Meet Tracey, the first nightclub chaplain in Britain

Hazel Southam on a Christian mission with a neon touch
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TRACEY HYSLOP is a lively 28-year-old who goes clubbing five nights a week. She dresses fashionably in black and seldom gets home before dawn. She is Britain's first nightclub chaplain, soon to be joined by a dozen more.

Her job, at Ikon nightclub in Norwich, is to chat to depressed and troubled youngsters, mop up their sick and stop them slashing their wrists.

She has been so successful that the Rank Organisation, which owns Ikon, is in negotiations with the Christian group Youth for Christ, to place 12 more chaplains in British clubs before the end of the year.

The move comes as young people across the UK are returning to church. Summer Christian youth camps draw thousands each year. The chart success of Christian musicians such as Eternal and Delirious has given credibility to the Church's image.

As Ms Hyslop does her rounds of Ikon, everyone stops to chat. "A lot of young people have thought that the message of Christianity was old-fashioned, but I never thought that," she said. "It was just the way it was communicated. What we do here is show the relevance of the Christian message. Now young people here are interested in Christianity. There is a church in this nightclub."

The "church" is an information booth under pink neon lights run by Ms Hyslop and her 20-strong band of black-clad volunteers: young people who believe God has something to offer the revellers and who will stay out until 6am, five nights a week, to prove it.

Ms Hyslop frequently sees the dawn in a hospital casualty department, where she has taken young victims of drink. She drives them home afterwards. Incredulous parents phone to thank her.

"Think of the best job in the world and then make it better - this is it," she says. "We hear relationship problems, emotional problems, health queries from people who are afraid of Aids. Some kids are depressed and can't cope with life or their jobs."

Loo-side suicide attempts are part of the night's work. She remembers one young woman, her own age, standing in the club's toilets holding a shattered glass to her wrist. "Talk about British reserve. All I could say was, 'Excuse me, are you all right?' She said, 'Yes, I'm fine, thanks', and then burst into tears. She had just reached the point where she couldn't cope any more."

Rank introduced the chaplaincy scheme as part of its "policy to care for" revellers, according to press officer Melissa Edwards. Some scornful regulars dismiss Ms Hyslop's work as a service for "sad losers". Nevertheless they hug her and tell her she's "wonderful".

"She's great," says club regular Mark Wright, aged 21. "I would go and talk to Tracey about my problems."

Chris Devey, 19, prefers chatting with the chaplain to his beer-swilling best mates. "It's useful to be able to talk to someone," he says. "When you are wandering around drunk with no one to talk to, she's just there to help you. She cheers me up."

Local police drugs squad officers exclude Ikon from their list of trouble spots, while the club's bouncers report fewer fights since Ms Hyslop arrived.

So, what makes the Church appealing to young people who previously considered it to be for boring wrinklies?

The Evangelical Alliance represents the fastest-growing wing of the UK Church. Its spokesman, Keith Ewins, said: "As we approach the millennium, a lot of young people have a spiritual hunger. This has gone hand-in-hand with a discovery by sections of the Church of new and vibrant ways of presenting the Christian message."

Back at Ikon, Ms Hyslop is planning one of those "new, vibrant ways". Her aim, expressed cautiously for now, is to set up a clubbers' church in a nearby pub to answer a question she gets asked every night: "Where's the fag machine - and why did Jesus die on the cross?"