How will we reach the masses unless we have both, asks John Cheek.

John Cheek
John Cheek

It was an ordinary supermarket on a hot, summer's Saturday afternoon, and it was a conversation about the ingredients of the various scones on sale, which started it for me.

Chatting with a very pleasant shopper, I had been semi-veggie for about a year, ever since I heard the arguments from a Christian who is also a Vegan, in favour of my reviewing the details of my personal diet and consumption. So when this shopper informed me that she, too, was Vegan, I was immediately interested. Was she a Vegan out of political or religious conviction?

"Oh, I'm not religious at all", she replied.

I asked her why not. After all, she seemed an insightful and compassionate woman. The tone of this gentle, somewhat private person was quickly changing to 'agitated'.

"It's the cause of all wars. All it does is divide people. Yet all religious people think that their god is the one-true-god. Christians always have an agenda. I've done the Jesus-thing. I've got Christian friends who seem very concerned for me, want to care for me. But underneath it all, have an agenda to convert me."

I was taken by surprise by her change of tone and her vociferous opposition to faith. I barely got a word in edgeways and just about referred to the Christians mentioned at the end: "They would say that they're simply looking to love and serve you."

I wanted to explain that Christianity is a missionary faith and that a basic expression of that faith is to express it in acts of loving-service - that that is 'fundamental' Christianity, if we're talking about fundamentalists. But I was beaten to it.

"No - I find that all creepy...just creepy."

"Then I must be creepy, too." We quickly ended a promising conversation.

I was preparing to go out as a Street Pastor in Chester, later that night, as I reflected upon that earlier experience. Here was a perfectly normal and probably well-travelled and well-read person, who had effectively accepted the case against Christ: or 'religion', anyway. Someone who had yet to engage with believers who not only showed undoubted unconditional love, but could also present a good, intellectual case for following an ordinary labourer from Nazareth. Martin Luther King described this combination as "tough minds and tender hearts."

Two hours later, wearing the Street Pastors' uniform, I found myself at Chester railway station. Street Pastors go out onto the weekend, city-centre streets to help those injured, lost or distressed. Now, we were aiding passengers who needed to locate a cashpoint, or the platform for the last train to Manchester, or Holyhead. A taxi-driver drew our attention to his most-recent passenger - a man pacing up and down in the station entrance, wearing carpet-slippers and looking a little agitated himself.

I tentatively and politely approached the man, Gareth, and enquired if he was 'alright'. He made it clear that he didn't want to engage with me, and then paced nervously into the station itself; we kept an eye on him, within a busy concourse.

Soon, I noticed that he was looking intently in the direction of Platform 3. The longest railway platform in the country, it was expecting two or three inter-city trains to arrive, shortly. It occurred to me that Gareth (not his real name) was maybe planning on doing something stupid, in front of one of those trains as it pulled-in. So we brought it to the attention of the station staff and ensured that all the ticket-barriers were closed to non-ticket holders. One member of staff told us that he had become aware of Gareth as well, and in case Gareth attempted to vault the barriers and get onto the platform, he called the police. Other passengers came and went. We were again asked for help, by some. Female cleaning staff were now arriving, to clean the station and we kept an eye on Gareth, still pacing around, for their safety.

Eventually, British Transport Police arrived, and a female officer began to engage - successfully - with Gareth, to the point where he disclosed that he was schizophrenic. The station was closing, we were now having some great conversations with the staff and the overnight manager brought us a tray of hot-drinks. She was another very pleasant lady, who didn't think we were 'creepy'.

"I think you do a tremendous job...but what exactly ARE Street Pastors?"

I explained we were volunteers from different local churches. I described what Street Pastors do, out on the streets. Then, I don't know what came over me - as the shoplifters say - but I found myself asking a question for the umpteenth time in my life: "What do you believe - do you believe in God?"

She responded warmly; whilst she didn't think that there was a God, she did love churches. In fact, she cleared her throat and admitted that, in the village in Wales where she lives, there's a church which remains open during the day, every day and when she's off work, she often goes in there and sits in the silence, sometimes for ages. A fellow Street Pastor knew it, and began chatting about it, with the overnight manager. She warmly participated and nodded in acceptance of his final statement, "God will never let you down."

At 12.30am on a Sunday, in a now-deserted railway station, we had been invited into a conversation which now touched upon the meaning of life. Because we had demonstrated concern for someone whom many others would be wary towards, we were allowed the right to be heard. We had credibility - even though we're far from perfect, as human beings! We had shown a tender heart, and what was on our minds, was given a voice.

Tough minds and tender hearts, Martin Luther King was right - but it cost him. Were it to become a reality in our lives, we'll need to count the cost. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.