Helping at the horrors of a night out
VIDEO FOR over a year now, a team of town pastors nicknamed the 'God Squad' has been helping people on nights out in Ipswich town centre. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING joined their shift to see what problems people face, when a good night out turns nasty.
By Tracey Sparling
FOR over a year now, a team of town pastors nicknamed the 'God Squad' has been helping people on nights out in Ipswich town centre. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING joined their shift to see what problems people face, when a good night out turns nasty.
TODAY this teenager may well not remember what her flood of tears was sparked by, let alone the kind words of people who consoled her.
Last Friday night she stood alone under Lloyds arches, a waif of a girl, shivering in white hotpants and sobbing uncontrollably.
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“Where are your friends?” asked the two strangers who had approached, “How are you getting home?”
When she finally wrenched her fists away from her swollen eyes, her face was covered with black smears of make-up, and she swayed like she'd been drinking. She could utter no answers.
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Any man walking past could have swept her under a burly arm and whisked her away.
Luckily it was Ipswich's Town Pastors who had spotted her plight first, mopped up her tears with tissues and offered her a calming drink of water before safely escorting her to the taxi rank.
“That's a perfect example of what our priority is,” said the Reverend Paul Daltry who leads the team. “She's probably upset over a relationship, that's the commonest reason. She's only yards from the taxi rank but would she have got there herself?”
In a town where five women were killed less than a year ago, helping young women in vulnerable situations is a priority for the Town Pastors. The killings do not seem to have had a lasting effect on nightlife in Ipswich, and Mr Daltry added: “The sad thing was, at the time the girls were going missing we were still finding girls walking round town alone. Now people seem to have forgotten so soon, they seem to have relaxed even more than they were before the red light killings.”
The team launched in June 2006 to help drunk, fighting or vulnerable people on nights out, and diffuse trouble if they can. The introduction of 24-hour drinking and the smoking ban have also meant more people loitering on the streets and more potential for trouble so the pastors now go out on Fridays and Saturdays until 4am. Their presence also helps the police, who are already busy tackling crime and know their appearance can sometimes inflame tensions which are brewing.
Not all are vicars but simply committed churchgoers, many of whom have teenage or grown-up children themselves.
Prayer leader Andy Taylor laughs that the team has been branded as 'the God Squad,' but although Christianity is their foundation, they don't impress it upon others.
By 10pm, prayers at the Christian Youth Movement centre in Great Colman Street are over, but half a dozen supporters also sit at home praying throughout the night, for the team's safety, its work and its clients.
Mr Daltry said: “Those who set their alarm for an unearthly hour to pray post midnight, say they are greatly blessed and find it well worth sacrificing a bit of sleep for!”
Six pastors set out in pairs, wearing reflective jackets and baseball caps and carrying radios, plus a bag full of water bottles, blanket, gloves, paper handkerchiefs and a special knife holder - a blade has been found in the past.
Justin Smith and Sheila Pugh have already popped in to Ipswich Police Station to find out what's brewing. They report that the end-of-the-month payday, combined with it being the final weekend before students return to university combined with GCSE celebrations, could bring a busy night.
From the peace of the CYM centre, we push open the door and are engulfed by music thumping out into the night from nearby bars.
Tonight Ipswich seems livelier than ever, with what looks like queues waiting to get into clubs and pubs, turning out to be groups gathered to smoke. Outside Edwards, giggling girls run across the street at the sight of our cameras, eager to talk to the pastors and put their 'two-penneth' in.
On the door of the Ice Bar in Tacket Street, manager Luke Box said: “We can only really control our own front doors so it's nice to have the pastors looking after the wider area. They are an extra set of eyes and ears for the police.”
We walk past Zing, where town pastors helped stabbing victim 19-year-old Matthew Buckman, in July.
By 11pm, the crowd from Ollie's the cocktail bar is spilling out onto the pavement. Customers Alan Harvey, 35, from Ravenswood Road, and his friend Steve Farthing are surprised to see the pastors.
Alan said: “If it helps the police and frees them up to deal with crime I think it's a great idea.”
Pals is busy as usual, with two ambulances parked outside and four police officers are handcuffing a man who has been thrown out by the bouncers. He's pinned to the ground despite his protests.
The pastors stay back in the knowledge they will be called if necessary.
By 11.15pm two more police officers are questioning a man in the layby outside the restaurant Mumbai.
Mr Daltry said: “If we see a really nasty incident we get straight on the radio to the cctv room and alert the police.
“There have been times when the police have been too busy to attend. My wife Jean and I saw a black taxi driver being verbally abused by a gang of youths. He drove off and the gang came towards us but the next thing we knew he'd returned all fired up and we saw he was going to lay into them. Jean and I went straight between them and managed to get him to back down - he realised he was outnumbered.
“I saw a domestic incident where I couldn't quite work out the relationship…the girl was with her boyfriend but she said he had hit her. She was scared so she phoned her husband, and he turned out he was best mates with the boyfriend!
“Most of the people we come across have been drinking so are vulnerable, so the best thing we can do is stay with them, give them water, until they are fit enough to go home. Sometimes we don't need to actually do anything, it just helps to be there.
“I'm more likely to have people jumping on my back for fun, saying 'give me a lift home' than punching me!”
As the night draws on, we go down Silent Street - which isn't so silent tonight. “I'm 15,” screams a girl upon seeing the pastors, then she runs off with a gang of lads shrieking with laughter.
We walk to Cardinal Park which is where Town Pastors usually see the most trouble.
Noel Thompson, 42, from Birkfield Drive is out with a friend. He said: “I'm pleased to see them on the streets. It's good to see a new approach being tried.”
On the radio we hear a bald man in a grey t-shirt is walking towards Ipswich Station. Staff in the cctv room are watching his every move after a flurry of trouble in town.
The sound of glass bottles being smashed, alerts us to a loud crowd outside McDonalds.
Then the pastors turn to a girl sitting alone on a bench outside Cineworld. Sheila returns to say: “She's all right, she's just waiting for her lift home. She's very self possessed.”
It's Sheila's first shift on the streets, and I wonder if the former economist and teacher is worried about what she might encounter in this environment.
The 49-year-old said: “I got involved because I wanted to help in a practical way. This is something you can do rather than just talk about and the fact that the police welcome it convinced me to join.”
Justin, 41, a software researcher and developer said: “It just seems like the right thing to do, as a Christian so we can demonstrate the love that we have been given and show it to other people. It's a good way to meet people. I also like the idea of churches in Ipswich working together.”
Soon after midnight we venture up Silent Street towards town. Staggering towards Pals are three girls, tottering past us in high heels. The teenager in the middle is held upright by her friends.
“I can't f***ing focus,” she shouts, to anyone who will listen.
Around the corner in Dog's Head Street, a girl urinates in a shop doorway, shielded by her friend.
It's just another night out in Ipswich.
As I head for the sanctuary of my car to go back to the office, a gang of eight beered-up lads lurch past. I weave between them as they fill the pavement and roadway. It's reassuring to know the pastors are watching from the end of the road, especially as the streetlights run out.
Have the Town Pastors helped you? Write to Your Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook St, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail email@example.com.
The name 'pastor' comes from the archaic word for shepherd. It has come to mean a clergyman or priest in charge of a congregation, but Town Pastors use it in the sense of caring for others.
Christmas 2005: A pilot scheme ran in the red light area of Ipswich to coincide with Suffolk's Police's Lock 'Em Inn, zero tolerance campaign. The pilot significantly reduced crime, including sexual assaults.
June 23, 2006: Town Pastors were trained in drug and alcohol awareness; conflict management and personal safety, and took to the streets funded by the council and police.
April 2006: Officials from Chelmsford visited with a view to setting up their own scheme, and Norwich recently sent out their first lot of trained Street Pastors. Colchester is also in the process of setting up.
September 2007: Teams now patrol Friday and Saturday nights, with 50 active members on the rota and 80 praying at home from 30 churches in the Ipswich area. Each team member patrols once a month from 10pm to 4am.
“There were four of them, looking for trouble, squaring up to the door-staff, outside the nightclub. We were asked to diffuse the situation. Two accepted our offer of chocolate and to talk; the other two didn't. But we chatted and offered to call them a taxi and by the time it arrived all four thanked us. So did the doorstaff and the police."
Mark Town Pastor
“We were asked three times in one night if our caps were available to purchase or for sale on the internet! Everyone was fascinated to know the significance of the 'fish' logo - not merely a fashion statement but the ageless street symbol of Christians"
Steve Town Pastor
“A message came through to the Town Pastors to pray that there would be no more arrests, as all the cells were full to overflowing. We prayed and later received word that everything had gone quiet. This peace continued for a full one and a half hours - long enough for the backlog of arrests to be processed."
Liz Town Pastor