It is one o'clock on Saturday morning, and the three of us have been plucked from the fast-clearing streets by a Jesus Army patrol. There's a tousle-haired, blond boy, who doesn't say anything; Tony from Teesside; and myself, posing awkwardly as a rough sleeper. We are crammed into this minibus with condensation running down the windows.
In their blue-and-green combat-style jackets, emblazoned with the logo love, power and sacrifice, members of this group, the evangelical wing of the Jesus Church, stand out from the other, mainly Christian, volunteers who offer soup and sandwiches to the homeless around the Strand. Jesus Army patrols are also the only ones who offer you a weekend off the streets at their farm, New Creation, in the Northamptonshire countryside. Because of this, members are often met with suspicion by homeless people.
"Don't go with them; they stole my Giro!" a young girl screams after us before falling about laughing, her eyes bright with drugs. One of our number, a former soldier with shrapnel still lodged in his brain, did a runner as the minibus arrived. Other critics of the Army accuse it of brainwashing members, exploiting them for work, and intimidating those who try to leave. After three young members died in the Eighties, the Jesus Army was vilified for targeting the vulnerable. But the rest of us that Saturday morning, faced with a cold night on the streets, chose the hospitality.
The Jesus Army says that, during the past six years, it's helped thousands of homeless, offering them "an experience of God, a family and a cause to fight for". The people in the minibus just want a bed for the night. Tony, shamefaced about coming, is 20 but looks younger. He has been sleeping rough on the Strand for nine months, ever since his mother, going through a bad patch in her latest marriage, kicked him out. He insists he's only here because he couldn't face another night in McDonald's doorway.
"Well, you've picked a good weekend for it," says one of our hosts brightly, and tells us of a multi-media, evangelising event they are holding the next day. "It's more like a rave or a disco than church. It might even bring a tear to your eye." Tony gives him a withering look. "I haven't cried for six years. I wouldn't know how to."
The minibus finally crawls up the tree-lined driveway to the farm. My male companions are shown into the farmhouse, while I am escorted to the "Sisters" cottage. Brothers and Sisters are segregated; even in the minibus I had to sit separately from the men. But going upstairs to my room, I find the bed turned down and a hotwater bottle ready for my icy feet.
Morning reveals the farm to be a Victorian building set in flat, green fields, and for a while it seems as if this is just going to be a relaxing weekend break. The Sisters are all very friendly, with a rhythm to their existence that is imposed by chopping vegetables, tending to the pigs, and by the minutiae of farm life. They hum along with their tasks, religious songs; there are no radios and no televisions. They look slightly askance at my jeans - they are all dressed in flowing long skirts and sensible shoes, without any make-up. One of them explains that the scriptures say that men shouldn't dress as women and women shouldn't dress as men, though it is up to each Sister to reach her own conclusion. Also, I am instructed, "women don't lead men"; it's the men who make the decisions.
On Saturday night, we all pile into the garish minibuses, bound for the Manchester Free Trade Hall, with a picnic tea of cheese sandwiches and scones. It's as if we're on a Sunday school outing. So the spectacle awaiting us is a shock. Even Tony drops his swagger. More than a thousand people are crowded in for a multi-media event called "Bleeding Life", which has regularly toured Britain, appearing most recently in Brighton.
A fluorescent, red cross is hoisted onto the stage, and there's the sound of hammer on nails. The dying moments of an Aids patient, soiled nappy and all, are screened. Jesus Army members come on stage to confess their tragic pasts. Then, bang on cue, the audience flinches, cries and finally erupts in a religious fervour. Strobe lights begin to flicker and music pounds out as people dance frantically: the Book of Revelations meets the Kids from Fame.
Tony stands solemnly, his arms folded. Amid the whirling chaos, I creep down from where I'm sitting with the Sisters. "Do you think it's mass hysteria?" I whisper. "Naw, I think they're soft in the head," he says.
This is the first time we see in action the leader of the Jesus Fellowship. Noel Stanton has a reputation as a firebrand preacher. He was a part-time minister at Bugbrooke Baptist Church in Northamptonshire, before feeling a calling, in 1973, to establish a community along the lines of the early Christian Church. "The minute I heard him preach, I knew he spoke the truth," says a pensioner who has been with the Fellowship since its earliest days. Now 67, Stanton is silver-haired and silver-tongued, a cross between your favourite uncle and a game-show host. He croons at us from the stage. "I think you're finding this rather pleasurable," he chuckles, at a plump woman bouncing in her seat and laughing hysterically, gripped by the holy spirit. Yet he is aloof and silent whenever I see him around the farm.
Stanton has coped with his church's expulsion from both the Evangelical Alliance and the mainstream Baptist Union in 1986 - local churches had alleged the Jesus Fellowship was becoming too isolated and independent. Indeed, he's seen its membership swell to nearly 2,000, about half of which live in community houses throughout England, while one-day rallies can attract as many again. The Fellowship's House of Goodness Group - which sells farming, health foods and building supplies - has an annual turnover of about £15 million and employs about 250 members. All get the same wage, but community members pay it back into the common purse. There is a strong sense of purpose in everything they do. On the farmhouse wall in Northampton there is a battle map with more than 70 pins highlighting Jesus Army houses around Britain and the areas they want to move into.
As Stanton speaks, many of the gathering are speaking in tongues. "Maharshalalbahaba," moans a young man near me, his head flung back. Stanton is calling upon those who have suffered to stand up and be anointed. "Anyone who has been in prison, anyone who has been homeless, anyone", he says, perhaps hedging his bets, "who has had a really bad car crash." The stage fills.
Among them is shaven-headed Stu, a 16-year-old heroin addict. When they first befriended him, under the arches in London, he hated the Jesus Army; then he graduated to beating up people who hassled them. Now he has been baptised. I hear him later this weekend, playing "Michael Row the Boat Ashore", one finger on the piano, in the sitting room of the farm.
Perhaps for Stu the Jesus Army is a solution. Many of the members who have also experienced homelessness and drug addiction can relate directly to other sufferers. "And," says John Campbell, the Jesus Army press officer, "some folk can find in a trice that God has done something which no amount of medication and social work can do."
The problem is that it's the only solution Stu and other addicts are offered. Nick Hardwick, director of Centrepoint, the charity of homeless young people, says young people should have proper choices about suitable accommodation. "At the moment, the choice is the streets or the Jesus Army, and they know the streets are incredibly dangerous, so there's not very much to lose by going off with the Jesus Army. Anybody can offer accommodation to young people over the age of 16 without any kind of controls being placed on them at all."
But life in the Jesus Army involves hard decisions. I can choose to stay with the Jesus Army, but I'll have to give them my wage packet or Giro. I get a home, a family and a new name - a "virtue name", to fit my character (men have names like "Rockfast" or "Able", women "Pureheart" or "Glowing"; the press officer is aptly called "Perceptive").
But, if I become a fully covenanted member at the end of two years, then I must sign over all my possessions to them, with no guarantee that I will ever get them back, even if I leave. And I would find my sexuality curtailed, too - as 20-year-old James discovered when he was picked up by the Jesus Army on the Strand.
He informed one of the Brothers who befriended him that he was gay, and was told that was fine. But when he went to the Jesus Army house at Acton, west London, increasing pressure was put on him to renounce his sexuality. He was introduced to a former rent boy who said his sexuality had changed through the power of prayer. But when James said it was something he was born with and couldn't change, they took him to a room upstairs. While one of them guarded the door, the others performed an exorcism - something all Fellowship members are empowered to do.
"A guy stood either side of me, and another kept pressing my chest and said breathe quickly and deeply. It was just to make me hyperventilate. They were speaking in tongues, they said. I don't know what it was or how they did it, and they said the reason why I was unhappy was that I had evil spirits in me. One bloke kept asking me what my fantasies were - it was as if he was getting off on it. It was just ridiculous, but it was really painful as well. They kept saying I'd got to change or I'd be all alone in the world; or tell me these graphic images of how I'd burn in hell, that these big doors would close and lock me in forever."
Like many homeless people, James had been thrown out of home when his parents found out he was gay. This second rejection, by the people who professed to offer help, left him feeling betrayed: "The Jesus Army made out they'd got something so special, something really simple, and that I was going to be safe forever. I find it very hard to trust people now, or to talk about my sexuality."
John Campbell is adamant that "sexual relations should take place within the context of a Christian marriage. That obviously is heterosexual, so, within the context of Christian morality, we would see homosexual activity as being not part of the Christian moral code."
He adds: "Our aim is not to impose some kind of morality on people but to help them find God and help God to work in their life in such a way that things will change." Yet, observing four men holding one man's body, and seeing their ecstatic release as they speak in tongues and fall into a frenzy, I thought that perhaps many gay men, unable to come to terms with their homosexuality, are taking refuge in the avowedly celibate lifestyle of the Jesus Fellowship.
Celibacy is the most highly regarded state in the Jesus Fellowship, and about a quarter of the members, including Noel Stanton, have made a lifelong vow. One of the Sisters I met was anxious because she was told at a prayer meeting that God had sent a word for her - that word was celibacy. Noel Stanton stopped her after the meeting, asking if she'd heard that message clearly. "I said I'd heard it but I wasn't receiving it," the blonde sister whispers to her companion. "I didn't mean to be cheeky, but I don't think I'm ready."
If she doesn't embrace celibacy, she must wait for one of the Brothers to approach his elder and express an interest in her. The elder will then approach her elder, who will ask her if this interest is reciprocated. Only then can the courtship begin, and end in marriage.
Yet notwithstanding these rigid rules, I wonder how easy it would be the leave the Jesus Army if I really had nowhere else to go. According to Hazel Adams, of the cult watchdog FAIR, the decision gets harder as time goes by. She owns the adjoining farm in Nether Heyford, and has taken in several ex-homeless people who have come to her from New Creation. "Some are absolutely distraught and feel betrayed. They've been promised a new life but now they've left, they are riddled with guilt and fear hell and damnation."
I ask Sister Ann what happens when someone wants to leave. "If it's a homeless person who's just come up for the weekend, and the community doesn't suit them, then, of course, you can't make them stay," she says. "But when people find Jesus, something comes alive in them. You don't want to see that go down the drain." She says she'd try and talk them out of it.
On Monday morning, when I leave the community, the woman in the room next door gives me a little card with a religious story on it. Then I catch a lift to the bus station in the usual minibus, now taking community members to their jobs in Northampton. "See?" I say later to Hazel Adams. "I was allowed to leave." "The locks aren't on the gates, they're in the mind," she says sadly.
I left Tony at the farm with the Jesus Army. I asked him when he was going back. "Back to what?" he replied scornfully, then shrugged. "Bye, Sis," he said.Reuse content