Open Air: The Shouting Stage

Here are Stephen’s observations on last Wednesday’s Open Air, and a note on the one before that.

From time to time the occasional passer by will offer words or gestures of encouragement. The previous Wednesday, at one point while preaching, I was somewhat perturbed by a burly gent who was studying our poster from rather close quarters. As I continued on, he came to stand next to me facing in the same direction perhaps a metre or at most two away from me. Eventually, there was a fist bump of encouragement which he instigated, then off he went.

Last Wednesday there was an unusually high number of instances of words of encouragement. I didn't manage to give out very many tracts, perhaps 40 or so, and I wonder how many of those went to folk who were already believers. 3 bibles were requested which is higher than average. The weather was a little damp but not too bad, though I do think it hampered the tracting to some degree. I only had the one conversation of note which was with a young Muslim whose name was [name omitted]. He holds the traditional Muslim view of Jesus. He is married to a "Christian" who sadly does not believe that there is a God.

The big doors are open and a technician is up and down a ladder and in and out of the building, which means we can’t stand in our usual place. No problem: we have bungee cords and Blu Tack. Posters can go on the big lamppost, the GoPro on the little one, and the amplifier in front of the junction box. We wait a while until Peter arrives, we pray, and - and the technician puts away the ladder, locks up, and with a cheery “See you later!” he’s off. No point repositioning now, it’s time to begin, with “Why do we need maps and satnavs?” It’s a good opener.

Someone is waving at me from over in the middle distance. “How nice to have fans,” I think. I wave back. “Don’t applaud, just throw money!” Then it’s a re-run of “Seven Steps To Heaven”, hoping I’ll manage to get to the end today. The pavement is wet, the sky grey; and the wind is chilling, sending leaves and litter bowling along in front of us. It isn’t busy, but there are folk standing at a distance: some eating, some talking, others just silent and still.

After a few minutes I mention free bibles and a man takes up the offer. As Stephen hands one to him, I say: “Don’t forget to read it - it’s no good standing on a shelf!” “I will!” he replies. That’s good! I look across the pedestrian area: two workmen in hi-vis vests are repairing potholes. “That won’t work well in this weather,” I think. Hmm. There are lots of other folk in fluorescent yellow today… They can’t all be repairing the pavements, can they?

I’m on to false idols, and nobody seems to be taking any notice of me, though the tracts are going out from Stephen and Peter as I speak. Here comes a curious cove: black beanie, gingery beard, oversized brown and beige pullover with rolled up sleeves, some sort of beige robe reaching his ankles, black trainers and big fur gloves. What does he want? The answer, as so often, is attention. “Hello, sir!” I say. He throws his arms around me. My right knee is in readiness, but I doubt that I’ll need it. “God bless you sir, are y’all right?” “I am all right, thank-you.”

He puts his mouth as near to the head mic as he can manage, so he’s playing to the gallery rather than talking to me. “Just wanted to tell you we love you Christians, and it’s not sarcasm, we believe you’re going to heaven!” He’s already at the shouting stage, because he thinks he is on stage. “No need to shout, sir…” “Just letting you know that! Love you sir!” And with the glassy light of absolute insincerity shining forth from his eyes, he calls out again to his supposed audience. “Us Muslims believe you’re going to heaven!” And he rushes away.

What would you have said? I say: “Well, I appreciate that gentleman’s encouragement, but, I suspect that - even though I believe that I’m going to heaven - at present, I don’t think he is.” I catch Stephen’s eye, from a few yards away. He is smiling a smile as enigmatic as that of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, looking at me now from the cover of the Blu-ray propped up against the AVR - only in a much more masculine fashion, of course.

On we go, uninterrupted for a while, until I hear a tinnily amplified voice from over on my right. It’s some sort of street preacher, dark of countenance, in a hi-vis vest, tight blue jeans and white trainers. Now, there is a kind of etiquette amongst open air preachers, and it includes not interrupting other preachers if they are in place before you arrive. This man seems unaware of that convention. And he, too, is at the shouting stage. He wanders this way and that, bawling at people passing by, in an accent so thick as to render his remarks incomprehensible. The workmen repairing the pavement stop and stare at him. He walks on, stops, turns round, shouts, turns, shouts, walks on, comes back for another shout, then wanders on his way.

What was he saying? No one is any the wiser.

We’re at Step Five, and the rain is coming on. “That won’t help the cement set,” I think. Hoods and umbrellas are up, and covers are going on over prams. Stephen is striding to and fro, either trying to keep warm or wondering why it’s taking me so long. I pause, and hand over to him.

I shake the water from my tract envelope. “What’s kept Brendan away today?” I ask myself. “It’s probably his knee playing up again.” Peter is busy, over by the shops. Hang on, what’s happening on my left? Police and various other folk, all in hi-vis vests, are shooing people out of their path. There’s noise, as if of many voices - and isn’t that the sound of drums? It’s getting louder: there are whistles and air horns and shouts and shrieks.

Then the crowd appears from behind us: trade unions on the march, many of them, with placards and banners both great and small. The noise is almost overwhelming, but Stephen perseveres, and I turn up the amplifier a couple of notches, thinking that it surely cannot compete against this cacophony. Fortunately, they’re turning left to go down Market Street, rather than turning right and passing in front of us. On it goes, this tide of humanity, and on, and on, and on…

And yet, someone hears Stephen’s offer of a free bible, and comes to collect it. Stephen pauses as the noise continues to grow. Up goes the amplifier, and he begins again. Some folk are peeling away from the march at this point, furling their little flags as they head for the food stalls and shops. Stephen raises his voice, but he’s never at the shouting stage, just rather more emphatic than usual. A gent in a dark blue beanie, windcheater and jog pants pauses as he sees our sign, as sirens start to wail in the distance. He asks me for a bible, then he goes to stand and listen to Stephen, concentrating on every word he utters. He’s there for quite a while.

I look around: a few folk on bollards, others in front of the shops. As a blonde woman is passing, Stephen asks: “Don’t we have to be good enough, to get to heaven?” She smiles sweetly. “Yes!” she says. “Well, no, we can’t be good enough!” - and the blonde takes the tract from my outstretched hand as she comes alongside me. That’s good!

And now: here he comes, striding along, a man in a grey and white striped woolly hat, a dark anorak trimmed with fur, black jog pants and blue trainers. He’s got a big red carrier bag. “What’s in there?” I wonder. As he passes, I hold out a tract. His response is a two-fingered gesture and a blasphemy you would not wish me to repeat. “Another one at the shouting stage already,” I muse, “and so very angry. Now why would that be, I wonder?” I need to get him back. I call after him. “I didn’t know we had any theology students with us today!”

It works, but it takes him a minute or so to circle back, during which time Stephen is silent. As the man passes him, it’s his turn for a forceful obscenity. Stephen doesn’t even blink. I beckon the man towards me, to get him out of the way so that the preaching can recommence. I ask him why he’s so angry…

According to the GoPro’s timeline, it takes exactly one minute and fifteen seconds to bring him down from the shouting stage to the point where he gives me a friendly pat on the shoulder. Then I can move him a little further away so that we can talk without distractions.

What follows is too personal and painful to record here, but yes, he is an alcoholic, and yes, he is an angry man, which is often a major cause of that sad condition. He opens his red carrier bag and cracks a can of white cider as we speak, but he’s calm enough now - until the Muslim gentleman Stephen mentions above tries to break into the conversation. He gets a mouthful of abuse for his pains, but he keeps on interrupting us until I give him a bible and a Blanchard booklet, and then he goes to stand in front of Stephen. He’s not really listening to him at first, but, after a while, he does.

By the time Stephen has finished, the march is over. Stephen engages his listener in what sounds like a very serious conversation. They shake hands at the end of it, and Stephen adds a church leaflet to his other literature. The wind blows and the drizzling rain continues, but at least I’m on first name terms with [name omitted], now, and our parting is an amicable affair. We haven’t got as far as I’d hoped, but - perhaps another day.

We talk as we pack our wet things away. “I’m a nice man, apparently. And I always thought I was a reprobate.”

Stephen smiles again…

The GoPro seems to have stopped at that point, a few minutes before I went to turn it off. Perhaps it’s feeling its age. I know I am.

Nevertheless, we will be there next Wednesday, 12.30pm, God willing. Please join us if you can, since Stephen will be otherwise engaged, and we may be thin on the ground. Please pray for us, and also for any or all of those mentioned above, and for the man trying to sell us magazines in the Bagel Factory, who went away with a Blanchard booklet.

[Further prayer requests omitted, since they often contain information of a personal or sensitive nature. If you are a born-again believer, and would like to receive the newsletter in full so that you can join us in prayer, then please give your email address to either Stephen or our pastor.]

Every blessing!