Open Air: Rock And Stroller

It’s a decent day and the forecast is fair. The posters are up, the Roland is perched on top of its carrying case, and the GoPro is fastened to the handle of the big wooden door behind me. I look up at a sky of blue, then cast a glance around. Hang on, who’s this? It’s a young black man wearing a red-lined hoodie over a mustard-coloured sweatshirt. He’s parked a pram - a battered old stroller - about ten yards to my left. It’s laden with musical instruments, the sort you’d associate with a one-man band. Dearie me, he’s starting to set up!

I step over to him and explain that this is where we usually preach on a Wednesday afternoon, and can I offer him a bribe to wait until we finish? It costs me very little to get him to stroll on his way again. I watch him go, wondering whether he’s working at being a Hendrix lookalike, or is it just a coincidence?

Peter has arrived, and we chat while I get ready. “It’s a nice day today, isn’t it?” he remarks, his boards already on his shoulders. The front one reads “I am the way, the truth and the life…” in red letters on a yellow background. “It is,” I reply, “but perhaps a chance of showers later on…” I take a quick drink, find my place in my little bible, check for sound, check the camera, and off we go.

I begin by offering copies of Ray Comfort’s “How To Be Free From The Fear Of Death”. Last week’s visit to Skipton Crematorium is still on my mind: I’ve been pondering on what was said by the woman leading the non-religious ceremony as she indicated the coffin, half-hidden by flowers and foliage: “He is now at peace.” “Well, what does the bible have to say about that?” is my opening gambit. You can take it from there, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, Stephen is on my right, with Peter in his usual place in front of Superdrug. The literature seems to going out at a fair pace. The sky is greying over in places, and the autumn leaves are beginning to blow across in front of me - but it’s warm enough to keep my combat jacket unfastened. A lady in a pale pink coat takes a tract from Stephen, and reads it approvingly, offering a few words of encouragement as she passes by me.

As I offer a selection of texts from Psalm 7, I have one listener, a bald-headed bloke in a blue puffer jacket. He shuffles to and fro a few yards away. Oh, and there’s another, a lanky youth in a dark jacket over a light grey outfit, leaning on a lamppost across the tram tracks. The shuffler departs after a few minutes, but the slim fellow stays put. Way down on Market Street a band starts up, yet another ensemble whose drummer has no natural sense of rhythm.

There’s a steady stream of people moving from right to left in front of me now, and here comes Kieran, going against the flow. He shakes hands with Stephen, as the lanky youth detaches himself from the lamppost and strides towards me. Ah, he has a question! He looks like a reasonable enough person, so I turn off the speaker ready to answer him, whether it’s about a personal problem or on a point of theology. “How tall are you, sir?” What? Well, I don’t mind rising to the bait. I tell him. “Thank-you,” he says, and goes. With the speaker back on, I relay his question to the waiting world, with a few humorous observations which he robbed me of the opportunity to try out on him.

Back on track with “What would you do - no, what would you really do - if you were invisible and undetectable for a day?” - and there is a light pattering sound. A few big drops of rain bounce off the pavement around me, and then it pours down. Hoods and umbrellas go up, and bare-headed pedestrians run for cover. I’m bare-headed, my jacket is open, but I never miss a beat. The GoPro recording becomes a little blurred at this point as rainwater pours over the lens - but, like me, it keeps on going. I hold my bible almost closed, with one finger inside it to keep my place, ready for the next quick look at my notes.

The innocence or otherwise of babies is next. It’s a while before the rain eases off a little, and then Stephen steps out again, wearing his woolly hat. The good thing is that there are still lots of people sheltering in front of the shops, and they can’t help hearing what I’m saying. Sirens wail on Market Street, and I work that warning sound into my next illustration, reminding folk of their precarious predicament, and of the need for divine intervention before we die, in order to cure our sin-sick hearts.

By the time I’m closing on “being born again”, I’m wet through. I point to the poster advertising the Ray Comfort booklets - but the ink has run in the rain, and it’s illegible. “Time for my friend to get wet now - oh, he is already!”

We swap over and I shake the water from my tract envelope. The downpour is now a drizzle, the passing throng increases, and the tracts go out pretty steadily. Our one-man band is back - but it’s not his turn, yet. He parks his pram, and comes over for a brief chat, which is mostly about Roland amplifiers, alas. This is one of those times that I wish Jeff (or someone very like him) was with us: someone who could, seemingly without effort, turn the conversation towards more spiritual matters. If you are such a person, well, there is a place waiting for you this coming Wednesday. You won’t be short of things to do.

I watch him go back to his equipment and start to set up. Yes, there’s definitely a homage to Hendrix in that haircut. Still, it’s hard to imagine a one-man band tackling “Purple Haze”. The sky brightens, patches of blue sky appear again, the pavements shine in the pale autumn sun, umbrellas are lowered, shaken and rolled up again. Stephen is pressing on, his voice strong and resonant, carrying well in the clear air. Peter and Brendan are illuminated in their small section of shop frontage, their dark figures standing out against the bright background. Kieran must be around here somewhere, but I can’t spot him at the moment.

Stephen stops. Is that it? No, he’s just retrieving another set of notes that he was keeping dry in his rucksack. He begins again as a young, well-built, bearded black man offers me some warm words of encouragement. Our one-man band busker has nearly finished getting ready. He takes his guitar from its case and slings it over his shoulder. Ooh, it’s a double neck affair! It looks like a Gibson Custom Shop model, but since they retail at well over £6,000 apiece, I’d guess it’s a much cheaper copy.

Stephen puts in another mention of our free bibles, and a man who has already passed us makes a U-turn by the Halifax and dashes back to ask for one. He has reddish hair and a beard, and wears a dark anorak with a fur-trimmed hood that partially obscures the back of his head. I suspect that there’s either a ponytail or a man bun under there, somewhere… “How much are they?” I assure him that they’re entirely free, and he goes away happy.

Our busker friend has seated himself and is tuning up. He thumps a drum and crashes a cymbal, but doesn’t start up until Stephen comes to a close. Then he looks at me, I give him a thumbs up, and he’s away. Hmm… there’s something somehow familiar about those opening chords. It can’t be “Hey Joe”, can it? Surely not..?

We pack up our gear, wet as it is, and we pray. Kieran elects to take the second shift, and the rest of us stroll across the tram tracks towards the Arndale. As we pass our one-man band, he bursts into song: “Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?” It has about as much resemblance to the Hendrix version as he has to Hendrix himself. Nevertheless, he has a handful of change in his guitar case already. I don’t want to part with any more money, but I want to leave him with something. So, I add a copy of Ray Comfort’s booklet to the assortment of coins. If he reads it and acts upon it, it will be worth far more to him than the biggest recording contract in all the world…

On the way home, we’re fairly subdued: we’re both wet, and a little fatigued, and Stephen is concentrating on negotiating the traffic, which is heavy for the time of day.

Once home, the heating goes on so that everything can sit on the radiators and steam gently until it’s dry again. But, come morning, there’s still a trace of condensation on the GoPro’s small screen! Is it beginning to falter? Ah well - nothing lasts forever, at least not in this present age. One day, old age or illness or one of a thousand other things will keep us from going out to do Open Airs. And I will miss them more than I can say.

Meanwhile, if you can find it in your heart to do so, please pray for some or all of those mentioned above - and for our ability to keep on going for a little while longer. Join us next Wednesday, if you can: usual time, usual place. As I said, you won’t be short of things to do.

Every blessing!