This week, Broadstairs writer Melissa Todd meets the ‘lollipop brigade’ – a group of volunteers who patrol the streets at night to ensure revellers are safe.
No two shifts are the same for the Community Pastors – who do everything from handing out sweets and flip-flops to stopping drunk people from jumping in the harbour…
Sunday morning saw me at Food for Thought, a breakfast discussion group at Margate Union Church.
“We are here for people who have a bit of a spiritual leaning or whatever, but no hardcore religion gets forced on you” promises Chris, the meeting’s leader. Then he drops the mic, and a community pastor rushes to retrieve it for him, while the assembled company finish singing the last verse of The Beatles’ Help! It functions as such a perfect metaphor for the work they do, one wonders if it might have been choreographed.
For in among the bacon rolls, croissants and coffee, three community pastors have come to talk to us - Andrew, Trevor and Mandy. They are more commonly referred to, however, as the flip-flop brigade, handing out sensible shoes, lollipops and solace to Ramsgate’s revellers. In their distinctive red fleeces, embossed with gold writing, they stand out like a beacon against the night.
“The uniform, like a dog collar, gives us access to people’s interest,” says Trevor. "If I see a woman sitting on the pavement, alone, and I ask if she’s OK, without my red jacket that becomes inappropriate. We are lights in the darkness for people who might otherwise not encounter people of faith. People who have no faith, or perhaps a difficult relationship with faith, are suddenly confident, encouraged to tell their story. Listening is much of our job. The Bible says, ‘Consider carefully how you listen.’ I keep that in mind. Patiently and without judgement.
“It’s a privilege - one I hope I exercise with humility - to represent Jesus on the streets.”
They are a Christian volunteer organisation that draws its members from different churches across Thanet, representing a Jesus of different denominations. But they’re not here to teach, or browbeat people - they’re here to listen.
“I’m not embarrassed to say I’m a Christian,” Trevor says. “If the subject of faith comes up, I’ll gladly talk about it. But it doesn’t get talked about much.”
Over the years he's found ways to start up conversations. "Are you having a good night? Are you a local or visiting? Quickly you can gauge if someone wants to talk or be left alone, and it’s a better way to form a relationship with someone than to say, ‘Hallo, we are community pastors, do you need any help?'”
Generally there are four of them on the rota, and they make sure to have a woman with them, having learnt that people are generally happier to be approached by a woman.
Andrew begins by referencing the parable of Jesus turning water into 180 gallons of wine - “Probably an average night out for most of the people we meet!” says Trevor. “For all that, I can’t think of one instance where our overtures have been rudely refused. People say they feel safe when they spot the red jackets and know we’re on hand.”
He takes us through the contents of his “jolly heavy!” rucksack. First, the lollipops for which they are famed. There are many varieties of lollipop in every pocket. “People approach us for lollies all the time, bar staff and doormen as well as pleasure seekers, so we arm ourselves with a variety. And next, of course, we have plenty of flip-flops.”
Flip-flops are a good deal safer than bare feet, and after a little lubrication, the best of us can start to wobble. Flip-flops save breaking their best shoes, or worse, their ankles. The pastors carry first aid kits too, and safety pins, “to help ladies get redressed”.
They patrol the harbour, so their packs contain a throw line, and they are regularly trained by Ramsgate RNLI in its proper use.
“Someone might be careless after a drink, or deliberately throw themselves in. Gloves, in case we’re faced with blood or sick. Tissues, wet wipes and cigarette lighters - they’re useful for beginning a conversation. So many people approach asking for a light, then hang about for a chat. Blankets. Rape alarms -” he keeps rummaging and digging out more items to show us, a modern-day Mary Poppins.
"Bottle stoppers, just big enough to take a straw, to stop drinks being spiked. That happens so often it’s truly terrifying. And bottles of water. not only for drinking, but to wash down clothes after a vomiting episode, so taxis are happy to take people home. Fully charged phones, of course, so we can get back up when we need it. And more lollipops. There, that’s the lot!”
Mandy tells us her experiences on patrol have generally been great.
“I’m well known, I’ve been doing this for years, I dance with everyone and enjoy myself! But it’s not all good fun, of course. I remember a girl running towards my red coat in relief when she was being attacked on the beach. If the police turn up to an incident, it tends to make people agitated, aggressive, defensive. But if we show up, the situation tends to calm down, and everyone starts hugging. Once a man was hugged for two hours to stop him jumping into the harbour.”
There are 14 of them on the rota, of whom eight are regulars. “At the moment it’s only one patrol a week, usually Ramsgate, as there are more venues, closer together and open later. We have been to Broadstairs and Margate, but the venues are quite disparate, so you can feel like a voyeur standing outside, waiting for drunks to emerge. We cover special events too - Broadstairs firework displays, and folk week.”
They go out about 10pm, and stay out until they consider their services are no longer required. Usually that means around 1am, or in the summer much later. Often they go home in daylight. "But some of our volunteers are older, with health problems, dicky hips and so forth,” Trevor says. "I must consider their welfare too, while also remembering that everyone we meet is an adult who has chosen to go out that night. It’s also our responsibility to look after the people in our patrol, as well as the drinkers."
“We have good street cred now!” Mandy adds. "People tend to look after us. I was chatting to a rather tiddly chap last night, when someone started making fun of him for talking to me. Immediately he was hustled away by an outraged crowd!”
They received funding from Ramsgate Town Council just before Christmas. “I’d love to flood Ramsgate with beer mats that are printed with our information! That feels like a perfect symbiosis. I hope to have a decent website too. Before that, we’ve been pretty much living on thin air.”
But flip flops, lollies and goodwill don’t cost much.