Interview: Saturday night and Sunday morning
Les Isaac, founder of Street Pastors, talks to Stephen Tomkins
On any given weekend night, amid fights and drunken accidents, there are 2,000 street pastors in the towns and cities of Britain, picking up the pieces. Altogether they are a taskforce of 11,000 trained volunteers, covering 270 locations. When Les Isaac started it all in Brixton 11 years ago, it was not only the start of a great adventure, but the culmination of a journey that had led him through racist violence, gang warfare and Rastafarianism, to this point.
Reform met him on the backstreets of Brixton to hear his story.
Your Christian story starts with an attempt to buy a machete to use against your father.
For so many of us kids from the West Indies in the early 60s, there was a massive culture clash coming from a pretty conservative place – respect discipline, honour parents – to a place where Mum and Dad split up, where people don’t like you because of the colour of your skin.
I went to a Methodist church and saw a Jesus with blond hair, blue eyes, and I thought: “He looks like the people who hate me.” Mum and Dad splitting up had a big impact on me; then Mum dies and Dad decides to come back home. So Dad and I had tension, because he’s old school Caribbean, I’m English, [aged] 10, with my African-embracing culture. It was the way he talked to me, and out of that came a nearly fatal collision.
In school and on the street, you feel it’s a white country, and that white people hate you. Then you go home and there are problems there too. It must have made you angry.
Yes. At home it’s as if you’re in the Caribbean, but the moment you leave there’s a tension – wanting to be accepted, being rejected because of the colour of your skin. That was important.
What kind of racism did you face?
My first experience was in school. Four white kids came to beat me up, calling me “nigger”. I ran to the teacher, and the teacher held me, and these guys kicked me. I thought the teacher was there to protect me. And when I told my mum what happened, she said: “You’re lying.” Because teachers don’t do things like that. So I was in a difficult place. As Bob Marley says: “Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.”
Secondly, I realised my school didn’t expect this little black kid to achieve anything. You saw it. We were constantly streamed in the bottom stream. It was hard. I often said to myself: “Why did my parents bring me here? I want to go home. This place is hell.” If I could’ve, I would’ve run away.
But there was nowhere to go.
There was nowhere to go. There was nowhere to go. So you’re in a culture that’s aggressive to you, you’re rejected, your parents split up. It’s a toxic mix.
Do you feel angry now, thinking back?
No. I feel I’ve overcome. I had to learn to accept where I was, learn to love the country I’m in. Those experiences shaped me and helped me to help people on the fringe of society. That has a lot to do with what I’m doing today.
What do you love about this country?
It’s diverse; it has thinkers – people who take risks. You talk about compassion, generosity – it’s here! I work with thousands of people who want to reach out to people without prejudice. The 87-year-old on the streets [as a street pastor] till four in the morning. That has to be a plus for a nation.
When I go back to my country, people think I’m a bit mad: “You want to go out and help those drunks and prostitutes? Why?” Because they’re human beings. I’ve got to live for my neighbour, the marginalised, the voiceless, as well as myself. This country has taught me that.
You fought a lot as a young teenager.
Yes, you had the mods and rockers, then the skinheads. People were aggressive. We were the first black family on a council estate. If you didn’t stand up for yourself your dinner money was taken from you, so you had to be tough, you had to be with the gang, for protection but also for affirmation. I was sucked into that – the football culture, the Dr Martens boots, steel toecaps, jeans, flick-knife. Looking back, I’m grateful – I could have taken somebody’s life. We went on a school trip; a guy threatened me and I stabbed him twice. Life would have been totally different for me if that had been fatal.
We had a big gang fight, and I walked home thinking: “There must be more to life than this.” I needed someone to talk to. I was a hurting kid, hurting people. That’s what I’m seeing on the streets today.
Is that what attracted you to Rastafarianism?
I was tired of the violence. I wanted peace, love, spirituality; I couldn’t come to terms with Jesus. There was too much history in terms of the role of the Church in slavery. I wanted redemption, I wanted a saviour, but he couldn’t be white. Selassie gave me that, gave me hope that I could leave this place, go to Africa and be free.
Rastafarianism gave me a sense of identity. Selassie said to me: You can be black and proud; you have a history that’s not just slavery, and there’s emancipation for you now. I began to read the Old Testament and related to the Exodus.
When a friend became a Christian, I couldn’t come to terms with that. How can he serve a white God? And church is boring. But this guy was passionate – had a strong sense of conviction. His life was different, and that challenged me. He said: “No, I don’t smoke weed no more. I don’t go out raving. I’m not having sex.” What?
I asked: “What makes a young guy make such change in his life?” He talked about Jesus and I said: “Listen, man, dat a white man ting!” But his words were powerful. We smoked a pipe and I was meditating and the only thing I could meditate on was what this guy was saying.
Then my father and I had a very serious argument. That’s when I went to buy a machete, but I met a guy who spoke to me about Jesus and it was my Damascus road experience: Actually it’s not about human beings and what they’ve done to fellow human beings, it’s about Jesus did on the Cross for you. I said: “Listen God, I don’t believe in this white man Jesus, but if you’re real I want to know you.”
This guy took me to a Methodist church and a Pentecostal church, and I thought: “What the hell is this?” All these white guys, they were lively, looked like they believed what they were singing about. It was powerful; things were happening.
You didn’t try a black-majority church?
No. When that happened to me, it wasn’t about the pigmentation of individuals, it was about God.
You almost immediately became an evangelistic speaker, aged 18.
Yeah. I grew up seeing church as boring, and for white people. Now I’m understanding it’s not about church, it’s about Jesus, and knowing Jesus is dynamic.
Street Pastors was originally a response to gun crime.
Yeah. I realised every month there’s black kids killing each other. I’m a pastor, so I asked: What can I do? My Gospel has something to say about this. I began to walk on the streets and met kids of eight living on the streets; kids aged 14 talking about bulletproof vests. The other week, I had to stop a major fight here. I had to take a funeral the other day for a kid 20 years of age, stabbed to death. The kids say to me: “Nobody gives a damn about us, nobody listens to us. We’re angry.” I can’t preach a message of hope without bringing it to these guys. The ethos of Street Pastors is caring, listening, learning – not preaching.
You see them here now, the sun’s hot, all this testosterone growing, next minute – God forbid – there could be a gunshot and there’s an ambulance here. We’ve got to be out here, amongst them. A lot of them have got no dad around. Who speaks into their lives? If the Church doesn’t, they’re going to continue to die, and we’ll be in our buildings saying how wonderful it is when we all get to heaven.
When you set out that first night, April 2003, how did it feel?
I felt high! I felt excited. I felt the Church is out here making it happen. I felt I’m earthing my faith. I felt proud to be a Christian. I felt Jesus was with us. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.
It’s so good when I go on the street and people say: “’Ere mate, which church are you from?” I say: “We’re from this church and that church.” And they say: “’Ow come it’s taken the Church so effin’ long?” Then when they tell you: “I think you’re a effin’ good geezer, give us a hug, mate, you want a pint?”, you feel nice.
We’ve become the face of the Church. We’re making positive footprints.
What’s a night in the life of a street pastor?
Friday or Saturday night, they meet up 9.30. There’s a briefing about what’s been happening, then they pray together. They go out in pairs and they patrol. They might get to know regular people. I was out in Brixton talking to the door staff, when a guy jumped out of a minicab, didn’t pay, he was drunk, a car knocked him down, we had to get the ambulance.
You might spend an hour talking to someone who’s been bereaved: “My nan died. Where’s she gone?” If Johnny’s nan had a good experience of church when she died, and Johnny’s drunk, you’ll be OK; but if she had a bad experience, he’ll want to punch you.
From one, it’s lively: fights at kebab shops; someone’s drink was spiked; someone’s got no mobile phone, no money, lost her friends, we’ve got to sort it out. We finish at 4 o’clock.
And if it’s Saturday, they probably don’t go to church in the morning.
The vast majority do. They’re sold out to their local church. A lot of ministers say they see the difference that’s happened in people since they become a street pastor: They’re not worried if the piano is moved 2cm to the left.
Do they face dangers?
In the 11 years that we’ve been out, eight people have been hurt. Actually, it’s nine now – I just heard that one of the street pastors was slapped in the face by a woman who was drunk. The vast majority of us are safe.
How do you get on with police and local authorities?
Police were very sceptical at first – very – but we’ve become good friends. Local authorities, it depends on where you are, but the vast majority really love street pastors.
And now school pastors. Where did that come from?
Originally we wanted to do that instead of street pastors. We saw that crime is highest between two o’clock and five to six. But I couldn’t get volunteers because they were all working. The next difficult time was 10 till four.
We knew there was tension at the school gates and places where kids meet – kids getting robbed of their iPods and mobile phones, kids robbing shops. We went on the buses – a presence of responsible adults. All the kids turn up and you can see the adults thinking: “Damn, I got on the wrong bus.” But you get to know them and it really helps. Kids said to headteachers: “We like these guys. We go on the buses that they’re going to be on.”
Are street pastors evangelistic?
No – we don’t go out and say: “Come to my church, come to Jesus.” But people say: “Why are you a Christian?”, then we explain. 75% of the people I meet ask me to pray for them. Between 12 and 1am, we have more conversations with 18 to 25 year-olds about Jesus and faith than ever happens in our churches.
And yet, you hear evangelists sometimes giving it all that on street corners, and no one ever stops and says: “Pray for me.”
It’s amazing. Some door staff, big men, like terminators, say: “Pray for us.” One guy spent half an hour slagging off Christianity. He said: “I effin’ hate your religion – but I like what you do. Come and have a cup of tea and a spliff.” I have to acknowledge that some people have had bad experiences of church.
You’re changing how people see the Church.
Very much so. It’s interesting that more people know what we’re against than what we’re for. People not only need to hear the Gospel, they need to see it, they need to feel it.
This article was published in the October 2014 edition of Reform.