LONDON – Hundreds of street pastors and supporters are in London for the ministry's inaugural conference to share their experiences and consider how they can minister more effectively to the people out and about on Britain's streets each weekend.
The inaugural Street Pastors conference opened Thursday with a keynote address from London Mayor Boris Johnson who praised their work in transforming the capital.
"We can't just transform the physical infrastructure because that's not what really counts," he said. "What counts is the human capital of London. It's the young people of London that we need to invest in if this city is to lengthen its lead as the greatest city on Earth.
"Street Pastors are already doing what you can and I think it is high time London knew more about what you did and the whole of London followed your example."
Johnson admitted that red tape was making it "too difficult to do good" for many organizations, including Street Pastors, but said he had no difficulty with Christian organizations sharing their faith through their work.
"Faith groups who want to slip in the odd cogent message in favor of salvation, I have absolutely no problem with that. Why not!" he quipped.
"That's one of the things I think has been going wrong in the last few years – we've got a slightly politically correct super-sensitivity to anything remotely cast as religious advocacy. I've got no difficulty with it whatsoever."
Johnson played down his recent rescue of film director Franny Armstrong from a group of young girls brandishing an iron bar in London.
"I was doing none other than what you do, what Street Pastors do every night on the streets of London, people with the courage and the sense of public spirit to intervene with our kids who may be about to do something stupid or possibly even something fatal," he said.
The mayor admitted that there was "apprehension" in the minds of adults that often prevented them from intervening when they saw crime on the streets or, in the case of teachers, from exerting control over youngsters in the classroom.
"I want to see a clear and unambiguous statement from the government that the law will give the benefit of the doubt to adults who responsibly and reasonably try to restrain children who are making life miserable for others," he said, to the applause of conference delegates.
Johnson said he wanted to expand groups like the Boys' Brigade, Scouts and Girl Guides because they were helping to lower reoffending rates among young criminals. He noted that the groups were not short of funding but short of volunteers and warned that "fear of reproach and suspicion" was putting many men off giving their time to youth initiatives.
"I want to see a society and culture that doesn't have an automatic suspicion of adult males who want to work with children," he said.
Other addresses were given by the Bishop of Woolwich, the Rt. Rev. Christopher Chessun, and social scientist Professor John Pitts.
Bishop Chessun spoke of the need to make "life-enhancing" connections with people in the community, warning of the "threat" of isolation.
"We have to be ambassadors of the reality and are willing to share the Good News as well as address the serious problems which we all face in our urban living," he said. "There is a vast gulf between aspiration and reality which is only broken down by pastoring and pastoral engagement."
"Street Pastors on the street, pastoring, is a wonderful sign to the wider Christian community," Chessun added.
Professor Pitts shed light on the situation of youngsters caught up in inner city gangs. He warned that many were "reluctant gangsters" who felt they had no alternative if they wanted to remain "safe" on their estate.
Street Pastors, he said, could play an important advocacy role in speaking up to politicians about the situation facing people in deprived urban areas.
Street Pastors was launched in London in 2003 to be a presence on the streets of Britain's towns and cities every Friday and Saturday nights. The ministry has since been rolled out across the United Kingdom and has been credited by local authorities and the police for helping to reduce crime levels and making inner city areas safer at the weekend.
Enfield Street Pastor Vivien Chasmar, 74, said the conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet others from the Street Pastors ministry. She is one of three Street Pastors in the Enfield area over the age of 60.
"It's marvelous coming together and serving the Lord on the streets. Jesus loved the poor and the people in need and that's our love," she said.
"It sounds so hopeless but God's got a plan for this nation and it's really good to be part of what's going on and to be there for young people. I want to see young people restored again."