Open Air: I Took A Gorilla

I took a gorilla, and, working with infinite care, I made my first man...

Island Of Lost Souls. - Charles Laughton (as Dr Moreau).

There is blue sky above and a gentle breeze below, so it’s shorts for Stephen and shirt sleeves for me. Stephen is speaking, I’m on his right, and Peter has stationed himself outside McDonald’s, as usual. It’s not very busy, and though the take-up of tracts is steady, it’s at least fifteen minutes before there are a couple of casual listeners in front of the shops. No sign of beggars or rough sleepers dozing in the doorways today; perhaps the City Council have been having one of their periodic purges of the city centre...

Dan arrives a few minutes later, looking as cool as ever. We chat for a while; sirens wail in the distance, but all is at peace here on the edge of The Gardens. I note that several people take tracts and walk away reading them, rather than thrusting them into their pockets or purses. That’s good! And who is that with Peter? It’s Brendan, almost unrecognisable in shirtsleeves and without his hat!

It’s coming up to handover time, so I’d better... but, no, hang on, here comes a young woman in a grey hoodie with its sleeves drooping down over her hands, and faded blue jeans atop Converse trainers. What does she want? It’s the old chestnut: “Does God hate homosexuals?” Nevertheless, we will answer her with care and concern: “Well, that’s the wrong place to start. All human beings are sinful in God’s eyes, so...” You can take it from there, I’m sure. Or rather, Dan can - he’s nearer her age, and I have to go and preach.

I hang my hat on the lamppost, and the GoPro gives me a glimpse of my Ralph Lauren tee shirt peeping out from under my regular shirt. If you’ve got, it flaunt it, eh? You don’t get rubbish from TK Maxx for £7.99 these days, do you? As I pick up my open air bible, I see that there are three young folk talking to Stephen: a blonde girl in shades, a tall youth in a green tee shirt, and a dark-skinned young man in an orange tee, all smiles. I’ll get to meet them later on, but for now they’re just Miss Blonde, Mr Green, and Mr Orange. One of them is saying, “We wuz gonna preach ourselves - we’re together - but then we saw you.” “It’s most courteous of them to wait for a while,” I think to myself.

Mr Green approaches. I ask him if I can help. He’s just “assessing the situation,” he says. I ask him (in jest) if he would like to see our Statement Of Faith. Yes, he would, he says. Well, I’ve got one with me, as it happens, so I hand it to him, and he studies it for a while. He looks a little perplexed, but I’ve no more time to talk, so... we go, with little Esther’s impressions of adult emotions: “I’m cuuute!” “I’m happeee!” and so on, which takes us to the deceptive nature of Facebook photos, and the false fronts that folk put on to face the world. You can take it from there, I’m sure.

An older man gets off his even older bicycle, one of those with little wheels and high handlebars. He’s wearing a straw hat (so we’ll call him Mr Straw), a black polo shirt, and long brown shorts. He also wears a smile I’ve seen before, that of the smug sceptic amused at the antics of old-fashioned religious fanatics. “Oh how quaint!” it seems to say. He puts on his wire-rimmed spectacles, takes out his phone, and begins to tap out a text. Every gesture is oddly exaggerated, as if he’s on stage. Perhaps he is, in his own imagination.

Mr Green is talking to Dan, and Miss Blonde and Mr Orange are standing on my right, either tracting or playing Rentacrowd, or both. Stephen approaches Mr Straw and hands him a tract. He takes it, he looks at it, he plays with his phone, he looks around, he takes his glasses off and puts them on again. What a performance...

And here comes someone else who wants to get in on the act. It’s a brown-skinned gent in a light blue trilby, orange tee shirt, black jeans, and sandals. He shouts out silly questions until I point him towards Stephen: “No need to shout, sir! Just have a quiet conversation with my friend!” “I want to ask you..!” “No, ask him, he’s cleverer than me, and he’s taller!” Reluctantly, he obeys, and then they’re joined by Mr Straw and Mr Orange, and a heated debate begins...

I’m glad that all I have to do is preach. No, hang on, a lady is helping herself to the free bibles, and she wants one that is wrapped up. I find one for her, and she departs with some encouraging words. Then, on to “There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked.” Mr Trilby juts out his chin and starts shouting again, groups of debaters form, break up and re-form in various combinations, the wind rises, our poster flaps, the trams sound their horns as they round the bends - it’s all go!

The heated debates draw the attention of passersby, including a young man in a white tee shirt and cream shorts who listens intently, and an old man in a blue checked shirt and grey cargo pants who looks from group to group and back to me as I get on to Jeremiah’s warning to idolaters. And then, over by the tram tracks is a bearded gent in a baseball cap and a blue tee shirt bearing the legend “Jesus Saves”. He’s joined by a tall gent in a baseball cap and a plain black tee shirt. They’re both wearing shorts that come down over their knees. Most modest! They’re joined by a couple of ladies, and they look on with what seems to be some measure of approval.

But Mr Trilby isn’t happy to be out of the limelight. He returns and stands to my left, declaring himself an atheist to the waiting world. The old man in the blue checked shirt strides over and challenges him, giving him a good telling-off. But he shouts all the more, and in my direction: “My ancestors were apes!” Ah, so little time, so many jokes! But, I exercise restraint, and content myself with a few mild retorts until Stephen comes to calm him down and shepherd him away.

Off I go again, as debates continue, voices are raised and arms are waved. Mr Straw approaches me with a roguish expression that would be more at home on the face of a rouged roué in a Restoration comedy, and attempts a philosophical witticism about causation and causality which falls flat, flatter than Flat Stanley. It’s just pitiful. I wave him back to his bike, trying not to hurt his feelings too much. There he listens quietly for a while, then turns his attention to Stephen once more...

Meanwhile, I’m improvising as best I can, trying to match what I say to what little I can glean from snippets of the ongoing conversations, but also trying to include a simple outline of the gospel for those drawn in by the commotion. I even throw in the old “by my bootlaces” illustration for good measure, much to the amusement of the Deliveroo rider who has paused to listen for a few moments. Mr Straw is now getting into a state talking to our tall friend in the black tee shirt. Meanwhile, the gentleman in the “Jesus Saves” tee shirt films the scene on his phone, turning through 360° to get everything in.

Gradually, the debates come to an end (except for the one with Mr Straw), and calm descends once more upon this part of The Gardens. I draw to a close, and thank those who have listened and supported us, and offer free bibles for the last time. And yes, a lady takes one. I’m glad, and I’m moved to pray for all those within the sound of my voice, and am gratified to see one or two of our new friends bow their heads along with me. (Noted on the GoPro recording, of course, since I had my eyes closed at the time...)

I walk round and try to acquaint myself with the friendly faces in evidence, and hand out chapel leaflets. I ask for names and record them on the GoPro, but the sound is a little muffled, so please excuse any mistakes I may have made.

[Personal information omitted.]

It would be most agreeable to spend more time in conversation, but we have to go, and these folk want to carry on from where we’ve left off, which is an excellent idea.

And then, after we’ve prayed and are on our way towards the tram tracks, someone bursts into song. It’s a little tinny and somewhat discordant, coming as it does from a miniature speaker, rather like the ones we used to use in earlier days. It’s Miss Blonde, standing several yards away from everyone else. And then she breaks off and begins to preach (if we can describe it as such). It’s high-pitched, high speed, and practically unintelligible - and not at all to my liking. I turn back to our new-found friends, shrugging my shoulders as if to disclaim all responsibility: “We don’t have women preachers in our church…” “Neither do we!” they reply. And we leave them to it, heading for the Bagel Factory and refreshments.

Eventful, wasn’t it? I’m worn out just writing about it! However, I’m sure I’ll be feeling reinvigorated by tomorrow, ready to board the bus. Alas, Stephen has other responsibilities to take care of, so if you happen to be free and can make up our numbers, please join us on the edge of The Gardens, just opposite Superdrug, at 12.30pm. The forecast is for fine weather, and I promise you that you won’t be asked to do anything that might make you uncomfortable. Just being present and praying would be a great help.

For those who will, please pray for us and for any of those mentioned above whom the Lord has laid upon your heart.

Every blessing!

[If you are a born-again believer, and would like to receive the full version of the newsletter so that you can support us in prayer, then please send your email address to our pastor, and he will arrange it.]