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Meet Southend's guardian angels: Street pastors lend a helping hand
WHILE Southend slumbers there are those who wrap up against the cold night air and venture out to help those in need.
Southend’s street pastors are brave souls who think nothing of spending the night on the seafront to help scantily-clad teenagers and homeless souls the worse for wear.
They are all Christians and mostly members of Evangelical churches though, apart from a prayer before we leave Southend Baptist Church, religion is rarely mentioned during their work – and only then if people ask about it.
The most common question people ask is why they do it. The answer my guide, Del Thomas, 32, always gives is they love everyone and want to make sure they’re safe.
This is all the more remarkable when you consider Del, who works as a primary school teacher, began his five years as a street pastor in Brixton, south London, facing a very different set of circumstances.
He said: “In Brixton we often went around some of the estates there, where there was a lot of violence, but we never had any problems from the gangs. If anyone gave us any abuse, they would be the ones defending us and making sure it didn’t happen.
In their view the police looked down on them, but they knew we were just trying to help.”
On the High Street, we give out a few bottles of water to young men a little worse for wear who have found themselves on their own and make sure they’re safely on their way.
A few ladies also benefit from the pastors’ free flip-flops as they’ve finally given in to their high heels and gone barefoot.
Del tells me more and more of the pastors’ time is spent looking out for the homeless, but thankfully we only come across three rough sleepers all night.
It’s not long before fellow street pastor Peter Courtenay, who despite the cold is full of passion and wit, begins chatting to a chap called Paul on the seafront who is so drunk it is difficult to understand what he is saying.
It would be easy to dismiss someone like Paul as just another drunk, to be pitied, or perhaps even ridiculed. Peter, however, gently urges him to drink a bottle of water while chatting to him.
After 20 minutes his patience and attentiveness begins to draw the man out of his shell and it becomes clear how broken he is.
His wife is dying of cancer and he had lost his job, but for a few moments at least he has been able to share his burden with a sympathetic friend.
It is clear the street pastors’ faith drives them on and also why I remain out and about with them until 3.30am – amazingly, they consider this an early night.
Paul eventually wandered off to the seafront. We followed for a bit to check he was OK, but somehow lost him down a deadend alley. We spot him later with a friend so we move on.
Back on the High Street, a fight almost breaks, but, a squad car appears before a single punch is thrown.
To Del this is evidence of the power of prayer as, amazingly, there is a designated person a home praying for us all night.
The best thing about the street pastors is you don’t have to believe in God – they will still be there.
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