Open Air: A Cast Of Characters

Here are Stephen’s recollections of the last two Open Airs.

10 August  

I had a conversation with a man called Alan who had clearly consumed too much alcohol. Despite his condition he seemed to show genuine interest and he took a John's Gospel.

I had a short conversation with a woman who objected to J.’s assertion that babies are born sinful. She had some familiarity with Roman Catholicism because she also mentioned transubstantiation.

24 August

I had a lengthy conversation with a man called Matthew. He thinks that everyone needs to look inside themselves to find God. He accepted a copy of “Ultimate Questions”.

There was a man who was going on at length about Jesus. He asked for and was given a Bible. However, he was ranting at us and at passers by in an extremely foul-mouthed manner. Hopefully, nobody thought he was with us.

I had a lengthy conversation with a young lady carrying a hula hoop. She said that her mother is a born again believer. This young lady thinks that when Jesus returns he will do so as a woman. She took a “Real Hope” tract.

My heart went out to a young lady with ginger hair who seemed to be listening to J. for a fair while out of sight of both J. and the camera. We didn't really have much by way of conversation but she took a tract from me and on her return journey she took a different tract from Jason.

Quite a cast of characters, eh? Let’s go back to the beginning of the one on the 24th. On the GoPro, the scene opens with a close-up of Stephen’s face, as he checks to make sure that I’ve turned the camera on. Satisfied, he steps back to reveal me on the right, talking to someone in a purple fleece with a walking pole and a rucksack. It’s an elderly gent, tall but stooping, grey-haired in the places where his hair still grows, and he’s quoting random bits of scripture and adding comments. What he says seems okay, but when I ask him which church he attends, he says he only meets with a few friends. Strange, isn’t it? If all the folk who claimed to be Christians actually went to church, we’d have to begin a new building programme to accommodate them all…

On our left is Mr Jason Burns, a legend in several lunchtimes, joining us today while he’s home from Kenya for a few months. He has a wealth of Open Air experience, and he’s already begun a conversation with a young Jamaican lady in basic black. She’s wearing a huge pair of headphones, so it’s a wonder that she can catch anything of what he’s saying.

Stephen starts for us today, and sets off from Creation, heading towards infinity and beyond. As he goes on, I note once more that preaching in the open air opens doors: that is, it attracts attention, people hear at least a little of the gospel, tracts are taken, conversations commence, and it’s all go from then on.

Even putting up a poster beforehand can be rewarding. Dominic, a Polish painter and decorator, was moved to stop and tell us that he thought we ought to practise our religion in private. His experience of Roman Catholicism seemed to have soured him towards Christianity. However, a few minutes later, he was walking away with “Why Believe The Bible?”, having promised to read it with attention.

He was followed by an awkward young man who took time to work out whether he could talk freely to me. I assured him that he could, and he launched into a familiar “what’s wrong with the world today” diatribe. There was a lot about immigration, intermarriage and miscegenation - although he didn’t use that word, which isn’t surprising, since no one knows how to pronounce it, let alone spell it correctly. I got him to focus on what he’d said about losing his faith. No God, no hell, no heaven, no justice, survival of the fittest quite all right? He agreed. I threatened to stab him to death and steal his wallet, since there was now no notion of right or wrong left to make me hesitate. He looked thoughtful at this, and he took a copy of “Ultimate Questions” away with him.

He still wouldn’t tell me his name, however, since he wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t report him to the police…

I look up. The sky is overcast, there’s a light breeze blowing, but it’s warm enough for shirtsleeves. Enter Peter, striding towards me from the right, wearing a very fetching lumberjack shirt - and his text boards, of course. He tells me he’s already visited two towns on his way here. What a man! We survey the passing throng, and note that it’s already pretty busy. Sports clothes, shorts, tee shirts and crop tops are the order of the day, along with an assortment of the bizarre outfits that find favour with today’s nihilistic narcissists.

Jason says a friendly farewell to the Jamaican girl, and Peter sets off towards Superdrug. Jason paces up and down while I stand still, the eyes in the back of my head on Stephen. He’s reminding folk of the wonderful attributes of our Saviour when someone shouts: “He was less than the son of a god!” It’s an Asian gentleman, well-built, stocky and shaven-headed. Is he a Muslim? I don’t know, but he’s carrying a four-pack of what looks remarkably like beer… But Jason is on him before he can say any more.

The discussion that follows is energetic and impassioned, and it attracts a certain amount of attention - but there is never anything that threatens to get out of hand. The Asian gent cracks open one of his cans, which doesn’t stop him waving both arms about in fine style. I relax, and turn my attention elsewhere. Jason can handle him.

A shaven-headed cyclist in black stops and straddles his bike while leaning against a bollard. His attention shifts from Stephen to the ongoing argument, and back again. He prepares a roll-up and smokes it in thoughtful fashion. People in general seem more than usually receptive today. Some ask for tracts rather than me having to offer them. Peter tells the same story later on.

I stroll over to the cyclist. He takes a tract and crosses himself, for no apparent reason. He reads it, then stows it away in his satchel. The young black man with the mobile fluffy toy stall moves through the crowd, waiting for some small child to bring enough pressure to bear on their parents to make them buy one. I wonder idly how he manages to make a living that way.

An older lady in a long blue dress and a black medical mask stops to talk. She’s just come from a prayer meeting, she says, in support of Barnabas Aid. We have a pleasant chat for a few minutes: it’s encouraging for both of us. Meanwhile, a young, bearded bloke in a check shirt settles himself on a bollard to listen to the debate, while assorted passersby make their comments to the two men and then move on.

Now here comes one of the afternoon’s oddest individuals: it’s a skinny, black youth dressed in dark clothing, his tight leggings making his boots look like small boats. Various odd objects dangle from his waist. His hair is in ringlets, but most of his face is obscured by a contraption that looks like a black gas mask. He walks up waving his arms, then stops dead, staring fixedly at nothing at all. He walks to my right, stops, and marches left with his arms folded. He walks jerkily towards the Halifax, turns back, and comes to face Stephen (at a distance, thankfully), arms out, palms upwards. He walks towards the Halifax, then back to Jason and the Asian gent. He speaks to them, adopting a series of odd postures as he does so. The Asian man gives him a beer! He marches off to the Halifax and stands outside its doors. Eventually, he marches away down Market Street, moving as awkwardly as a marionette with a missing string…

Like much of modern life, it’s both bizarre and baffling.

It’s my turn, now. I exchange a few words with Stephen as he retrieves his tracts. “Glad Jason’s here! Saves us the bother of having to talk to that chap.” I nod towards the two men. “This one will run and run!” And indeed it does…

I pray, briefly, and then I begin, easing into it with a few soothing words about the weather: the sun breaks through the clouds, as if on cue! Then, it’s how to get from here to Porthmadog without a map; and then, how foolish we are to try and get through life without a clear idea of where the journey will end; and then… Well, you can take it from there, I’m sure.

I’m concentrating so hard that I don’t notice the bearded, bespectacled bloke in the blue fleece, his hair piled high on his head, a flowing floral skirt above bare legs and white plimsolls. He looks like an extra from Central Casting hurrying over for an audition for a remake of “Freebie And The Bean”. Come back, Christopher Morley, all is forgiven… I miss him, but the camera sees him - and it sees Stephen, smiling a smile as enigmatic as that of the godly man of Islington in Goldsmith’s “Elegy On The Death Of A Mad Dog”.

A lady pushing a pram pauses for a moment, and takes a tract from Stephen. Jason’s interlocutor leaves, at long last, clutching his remaining beers. Jason returns to tracting. I exchange a few jocular remarks with passing comedians, and that dark-clad cyclist from earlier on returns to listen to me and to exchange remarks with Stephen. Over by Superdrug, Peter is in conversation, but, as usual, I can’t tell much of what’s going on at that distance.

Despite all the odd and argumentative folk who seem drawn to the city centre on this sunny afternoon, the atmosphere is surprisingly peaceful, here on the edge of The Gardens. Prayer in preparation and the prayerful support of many of the folk who receive this newsletter seems to me to be the only rational explanation for this. The nearest we get to a disturbance is the appearance of the man mentioned above by Stephen. He’s tall and lean, with swept-back hair and sunglasses, in a light shirt over blue jeans. He gets a bible, as noted, but then he roams around shouting and swearing like some demented, drunken, carnival barker of a preacher. Jason and Stephen keep a wary eye on him, but I simply ignore him and avoid any eye contact. And, eventually, he wanders away.

It’s quieter now; the crowd thins, a girl films me on her phone for a while, and Jason speaks to her and her boyfriend. I roll up my sleeves a little further to tackle hell as a real destination at the end of the unbeliever’s journey. There are three or four folk listening, and several knots of people who might be picking up something of what’s being said. Then it’s the Pick’n’Mix gospel, and my version of “what’s wrong with Britain today”, as three policemen head towards Greggs. I follow that by improvising around comments that come to me as people pass by. Jason has to go, and I thank him: he’s done a good job. Dan appears as if on cue to take his place, looking as cool as ever in his Superdry hoodie. I can only afford their tee shirts…

Stephen is looking at his watch, but I can’t stop now, and anyway the hula hoop lady in the pantaloons and the long locks and shaven temples demands his attention. As I mention the nails that pierced our Lord’s hands and feet, I seem to hear her say “I’ve had nails driven through my hands!” Is that right, or did I just imagine it? She’s looking over her little round spectacles at him. Never trust anyone who looks over their glasses at you. I think that’s in Deuteronomy somewhere, but I might be mistaken. Just as she threatens to make me lose the thread of my argument, the cuddly toy man turns up beside me. He wants to leave the stall with me while he goes for something to eat! I must look like a man you can trust with cuddly toys.

Whatever next?

Well, next is a young man taking a tract from Stephen. Nothing remarkable about that - except that he’s wearing a crocodile headdress. I begin to wonder whether I’m hallucinating. Have I watched “Alligator People” just one too many times? I dismiss the thought, since the last lap is solemn and serious, as befits an account of what it cost Christ to enable us to be reconciled with God our Father. A young man in a light grey tracksuit films me. “Hope you got all that on your phone!” I say. And I close with foretelling the future for each and every one within the sound of my voice. It’s all there in John 3.36, if you want to see it for yourself.

We pack up and pray and spend a while in The Bagel Factory, and then we go our separate ways. On the way home I remark on how fine the day has been, and what a curious cast of characters we’ve encountered.

It has made me happy, which is something you can’t say about every day.

If the Lord lays it upon your heart, please pray for one or more of those folk mentioned above, and for the following.

[Specific prayer requests omitted, since they sometimes contain personal/sensitive information. If you are a born-again believer and want to receive the full version of this newsletter in order to pray for Salem Chapel’s Open Air, please let our pastor have your email address and he will arrange it.]

We’ll be there tomorrow, God willing. Come along with us. You never know who you’ll get to meet, but it’s generally a most rewarding experience.

Every blessing!