A night on the town: Vomit, violence and God

A Slice of Britain: Derby is the latest town to witness the arrival of Street Pastors, a group of Christians who volunteer to spend their Friday and Saturday evenings bringing succour to the drunk and the wounded
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The Independent Online

The beat is pounding; blue neon lights are flashing. It's another night of sin at Syn nightclub in Derby city centre. But the disco flicker is coming from an ambulance. An unconscious girl slumped, slack- jawed, in a wheelchair being dragged in through its back doors.

Stumbling around nearby, another girl, who looks like she's auditioning for "Tarzan: The Porno" in – well, partially in – a leopardskin dress, argues slurrily with a cuboid bouncer: "But if I'm barred for three months, why can't the ban start from last week when I tried to hit you?"

Ignoring all this from the safety of a nearby gutter, a guy with blood streaming from his face is waiting to hear if he's going to be arrested or hospitalised. It's his lucky night: he gets both.

It is a typical British Friday night feast of cleavage and carnage. Where, we might ask, is God in all this? Plainly he is distracted by other matters, but his emissaries are just outside. In among the high-visibility vests of the police and paramedics were five people in jackets bearing the legend "Street Pastor".

An increasingly familiar sight in Britain's towns and cities, the inter-denominational band of Christians are on an inner-city pilgrimage to do God's work, armed not with Bibles, but with sick bags, flip flops and first aid. The organisation was set up in London in 2003 by the Rev Les Isaacs as an outreach project to tackle the gang, gun and knife culture he saw in Lewisham and Hackney.

But now its remit is changing. The number of Street Pastor groups has increased dramatically in the past 12 months, with night-time patrols established in 30more towns and cities, bringing the UK total to more than 150. These days the organisation is as much about caring for drunken revellers as it is about separating warring youth gangs.

The new group in Derby is out every Friday and Saturday night tackling town-centre problems. Putting a kettle on in the kitchen above the United Reformed Church, branch director Alasdair Kay waits for his crew to arrive. The first to appear is 48-year-old John Jameson, director of Derby police's helicopter unit. Soon afterwards come Amanda and James Anderson, a married couple in their twenties who met at engineering school, and finally 57-year-old GP Patrick Halls.

Exchanging horror stories while sipping from clear brown glass mugs, they could be members of any emergency service in the country. Until: "Let us pray," says John, as he finishes his briefing for the night. "Lord, we pray that you bring peace to the town of Derby tonight," he begins optimistically, before continuing a 10-minute prayer that names every branch of the city's services (emergency or otherwise). The heart sinks a little. This, and their emblazoned jackets, suggests it is going to be a night of hectoring sermons. In fact the evening passes with barely a mention of the "G" word. Only hecklers shout it in ironic blessings.

"We've had to turn people down when they say they want to win over the lost, because we're not here to do that," explains Alasdair, a father of three teenagers. He dropped his middle daughter off for a night out on his way to the church.

The pastors' founding principle is that the patrols are no place for evangelism. "I tell Christians that if their intention is to go out there with a hefty Bible then they shouldn't do this. The idea is listening and helping, not preaching."

In fact, it's a lot more down to earth even than that. A preacher's kit bag includes a dustpan and brush, bottled water, space blankets, sick bags and anti-drink-spiking stoppers; not much room left for a hefty copy of the good book.

At half past 10, we gather between Coyote Wild Nightclub and Vodka Revolution. A mob of barely dressed girls totter forward, seemingly primed to unleash a salvo of teenage derision. Their leader is 17-year-old Bethany Ward, who seems remarkably blasé about declaring her age in front of a row of bouncers, and she is all admiration. "I just wanted to say that these guys are legends," she squeals. "When my mate was puking up the other weekend they gave them water and put them in a taxi. They don't shout at you like your parents do."

The pastors' non-judgement policy means that even the city's only gay club – where the clientele would normally be wary of people wielding the Bible – holds them in affection, with revellers running out to give them a hug as the patrol passes.

Things go smoothly until the second shift, from one until 4am, when things get nasty. GP Patrick mops up blood and administers water to the intoxicated. The pastors take turns chaperoning the abandoned and inebriated to cabs. The patrol's rapport with bouncers and drinkers is good, surprisingly good. But they confess to intolerance at the bars and clubs. Zanzibar offers drinks at 89p all night; another bar named 181 offers all its drinks at an eponymous £1.81.

"It's just so wrong," Alasdair says, shaking his head. "These prices are causing the worst of it. We showed that on promotion nights, drink-related violence soared, but nobody stopped them." That could be changing. This week the Government is to launch a binge-drinking crackdown that will see bars face losing their licence for irresponsible promotions.

Until then, all over the country, city centres will be reduced to Armageddon by the legions of the drunk. Walking back to his car amid the sound of sirens and the squalling shouts of another fight brewing, Alasdair puts his hands together, then rubs them: "Well, that was a quiet night." Perhaps God was watching after all.

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