Open Air: Brief Encounters

I step down from the X43 with a sigh of relief. What was all that about? “My son’s in this organisation that’s against all these conspiracies and things. He’s told me that…” How the heart sinks! But there’s no stopping her. I ask about her health, her husband, her history - I even show her pictures of my grandchildren on my phone - but nothing, it seems, can stem the flow. Eventually, I interrupt her: “So, the world’s in a mess, eh? I agree with you! And that’s why I’ll be in Manchester today, preaching in the open air, and…”

And that’s as far as I get. “Oh yes, there is life after death! I know because after my father died he came to visit my brother and I saw him sitting there on the edge of the bed and then…” And then the rest of the journey is given over to Spectral Visitants and life in the Great Beyond… Well, let that be a lesson to me. Next time I’ll be wearing Cabochard by Madame Grès instead of Zino Davidoff, and I’ll have a seat all to myself…

It’s twelve o’clock, and if I have to queue up for a cup of tea I’ll hardly have time to drink it. Instead, I set up and start handing out tracts. It’s enjoyable. I feel at home, here on the edge of Piccadilly Gardens. It’s busy, school is out, and there are family groups passing by, and lots of young folk wandering around. A young lady sidles up to me and points to our poster. “Every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14.12.) “That always makes me afraid!” she says. She’s giving out some sort of church newspaper, says she’s a believer, will shake my hand, but won’t stop and talk or stand with us. Ah well.

It’s a damp day, not too cold, but threatening rain. Will anyone else arrive? It’s getting on. I’m happy tracting, but it seems a pity not to preach. I can do it alone, but I’d rather have someone with me. And if it’s going to get wet, better stick to something familiar, like “Five Things That Money Can’t Buy”, so that I don’t need to look at my notes too often, and the ink won’t run in the rain.

Ah, Peter’s here at last, a little late because of the buses, he says. We pray, and off we go. The breaking news about the SNP is my starter for £600,000, which leads me on to what some folk will do to get their hands on a fortune, and then the things that even a lottery winner will still be without. This draws a few caustic comments, but we’re not here to preach politics, I say, but to talk about something much more important… And on I go.

It’s a lively afternoon. To be fair, most of these young people passing by are no trouble at all: a smile, a wave, a humorous word - no problem. But, every now and then… Then Brendan arrives, greets Peter and starts to hand out tracts. I’m glad he’s made it. The first few drops of rain begin to fall.

[N.B. Reviewing the afternoon on the GoPro, days later, I decide that mentioning every brief encounter would take far too long, and it would try your patience. So, let me just dip in here and there, and offer you a few glimpses of what went on.]

There are listeners over by the shops as usual, mostly sheltering as they eat their takeaways. I know they’re listening, because they look up whenever I offer a striking remark or a mildly humorous observation.

Not everyone wants to listen, though. Someone is shouting from over on my right, something about God and gays. How very tedious! It seems to be a small group of girls. I wave to them to come over, and two of them do: the leader, a loud-mouthed bleached blonde in a black anorak over a white jogging outfit, her second-in-command a step or two behind her, in a camo jacket and hat over a black outfit. “What do you want to know?” “Does Jesus still love me if I’m gay?” I know that she has no interest whatsoever in my answer, but here goes: “Do you love Jesus?” “No,” she shrieks, “because I’m beautiful!”

I resist several temptations. Instead: “Well, the bible says…” - at which she wheels around and dashes away, hands over her ears, squawking and screaming. Her friend follows after, but it’s got people’s attention, so on we go with John 15.13 and a brief summary of the gospel, then back to the topic for today.

The rain falls faster. Umbrellas go up and the crowd thins a little, but it’s still busy. The beggar slumped in the alcove next to Greggs has been joined by two friends. The man seems to be listening, but the woman - short, skinny, dark anorak and tight black trousers, hair on top of her head in a tight bun - definitely does not want to hear me. She steps out and starts to march up and down, screeching what I take to be abuse, although I can only catch a few words of it at this distance.

It’s an astonishing performance. She turns this way and that, waving her arms about, running, marching, bending left and right and up and down, even slapping her own backside, then mimicking various physical functions which I will leave to your imagination… I suppose it’s funny, and I do find myself breaking off to laugh from time to time - but, yes, you’re right, it’s a sad state to be in, when all is said and done.

After a while, I have to stop and turn off the amp to talk to a young man with a pleasant, open countenance, a man who is anxious about many things. I’ve spoken to him before. Today he wants me to pray for him. I’m happy to do that. The GoPro shows me with my hand on his arm, my eyes closed, while he stares straight ahead, looking at something, somewhere, that no one else can see. Then he thanks me and walks away, haloed in the rain.

I watch him go. When I turn back, the noisy woman is gone, and so are most of the listeners by the shops. I’d better do a quick recap, then I’ll talk about True Freedom. “God bless you!” say several people as they pass by. I mention sins that I know have got a grip on many, and when no one reacts, I ask about theft. “Are you, by any chance, light-fingered at work? Do you say to yourself ‘They’ve got plenty, they won’t miss this’?” This gets some wry nods and a ‘Yes!’ or two, so I take it from there.

As the rain finally eases off, there are a few more listeners to take the place of the ones who went while I was praying. Several young men wave and call out encouragingly, without a trace of irony - perhaps a party from some local church. Hang on - this next lot don’t look like churchgoers. The leader, yet another youthful Hendrix lookalike, breaks away from the group and lopes towards me. His semi-afro is held up above his head like a bunch of curly kale by a black Nike headband. It’s a rather fetching look, and he’s all in black, too. I like that.

He stands right next to me, as though we’re posing for a selfie, so that his friends can admire his audacity. That’s fine by me. I put my arm around his shoulders and give him a hug, smiling brightly. “Thank-you for coming to encourage me!” I cry. He turns to me as his friends arrive. “Preach to us, then!” One of his little followers interrupts, to show how brave he is. He asks me if I believe in God. “Yeah!” “Oh…” - but his courage fails him, and he beats a hasty retreat, followed by the rest of them. “Hah!” says his leader, and he spins on his black ballet-style shoes, his gold chain rising and falling around his neck.

There’s something about him that I like. “All right, what do you believe in?” His head goes down and he lowers his voice. “’lah,” he mumbles. “What?” “’lah!” “Sorry?” “Allah!” That’s it - he didn’t want to talk about being a Muslim in front of his friends, a heterogeneous agglomeration of adolescents if ever there was one. And then he follows his friends away.

At this point, someone should step in and engage him in conversation and open up the gospel to him. Perhaps you, dear reader? Well, why not? By now Peter and Brendan are in their usual positions over by the shops, quite a way away. And perhaps they are just a little too old to engage with the youth of today. “Perhaps I am, too,” I muse…

Oh no I’m not! Here come two young ladies in sporting attire, one in a fawn hoodie, one in a pale blue anorak with enough fur on it to keep Nanook of the North warm all winter long in the coldest parts of the Ungava Peninsula. I’m back to my natural constituency, at last.

They approach. “Got a question?” “No, we’re just listening!” they smile, so I return to “Five Things…” and to my final point. Two more girls join them, and I remind them of the brevity of human life, and of what lies beyond. For some reason I mention my age, at which one of them cries: “You don’t look it!” Ah, make my day, why don’t you?

Alas, in a while: “We’ve got to go, but we’ll be back in half an hour.” “We’ll be gone by then. Back here next Wednesday, 12.30!” “It’s a date!” they chorus, much to the amusement of onlookers, one or two of whom see fit to make sarcastic remarks at my expense. But I forgive them. They’re just jealous.

I end with a meditation upon death and fear, and how fear is not always a bad thing. I’m sure you can supply all the appropriate quotations, so I’ve no need to add them to this account.

We pack up and pray, and we make our way to the Bagel Factory. It’s been a busy afternoon, and we’re wet and I’m tired. On the bus, I settle down with my Walkman to listen to the Librivox recording of Dorothy Scarborough’s “The Supernatural In Modern English Fiction”. For a work of such scholarship, it’s eminently readable; but, somehow, I seem to be just that little bit sleepy. Perhaps if I close my eyes for a moment, then I can concentrate. But by the time I open them again, I’ve missed a couple of chapters! Oh well, there’s always next week. And I have a date to keep, too. Excellent!

It would be even better if you could find it in your heart to pray for any or all of the characters mentioned above. We value your prayers, and we would also value the presence of a few more folk skilled in (or willing to learn) the art of intercepting listeners as they walk away, in order to open up the gospel to them at an individual level. Please pray that the Lord will provide, if He lays it upon your heart to do so.

Every blessing!

[Note for readers who have only just come across this newsletter: yes, I do know how to paragraph speech properly, but I prefer the method used above, in this very particular context; and though I admit to using too many ellipses, I don’t feel the need to follow an ellipsis at the end of a sentence with a full stop. That’s old-fashioned. You’ve got to be with it these days, haven’t you?]