A man ‘sleeps it off’ at the bus stop oblivious to the world; a couple argue volubly as they literally step away from each other; inebriated young women totter down the street; bottles are smashed; there is vomit in the gutter and in the shadows, deals are done. Bedford Town centre at 1.30 am on a Sunday morning is no different from other town centres as large numbers of people, many of them young, ‘enjoy’ a night on the town. For many it is a good night out – a chance to socialise, to dance and to drink in company. For others there is excess, regret, despair and worse.
A fortnight ago I witnessed this when I went out with the Bedford Street Angels. Like Street Pastors elsewhere, Street Angels are Christians who spend the night patrolling the town centre offering practical (and where appropriate spiritual) assistance to those who are out. Setting out from their base at St Peter de Merton Church the team I was with circuited the town centre, whilst another team set up table outside Debenhams as a static station with coffee and other resources. Back at base another pair prayed for us.
Bedford Street Angels grew out of the dark side of the town centre. Eight years ago, Robert, the 17-year-old son of Fred and Fran Gill was attacked and drowned in the river. Seeking to understand how to respond to this desperate loss as Christians they looked for a way of helping others to avoid a similar fate and came up with Street Angels. Since then there has been this quiet witness of practical love.
For what do Street Angels actually do? They listen to the distressed, the lonely and or those who through inebriation are less guarded about their vulnerabilities or faith; they clear up broken glass to prevent lacerated feet; they give water to the dehydrated; sandwiches to the hungry and space blankets to the cold; they guide the lost and see that the disorientated get home; they sit with the sick and seek protection for those at rick; they pray when asked and speak of God when questioned; and they hand out flip flops to those who can no-longer walk in their party shoes. It is quiet witness that has won the admiration of the police and town centre authorities, and the appreciation of those who are helped (or at least most of them).
As I drove home just before 2.00 pm (I opted out a bit early to be fit for Sunday worship) I heard on the radio Mo Farah win his second God medal. I also thought of the Kingdom of God. For what is the Kingdom – it is the love of God breaking into, transforming, renewing the disordered world that we have made. A Kingdom that I glimpsed that night on the streets of Bedford as small acts of love transformed an otherwise disordered world.
Bishop Richard, Bedford