Plough: You founded Street Pastors in Brixton, South London, in 2003. Why did you choose that name?
Les Isaac: The word “pastor” means shepherd, that is, someone who is a carer – so “Street Pastors” means the church caring for its local community. There are now twelve to thirteen thousand people actively involved, and it’s growing across the UK and involving many different churches. A Street Pastors team must be from a minimum of five denominations.
We adopt the ethos of caring, listening, and helping. Caring means that we’re physically there. Listening means not preaching at people or beating them over the head with a Bible. And helping means pointing them to the church and other places where they can find help.
We asked the police which hours are the most challenging, so we could be there when people have the greatest need. Now there are School Pastors, who operate in the afternoon, Twilight Street Pastors, and then those who work from 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m.
So what do Street Pastors do when they’re out at night?
When we started a lot of people told us: it’s dangerous, you’re crazy, you’re naïve. But we found that everyone wants to be loved, and that people responded to us.
We carry water for people who have been clubbing and are dehydrated. One night we recognized that young girls were walking barefoot on streets with a lot of broken glass. Many cut their feet, or sprained an ankle walking drunk in high heels. So we started giving out flip-flops. Over twelve years we’ve given out nearly two hundred thousand pairs.
We tell people that we are “the church.” When they ask us which one, we say, “All of them: Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Reformed, Charismatic . . .” and they’re mind-boggled.
When people find out that we aren’t paid, they’re so shocked that they use words I can’t repeat here.
Do you preach to people on the streets?
No, we just tell people we’re there for them. If they become inquisitive or suspicious, we tell them that we do it because Jesus commands us to love our neighbors.
Many of the people I meet ask for prayer. I don’t go around saying, “Come to Jesus,” but the mere fact that I’m out there is salt and light, and people come to the light and say, “Would you pray for me? My mom’s just died . . . My wife and I have broken up . . . My son’s getting involved in all sorts of things . . .”
Do you ever experience opposition?
Over the years I’ve had some really negative letters from Christians who think that we should only be preaching the gospel. But there are so many stories of people saying, “Because of you guys, I’ve gone back to church,” or, “I’ve found Jesus because of you.”
Interview by Bernard Hibbs on July 8, 2015.