Open Air: Carpe Diem

The car park is full. Stephen drives around the corner, I jump out and get my coat and case from the boot, and off he goes in search of an alternative. Meanwhile, I wend my way to Piccadilly Gardens and start to set out our stall. Janette joins me, then Stephen arrives - sooner than I’d expected - and we’re all set to go.

If people believe that there is no God, then why spend so much time and effort denying His existence? I don’t believe in Santa Claus, but I don’t go round telling everybody about it… That’s my introduction, anyway, and I’m just following through when I’m interrupted. He’s a stocky fellow, all in blue except for his black trainers. He’s got a black bag hanging from one arm and a red top tabloid in his hand. He points to our poster and then to his paper. “They both say the same thing!” he cries.

He shakes my hand and hurries away. Well, I’ll take that as an encouragement, of sorts. I watch him go, noting his rolling gait, like that of a sailor only recently returned to dry land. Right, on we go…

Why most people within the sound of my voice aren’t on their way to heaven is my main theme. It seems to strike a chord with some folk, and Stephen’s tracts are flying out of his hands. I note that he’s gone for the all black look today, except for a woolly hat in luminous, lemon yellow. But then, as Osgood puts it at the end of “Some Like It Hot”, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” I’m wearing brown boots…

It’s cold, and the wind is getting up, and there’s only one listener that I can see: a lady in a long white coat, with matching hat and bag, and a short stretch of black leggings below, ending in black pumps. [Later, as I review the video, I see that there are others, in the distance. I just didn’t notice them at the time.]

People hurry by, a couple of joggers weave their way through the throng - cyclists likewise, including lots of Deliveroo riders, who congregate by the planters across from McDonald’s. As I get to the forgiveness of sins through the blood, Peter enters from my right, text boards on and a big carrier bag full of literature in his hand. In a moment, he’s in action by the side of Superdrug, a few yards from where Janette has stationed herself.

As I reach “but the free gift of God is…”, a passing street photographer pauses, raises his camera and points it at me. I turn to the right and ask him to get my profile, because I’m better looking like that. He laughs, but when I tell him my agent says I must charge £75.00 per photo, he doesn’t seem inclined to linger…

Here comes a man in a blue and white bobble hat, black coat and blue jeans, a bag slung over one shoulder. He looks vaguely familiar. He takes a tract from Stephen, hovers around for a few moments, then goes back to him - asking for a handout, I’ll be bound. Well, he’s disappointed. Unabashed, he trots over to Janette to try again. Alas, she sends him on his way.

I note that even though we’re nowhere near the warmer weather yet, there has been a resurgence of rough sleepers and beggars recently, here in the city centre. The itinerant beggars have become more aggressive, too, tending towards the abusive if refused assistance. But my time is up, and after a gospel summary, it’s Stephen’s turn to speak.

I survey the scene as he begins. It’s not a busy day, for so central a location. I note an unkempt gent slumped on the pavement to one side of the Halifax (conveniently close to the cash machines), bundled up in blankets and a sleeping bag. An optimistic street vendor wheels his mobile stall of colourful, cuddly toys across the tram lines, and two youths stop to listen to Stephen, smiling and commenting as he speaks. Should I walk over with a tract? No need: a tall figure in a maroon anorak is coming up behind them. It’s Kieran! He circles round in front of them, accosts them, and a conversation is under way in no time.

The one in the hoodie suddenly walks away, and the one in the grey jacket smiles and jerks his thumb after him. The conversation continues. My tracts are going well, but then, somewhere above me, I hear a seagull screech. I step further away from the large lamppost, just in case…

The wind rises, our poster flaps, Stephen’s notes flutter in his hand, and I shiver slightly, despite my padded jacket. Three girls in bomber jackets and baggy jeans walk by, their long hair flying out behind them. Kieran keeps talking, Peter has someone with him now, and Stephen has several listeners over by the shop fronts. It’s all good.

Stephen closes, Kieran comes over to shake my hand, and the man in the blue and white bobble hat returns to try his luck with me. I offer to take him to the Bagel Factory when we’re done, where I will buy him whatever he wants to eat. He is not impressed by my generosity. Come to think of it, even though I’ve made the same offer to many mendicants, no one has ever taken me up on it. How strange, eh?

It’s me again, and the seriousness of sin and the sinful nature of even the newborn. Something I’ve said seems to irritate the gent lounging by the side of the Halifax. He begins to shout abuse, and keeps it up, with pauses to get his breath back, all the time I’m speaking. Fortunately, his voice is nowhere near strong enough to compete with mine, amplified or unaided.

Otherwise it’s quiet, apart from the trams, which squeal loudly in dry weather as they come round the corners towards us. I’m on the last lap - and Stephen is checking his watch! I close as quickly as I can, ending on “Carpe diem quia Jesus Christus!” Well, it works for me.

Kieran joins us, and Janette takes a break for a brief conversation. An African woman in a maroon windcheater tells her son to take a tract from me. It’s folded around a chapel leaflet, and the tract itself is whisked out of his hand on the rising wind. I follow it down towards Market Street. To my surprise, the young man follows me and takes it from me with a smile after I’ve retrieved it.

From then on it’s as per usual, with more caustic commentary from over by the Halifax; but Stephen is unperturbed, and he finishes with a good gospel summary. We pack up, we pray, and we leave Kieran in conversation with a group of Goth-ish young folk, one of them with… But no, we’d better leave it at that, in order to spare the sensibilities of the more sensitive souls amongst us. When he joins us at the Bagel Factory later, he jots down the following: “Three teenagers, one a lesbian. Were open to the gospel. Fifty tracts given out.”

It’s a pity that I can’t give you more information about the other encounters, but by the time we’ve come out of the cold and are enjoying hot drinks, people seem to want to relax rather than start writing out notes for this newsletter. And who can blame them? They deserve their rest.

If you’re out and about next Wednesday and want to join us at 12.30pm on the edge of Piccadilly Gardens, you’ll be most welcome. If not, please pray for those who go out, and for any or all of those mentioned above. And Peter tells me that his brother has cancer, and that it is not responding to treatment thus far. Please bear him up in prayer also, if our Lord puts it upon your heart to do so.

Every blessing!