Open Air: Summer In The City

[Explanatory Note. Our pastor has asked that the Open Air newsletter be made more widely available, by placing it here on the chapel website. A few words of warning, though, before you go any further. No sense of humour? I’d skip it, if I were you. No notion of what irony entails? Move along now, nothing to see here.

The newsletter is presented as is, although a few names and the prayer requests at the end have been omitted. If you are a born-again believer, and would like to support this work in prayer, then you can give your email address to our pastor, and he will arrange for you to receive the newsletter in full.]

Here are Stephen’s observations on last Wednesday’s Open Air.

I gave out 88 tracts, no doubt aided by the good weather and having a stint by the shops. Later on I did relocate nearer to J.C.’s preaching spot to replace N. once he had departed. It seems to me that on account of the greater number of passers by, the spot by the shops is best for handing out tracts. However, you are more likely to engage someone in conversation if you stand closer to the preacher.

It was in this second location that I had a conversation with Darren. I was fairly sure that I had spoken to him once before, and checking back through J.C.'s newsletters, I now discover that it was in mid-February. On that occasion I wrote, 'Darren, a former drug addict who is now a believer. He was asking about where he could get tracts like those I was handing out. He said, "I believe all that but I believe other things as well." He did not elaborate.' On this occasion he requested a bible which was gladly given, along with a tract and a chapel leaflet. He again said that he was a believer with a troubled past and he also said that he would like to pay a visit to the chapel, even though I pointed out how far away it is. He was somewhat vague when I asked him about his church attendance. He said that he would try to join us sometime to hand out tracts.

It’s hot in the city centre today. I put my hat on as we leave the shelter of the Arndale, crossing the street and following the tram lines around the corner, passing Debenhams (as was) on our left, until we reach the edge of Piccadilly Gardens. It’s busy, but our usual spot is clear and uncluttered, ready for us to set up shop. Ah! N. is here to greet us. He shakes my hand. His grip is warm, masculine, and moist. Indeed, the whole of his countenance seems to shine - he’s well-nigh numinous. “Would you like some oil?” he says. “It’s all natural - coconut oil!” I see! “No thanks, I’ve already moisturised.”* And I have.

Stephen says nothing; but he smiles a smile as enigmatic as that of The Tall Man in the last few moments of “Phantasm”.

Our friend seems keen to get going, and he takes a handful of tracts and strides back and forth across the pedestrianised area as we set up the speaker and put the poster on the lamppost. A few more folk arrive, and it’s time to pray. “Dear Father, we thank you for…” I don’t get any further than that because N. becomes an Amen Corner all by himself, firing off a volley of Yaymens, Praise The Lords and Alleluias, so loudly that I can’t hear myself speak. I ask him to desist. “I thought you’d want a symphony of praise,” he says.

I remove my hat, since I’m now in the shade. I’m on first today; Dan and N. are front and centre, Peter arrives and heads for McDonald’s, and Stephen walks over to Superdrug. “Who can we trust? Who can we turn to when things go wrong?” The mic cuts out for a moment, and I have to stop to reconnect it. It’s fine after that, and on I go with “They Are Mad Over Idols”.

I’ve only one listener for a while, a middle-aged man, balding and bewhiskered. Here comes Brendan, without a hat again! I’m pleased to see him. N. takes up a tract envelope and starts examining its contents. He removes some tracts, then does the same with the back-up envelope. He returns to tracting, but shortly afterwards he walks over to Dan, has a few words with him, then disappears!

This is all going on at the periphery of my attention. I’m fully focussed on trying to make what I say sound like sense to those passing by. I’m vaguely aware that Stephen is coming closer, since no one else is near me now. “Most thoughtful of him,” I think. And then N. is back. In between tracting, he windmills his arms, as if limbering up for some sporting event. I’m finally getting to the point of my opening remarks when he returns to his rucksack, disappearing behind the junction box for some time. Then he pops up again, his rucksack on his back, and walks away to my right. Minutes later, he wheels his bike across the pedestrianised area, mounts it at the tram tracks, and rides off into the distance. “I won’t take me coat off, I’m not stoppin’!” Who was that? I’ll have to look it up. Ah, Ken Platt. Before my time, and yours too, I expect.

Never mind, I must get on. There are a couple of casual listeners, and I’m improvising fairly freely around my notes today. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Pr.12.15.) A useful one for an Open Air… but see later, below. I can’t spot Peter and Brendan, but Dan is in conversation with someone in a white baseball cap. I pause as a tram passes by, and Stephen comes for more tracts. That’s good! I notice a few young people sporting feathery boas and fluffy cowboy hats, all in shocking pink. Now who could be handing those out, I wonder?

I’ve got my eye on a youth in a white tee shirt, floppy black trousers, and Converse trainers the size of small boats. His blonde girlfriend sports torn black tights, a tartan mini and a black tee shirt. He’s sniggering about something. A pound to a penny he’s going to show off to her. Yes, here we go. “Whaddayer think about homosexuals?” he cries. “Whaddayer think about Jews?” I retort. Same speed, same tone of voice, but quite a bit louder. He scowls, then sneers, then they take themselves off. That’s a pity - I was going to go on at length, but I can save the rest of it for another day.

On we go, and here comes Gareth. I’m pleased to see him. It suddenly strikes me that since his beard has grown a little, he’s starting to resemble Benicio del Toro as Alejandro in “Sicario”. I wave, and he goes to greet Dan, and my stint is over.

As Stephen prepares himself, I pick up my tract envelope. It’s empty, except for a Blanchard booklet and some chapel leaflets. So is the back-up one. Fortunately, Stephen has more than enough to supply my needs. I don my white hat once more, and Dan and Gareth come over for a few words as we work. The sun slips behind the clouds, but I keep my hat on, even though I don’t think it suits me.

There are acres of bare skin on display today, which I can take in my stride. It’s the tawdry tattoos and the sleazy piercings that send a shudder through my slight frame. The tracts go slowly for a while, and there’s nothing more dramatic to report than the appearance of a mechanical roadsweeper and several youths on skateboards. Then, as the uptake of tracts improves, here comes a young man in black jeans and a tee shirt in bold vertical stripes of black and white. It’s Paul. We’ve met before. He has a few questions for me, and although I try my best not to offer anyone advice nowadays, he insists upon it. I do my best, and he thanks me in kindly fashion as he goes.

It must be the exam season, since there are lots of young people out and about in school uniforms now, earlier than they would normally be seen in the city centre. Some of them stop to take tracts, I’m pleased to say. Stephen has a few listeners, but the nearest one is leaning on a bollard several yards away. The rest are distant - but, still, they’re listening.

He comes to a close, and I decide to do five minutes more, just to round things off. Soon, Stephen is in conversation with a young man, slim, bearded and bespectacled, wearing a tee shirt with the words “Blue Moon” printed upon it. They talk for a while, and then, as he goes, to me: “Keep up the good work! Thank-you for the bible!” I thank him. “This is the man!” he says to the waiting world. “…the man your parents warned you about,” I want to add, but since I’m sure someone with no sense of humour would take that the wrong way, I control myself and carry on.

I improvise around “no peace for the wicked” for a while, pausing only to rebuke someone who has deliberately dropped a tract - a most unusual occurrence, I’m happy to say. I end with the coming judgement, and the “Death Wish II” illustration. A young man in school uniform breaks away from his friends and sits on a bollard for a while, a solemn expression on his face. He approaches slowly as I come to my closing words - E. A. Johnston’s “He’s with me.” As I offer free bibles for the last time, he holds out his fist. I raise my arm, and, very gently, he touches his knuckles against mine.

For me, it’s the most affecting moment of the afternoon.

We pack our things away, we pray, and then it’s time for refreshments.

We’ll be there again tomorrow, God willing. Join us if you can, and please pray for us if God puts it upon your heart to do so. Please pray for one or more of those mentioned above, and for those below.

[Specific prayer requests omitted.]

*For the benefit of new readers, who might imagine that I don’t know how to paragraph properly: don’t worry, I do - which is why I feel free to render rapid exchanges as above, for the purposes of this newsletter.

Every blessing!