Open Air: An Awful Lot Of Those

This week, we have a double portion of recollections from Stephen.

22.6.22. As I recall, this was a day for the wearing of shorts. I gave out 80 tracts and didn't really have any conversations apart from being berated by an angry Israeli and I don't think that really classes as a conversation. It turned out that he was an acquaintance, perhaps a friend, of N. who has been joining us recently. This Israeli chap also had a go at J. while he was preaching.

29.6.22. There were showers of varying degrees of heaviness on the way there and on the way back but it remained fine for the duration of the Open Air. There was no N. this week, nor Ethan, so my tracting station was primarily close to the preacher. I gave out 72 tracts. Towards the end of the session I went over by the shops to talk to a man who had been standing there for the best part of an hour, apparently listening firstly to myself and then to J. as we were preaching. His name is Tolou (though that spelling is a pure guess). He said he is a Christian who reads the Bible but does not go to any church. We seem to meet an awful lot of those. I'm afraid that I didn't succeed in getting into deep conversation as he offered one word answers and I don't think quickly enough.

Sunshine, fluffy white clouds, a mild to moderate breeze - yes, I think we’re safe to venture out in short sleeves today. But what’s that noise? It’s a loud, low whining, punctuated by clunkings and crashings. I look to my right. A large lorry is parked to the rear of the food stalls, a Portaloo perched in its bed, a hose reel by its side. I see! Well, it’s a job that someone has to do, I suppose.

To our left, down on Market Street, a man with no natural sense of rhythm is attacking a set of bongos or congas, but it isn’t loud enough to be any bother.

Stephen is on first, with Brendan ahead left, and myself to the right. And here comes a Christian brother in sporting apparel; a few cheerful and encouraging words, and he’s on his way to buy some new trainers. That’s the way I like it: he knows not to take up too much time when someone is working. Some Christians think they’re helping by talking to us at length about nothing in particular, instead of joining in and tracting and talking to non-Christians. We meet an awful lot of those.

It’s quiet for a while. Brendan encounters a man in a grey tracksuit and hoodie. They speak for some time. Peter arrives, with his boards slung over his shoulders and a broad smile on his face. Today’s text? “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.” As usual, Manchester is his second stop of the day. We talk for a moment, then he’s off to his customary station outside McDonald’s, where it’s always busy.

Meanwhile, Brendan has gone into Greggs. He emerges with some food for the man in grey. Most kind of him!

[It might be worth pointing out that it’s not our policy to give money to people who claim to be in need. We’d have a queue all the way down to Deansgate if we did. However, if individuals want to dip into their own pockets to do so, that’s fair enough. Perhaps I should also say that the Open Air is entirely self-supporting, despite the generous offers of funds from Salem from time to time.]

Tracts are going slowly but steadily. Today, quite a few folk who have the outward appearance of Muslims are taking them; and there have been no sneers or jeers thus far, only words of encouragement from passersby. I can hear the distant drums more clearly now. What I don’t hear is the large blue Portaloo lorry coming up behind me, until Stephen breaks off to alert me.

The wind whips up, litter blows about, and our poster flaps against the lamppost. There are a few listeners here and there, but they’re mostly at a distance. Enter Dan from my right. He’s got a day off, and I’m pleased to see him. Meanwhile, the supposedly pedestrianised area is alive with wheeled transport: electric cycles, electric scooters, push bikes, and a whole host of Deliveroo riders whizzing back and forth. The wind sends our Latin motto* flying away from its Blu Tack moorings on the junction box. I retrieve it and affix it to the smoother surface of the lamppost.

Stephen comes to a close, and it’s my turn. I have my eye on a gent of African appearance, standing a few yards in front of Superdrug. His mouth is moving soundlessly, and he raises his arms to heaven every now and then, as if in supplication. Is he praying? Is he calling down curses upon us, or asking for the fire to fall? Who knows?

My intro is popular phrases and buzz words, including “conversation” (as in “I’m going to shout at you and call you names until you agree with me”) and “journey” (as in “I’ll pretend that I understand something by telling you that it’s like a journey even though it isn’t”). Our trainer shopper returns, and tells me he hasn’t bought any new ones, so he’ll have more money to spend on everyday items, and then, “God bless you!” and he’s off. Our African friend has put his hands in his pockets, so perhaps he’s listening to me now.

I’ve watched a few videos of another open air preacher recently, someone who stands atop a rickety stepladder, shouting and pointing at individuals and telling them time after time that God loves them. Is that right? Well, each to his own, but today I’m focussing on the fact that God must punish sin. As I ask (not indicating any individual) “Are you a sinner?” a youthful but balding bloke in a blue shirt and pale grey trousers strides by. “Yep!” he says, which allows me to praise his honesty but also to warn of the consequences of our actions.

And on we go, as trams roll by in quick succession, police vans crawl by, come to a halt, survey the scene and move on, Stephen accosts the praying man, Vincent appears and disappears, Milan shows his face in the distance but keeps well away from me - and for once I get on to the spiritual state of the nation… It’s hard not to get carried away at this point, and perhaps I am for a little while - but somehow I manage to work my way back to the sinful heart of each individual, and offer the only remedy that has ever existed for its parlous condition.

On the last lap, I spy Kieran arriving. He approaches and unpacks his sign as I come to a close, and then - it’s all over.

Oh no it isn’t! The GoPro is off, but here comes an enquirer! He’s honest enough to mention that he’s a man who has spent just a little too long in “Spoons”. We meet an awful lot of those. Do we mind if he asks us..? Briefly, he’s doing a student photography project, its theme being “Religion On The Street”, or something along those lines. He’s pleasant and polite, with long, lank, blond hair: vaguely hippie-ish, I suppose. Because he’s had little bit to drink, my priority is to give him some literature now so that he can look at it later. When he’s got a copy of “Ultimate Questions” and a bible in his hands, we can talk.

And we do. He’s been in touch with various religious groups, and can we tell him what we believe..? It’s a gift. After a few minutes, Kieran takes over, since we have to go. “I’m the second shift,” he smiles. And so he is. We leave them together for a profitable time, I trust.

When we arrive at the Bagel Factory, Milan appears, tagging along behind us, on the pretext that he’s talking to Dan. Since he’s a man whose only aim is to set believer against believer (and we meet an awful lot of those), I ask him to leave. I have to speak to him quite sharply before he does so, but go he does, leaving us to compare notes and to catch up with each other.

Well, there you go: not overly dramatic, as afternoons go - but so well worthwhile that I feel a genuine pang of loss when I remind myself that we won’t be there tomorrow, because of various unavoidable appointments. But we will return, God willing, on the 13th of July, usual time, usual place. Join us if you can, and please pray for us if God puts it upon your heart to do so. Please pray also for one or more of those mentioned above, and those below.

[Specific prayer requests omitted, since they sometimes contain information of a personal/sensitive nature. If you would like to receive the newsletter in full, so that you can pray more intelligently for this outreach, please let our pastor have your email address, and he will arrange it.]

Every blessing!

* “Nemo nos amat, sed non attendimus, quia Deus vult.”