recruit into their churches. Indeed, they state on their website that their “role is not about preaching heaven and hell, but one of listening, caring and helping – working in an unconditional way”. They appear to enjoy official sanction – senior police officers routinely praise their work and their website claims that they are supported by the Home Office.
However, I can’t help but notice it is also part of their mission to “earn credibility in the community, so that people know that the Church is there for them in a practical way”. They carry around Bibles with them to help give “guidance” to those in need. Non-religious people cannot join the Street Pastor teams – volunteers must be church members (not exactly “unconditional”) and must pass the Street Pastor training programme (since they insist that Jesus was the “original Street Pastor” I’m guessing that the training involves more than a smidgen of Christianity).
You would have to be pretty naive/dishonest to claim that there is not a sizeable element of proselytising in the Street Pastors’ social work. Religious organisations have traditionally used charitable efforts to spread their values and to win people over to their cause – it’s not wholly altruistic. As well-intentioned as I’m sure the individual Street Pastors are it is a fundamental aim of their organisation to promote Christianity.
Supt John Sutherland of Islington Police with Street Pastor Lewis Ecker
I therefore think that the police should be wary of endorsing the Street Pastors and of being seen to actively encourage them. Here in Islington a Street Pastors team was recently set-up with the support of the police. It was reported in the Islington Tribune that the police advise the Street Pastors where to go and that they are also operating a “Word4Weapons scheme, where youths are offered Bibles in exchange for weapons”.
It makes me very uncomfortable to think that the police could be supporting religious recruitment. I’m not the only one: a Unitarian Church minister from Islington thinks that it is vital for the police to maintain a secular image. He told the Islington Tribune:
“This is a police-sponsored programme. You have law enforcement personnel – the visible symbol of strength of the law of the land – and here they are involved in the distribution of one book of one religion and that can give the impression of not only a state preference of one religion but a compulsion.
It may not be the police who are distributing them but it’s clearly tied to the police and that sends a very particular message. They are coupling power with proselytising.”
The Street Pastors could open themselves up to volunteers of different or no religious beliefs. They could stop carrying around Bibles. I’ve helped at a homeless shelter run primarily by Christians but where non-Christian volunteers were welcome and where evangelism was kept to an absolute minimal. This arrangement seemed to work fine. If the Street Pastors’ mission truly was about simply assisting the vulnerable rather than promoting a religious agenda then running their organisation along more secular lines wouldn’t be a problem.
But whilst the Street Pastors remain a Christian evangelical organisation the police should not endorse them.