Street Pastors: Ministry in the midst of life

Street pastors on patrol in downtown Bangor, ME. Click the images below to see a larger version. Photos and story by Beth DiCocco, director of communications.

July 27, 2015

“Gracious Lord, we do give you thanks for this ministry tonight for the people we were able to speak with. Lord we pray you would continue to work within their hearts nurturing the seeds that were planted and pray especially those we met struggling with their faith … may they find you again in their lives.”
– Rev. Kate Nicol’s prayer at the end of the July 10, 2015 Street Pastors patrol
It's 8:45 p.m. on a summer Friday – time to get ready for a night on the town.
What to wear?
Navy blue shirt and baseball hat with reflective labels.
What to bring?
Tootsie-Pops, protein bars, bottles of water, a coupon for a free sandwich at McDonald’s and a cell phone.
From left: Dean Bird, Kim MacLeod and
Beth Coffey getting ready to go out on patrol.
With that and a short prayer the five Street Pastors are on their way to downtown Bangor, ME.
“Gracious Lord, we give you thanks for this opportunity to share your love with others. Lord, we pray that you would equip us and help us share what is needed this night,” said Rev. Kate Nicol, an elder in the New England Conference and the Street Pastors team leader this night.
What is needed this night might be a listening ear, a ride home, the calm voice that stops a fight, that free sandwich or the way off the street for the night.
These volunteers, clergy and laity, will spend the next four hours “on patrol” – walking and talking with the people they meet; some will be homeless, others bar hopping; some are just curious, others want to talk about their lives and their faith or loss of faith.
“When we’re out there and people are talking to us, we get to be that safe space that they may not be able to find anyplace else,” Rev. Nicol said describing this ministry not of evangelism, but of presence.
The conversation may start with “What’s a Street Pastor?” or the offer of a Tootsie Pop (There’s a technique to avoid seeming “creepy” when passing out candy, Nicol notes, and experience shows nobody likes the cheap lollipops).
Street Pastors originated in London in 2003. Bangor is one of only two cities in the U.S. to have a Street Pastors ministry; the other is Chico, CA.
Street Pastors began in Bangor in August 2014. In July 2015, The Greater Bangor Area Street Pastors, as they are officially known, received 501c3 nonprofit status.
Recognizing the signs that people
want to talk is an art, Rev. Kate Nicol says.
Four churches participate: North Brewer-Eddington United Methodist Church in Eddington, the church Nicol pastors; Bangor Baptist Church, Advent Christian Church and All Souls Congregational Church, all in Bangor.
Beth Coffey, Kim MacLeod, Dean Bird and Brian Gillespie are the other Street Pastors going out on this patrol. Teams patrol each Friday night with individual volunteers ideally going out no more than once a month. The group will also take a break mid-patrol to return to the church for a snack and a chance to use the restroom.
 “It can be an intense experience,” Nicol said of going on patrol. “I’d like to go out on every one, but there are breaks for a reason.”
In one of those intense experiences, the Street Pastors broke up a fight among some homeless teens and a young man over a cell phone. There was a lot of drunk posing and posturing, said Nicol, who described the experience as “terrifying, exhilarating, and amazing.”
One of the Street Pastors, a 5’2’ second grade teacher, used her “teacher voice” to tell the group she’d dialed 911 and would press call unless they stopped.
“They stopped,” Nicol said, “And I was like, really, Lord? OK.”
They talked with one of the young men about making better decisions. Nicol ran into him on a subsequent patrol.
 “Street Pastors, you guys stopped me from making a stupid choice awhile back,” the young man told them and “proclaimed using many expletives how wonderful we were at the top of his lungs in downtown Bangor,” she recalled.
It seems the situation may repeat itself this evening; three young men are standing together, poised for an argument. As the Street Pastors come along, however, the three go on their way down the sidewalk. Sometimes simply having other people around will diffuse a tense situation, Nicol said.
Nicol said she’s never felt unsafe during a patrol; the Street Pastors are always in groups of two or more.
But the patrols can have an emotional impact. Speaking of a patrol on the Friday before Christmas, Nicol said many who wanted to talk spoke of “not being able to be with their children because of the choices they’d made.”
“There are some nights when it’s harder to go to sleep than others,” she said.
As with the young man who sung their praises, Nicol occasionally sees someone she’s interacted with on a past patrol, but most encounters are one-offs. She doesn’t mind that, she said.
“You plant the seed,” Nicol said. “You hope the prayer you offer gets them on the right path; that it’s the beginning or a turning point.”

Remembering JR

But Nicol and the other Street Pastors did build a relationship with “JR.”  JR, formally Robert Wallace West, was homeless. The Street Pastors would run into West regularly. Everyone had met him, Nicol said. He was a registered sex offender – a fact that he did not hide, she said.
“There was a reason he was homeless. There was reason he was not allowed in shelters,” she said.

West had a favorite bench; it is across the street from Bahaar Pakistani Restaurant, where the owners often provided him with a free meal at the end of service.
On May 30, 2015, West, 50, was crossing street to pick up a meal when he was struck by a car and killed. The Street Pastor churches helped raise money for his funeral. A memorial service was held at Columbia Street Baptist Church.
The Street Pastors gather at JR's bench.
His death, Nicol said, sparked some deep conversation among people who had different experiences of him and who wanted to say goodbye. Nicol had not led a patrol since West’s death, and wanted on this night to stop by his bench, where the team said a prayer for him.
Street Pastors works with what Nicol calls “the basic urban trinity” of the church, the police and local community government to “address social issues from the Christian perspective.” Creating partnerships and building trust are important to the ministry. To that end, Nicol stops to talk with an officer who’s patrolling downtown on this night.
The bouncers at the downtown bars help out as well, Nicol said, alerting them to potential issues or people who may need assistance.
The Street Pastors also get support from Prayer Pastors – folks who pray for the teams on patrol and on whom they can call if they need additional support.
It took several years to pull this ministry together, Nicol said, and that included bringing trainers over from Great Britain to conduct Street Pastor training.
There were 28 people – clergy and laity – who attended the original training session; after a second round, about 40 people have gone through at least some portion of the training. There are about 30 volunteers currently active in the ministry.

Conversational bids

Some of that training included learning to recognize “bids” or signals that people are interested in starting a conversation.
Nicol is attuned to bids, and steers Bird and MacLeod to a woman who’s left her friends at a table in an outdoor eating area to take a seat alone on a
Street Pastor Brian Gillespie talks with
a man during the patrol.
bench. She talks with the Street Pastors for quite a while before returning to her friends.
Bird, a lay member of Advent Christian Church, admits it’s not easy for him to initiate encounters. Still, the opportunity to talk with people outside the church is what drew him to being a Street Pastor.
He said he hoped to learn “how to talk to people again,” saying churchgoers can be an “insular group” that has “lost touch with people (outside the church).”
Bird is not alone. Nicol often finds herself steering team members, because there’s an art to reading those signals and engaging people that not everyone – including herself – gets naturally or right away. The Street Pastors’ weekly newsletter includes reports on that week’s patrol. Early on, Nicol said, many read “It was a really quiet night.”
“That’s because (they) actually didn’t engage anybody,” Nicol said. “That’s not natural for me; it’s something I’ve had to learn to do, but I’ve made a point to make sure that I’m showing people how to do that.”
People offer conversational bids “all the time,” she said; they’re saying ‘please come in.’”

Some encounters

Sometimes these bids are obvious. On this Friday, two women cross the street to approach MacLeod, Coffey and Gillespie and ask: “What’s a Street Pastor?”
MacLeod, a member of North Brewer-Eddington UMC, defines Street Pastors as volunteers who “walk the streets of their community to provide practical kindness, help and a listening ear. Sometimes people just need someone to talk with them; sometimes they need a bottle of water.”
“You’re being super helpful and super nice,” one woman says. “We definitely notice you guys.”
Earlier, MacLeod, Coffey and Gillespie spoke with a couple who were watching a free outdoor screening of “Saturday Night Fever.”
When the Street Pastors say they meet at Grace United Methodist Church and ask if they know it, the woman responds: “Everyone knows where Grace is; anybody who wants a good meal knows where Grace is.”
Maintaining a relationship with
law enforcement is part of the ministry.
But the couple does not attend that church or any other Christian church.
“I’ve actually been kicked out of churches because I didn’t fit their profile of somebody who went to church,” the man said.
Asked who kicked him out, he said, “The pastor. I didn’t fit his idea of a churchgoer.” He had been homeless, he said, and had been wearing the same clothes for a couple weeks. “Maybe I did not smell all that good, but it’s Church.”
The man said churchgoers make remarks characterizing poor and homeless as people as “just there for the free food. Well, if you read the Bible, how did God attract His followers? He clothed them. He fed them. He preached to them; he didn’t’ cram it down their throats.”
“I am sad to hear that it was a human in a church that gave you that impression (that the homeless are unwelcome),” MacLeod said. “That was not God.  … Jesus was homeless … once he started his ministry, he walked about.  We should have a very special place in our hearts for those who are homeless, and God does as well.”
MacLeod encouraged the couple to revisit the many “very welcoming churches” in Bangor. “We need you,” she said.
Coming away from that encounter, MacLeod said: “We’ve hurt people, we as the Church; we have to stop doing that.”


The bars close at 1 a.m., and the Street Pastors head back to the church around 1:15 or so. They gather for a debriefing session and maybe a couple cookies.
During the debriefing, Nicol talks about her longest encounter of the evening.
On a second swing through Pickering Square where the movie was playing, Nicol approached a young man – he’s 19 – who seemed to be staring at the sky. At first she imagined he was high, but realized he was watching the spotlight from a nearby casino.
She sat on the ground to talk with him. He’s homeless, he told Nicol, but resisted going to a shelter. He’d promised to protect a young woman who is also on the street this night.
“He really wanted to have a conversation about how to go back to church,” Nicol said. While he did not want to share many personal details, he did say he was brought up Baptist and raised in a strict environment “that made him feel bad.”
 “He wanted to be able to ‘do stuff.’ I love it when younger people are like ‘I still want freedom to do stuff.’ What? Do stuff that will impact the rest of your life and you just don’t get it?” Nicol asks.
Rev. Kate Nicol talks with a homeless man
about returning to church. 
Despite his friends trying to derail and mock a talk about God, the young man “wouldn’t give up the conversation,” Nicol said.
“I gave him the general theological argument that ‘no, God did not take away your (housing) voucher to teach you a lesson.’ Because that’s what he was thinking … I said ‘I don’t think that’s the way God works,’” Nicol said, and offered him this advice:
“I do think if you really want help, if you actually want to change, one of the ways that can help you is   to join a church, a community that supposed to be a supportive community for you. Try the ones you talked about; try different ones; try whatever really, but try something.”