Spending Christmas with Birmingham's Street Preachers

By LJ Shaughnessy, Photos: Alex Dean

Christmas Eve, three days after the world was supposed to end – surely there could be no better time to wander around Britain's most infamous shopping centre, asking street preachers where their faith comes from?

I roped in a photographer and visited the Bull Ring in Birmingham to meet its resident evangelists. Everyone deserves a voice, even if they already use that voice to scream at strangers about how evil they are and how that new iPad will have their loved ones burning in hellfire by the time the tree's supposed to have come down.

Don, Pentecostal Christian: My son, pay attention to what I say, listen closely to my words… for they are life to those who find them and health to a man’s whole body... I was on medication until God healed me.

VICE: Care to elaborate?
I've only shared this with one or two other Christian brothers and sisters in the past. They accepted the facts as miracle – it's up to you to decide. I was poorly as a child. Diabetes onset when I was 13 and epilepsy when I was 16.

So what happened?
Driving a car, steady relationships, a job with prospects – all slowly lessened in relevance. I wanted to ride a motorbike and the doctors said I couldn’t. I wanted to drink and they said I shouldn’t. Like all young kids, I wanted to be accepted. When I got married, I accepted the fact that me and my medication would be companions till I left this world.

So where does God come into this?
When I converted, a radical change occurred. My mind was clearer, heavy drinking lessened in appeal, I was content for the first time – but what to do with the pills? I couldn't stop taking them, so I prayed and left it with God. A day or two later when I went to the cupboard where I kept my medication, it wasn't there. Somehow I sensed that this was God's answer and I haven’t taken the medication since. Now I keep my old prescription between the pages of my bible, as a reminder.

What was your life like leading up to your conversion?
In my mid-twenties my life was deteriorating, medication made my fits manageable but they prevented me doing a lot of things. Then my father became very ill and, all I can say is that... if there are things called angels, and you have to accept that with all the limitations it presents to the human mind, I would say there were angels around as my father was dying.

Anyway, my father died and we got through it. I met someone and started earning, trying to move forward. I married but it wasn’t a magic wand and, despite all the good will, it was a problem marriage. Then for some reason, call it fate, divine intervention – some guy invited me to a singing group. He didn’t tell me it was a Christian group – if he had, I wouldn’t have gone. Singing, I sensed there was something important about it. I sensed that I’d met with my saviour.

Okay. So when did you make the step from everyday worshipper to street preacher?
I found the word, and found a way to communicate it. One day I was walking past St Stevens Church in Redditch, and God told me – "That’s your pulpit." As a working-class person I wasn’t used to people looking at me. It was something I had to train myself in; letting people see my face, eyes, eyebrows, hair, everything. So, I went there one morning, bowed my head and prayed and all the fear, all the anxiety, just went. I said "Praise the Lord," grabbed my bible and spoke.

That was ten years ago. What can occur on the street is immense. You see people who know they’re in danger of hellfire, they want you to prey for them, and for their families. There are things that inhabit their world, it’s a dark place. Where I go from here, I don’t know.

But you still have faith?
Yes, but opposing forces dominate. It might seem the wicked prosper but the meek, the teachable, will inherit the earth. If you can be teachable, taught by God, that’s meek. I don’t bow to any man but I bow to God.

Parmesh Chaitanga Das, Hare Krishna: Chant Hare Krishna, be happy!

VICE: Why are you here today, preaching?
We’re doing this to benefit the whole world, by reminding people who they are, where they’ve come from, the aim of their whole lives and to love God. People have forgotten their true natures. We come to help them and, basically to make them happy. You don’t have to change, you don’t have to convert, just think about the spiritual life.

How did you come to Hare Krishna?
I was born a Hindu but I came to the Hare Krishna movement through reading a book which opened my eyes. When I first read it I was like, wow, I’d never come across anything like it before, it truly made sense. What we are, who we are, why we’re suffering, why are we dying – people have these questions. I read the Krishna conscience book and everything was explained.

What message have you got for the Christmas shoppers?
Just don’t forget God. These days too many people are stressed, anxious, looking for love, everybody’s looking for happiness externally, we say look internally. True happiness lies inside. You’re a spiritual being, why search for happiness externally, drinking, smoking, running around? Happiness is free, so take it. Hare Krishna mantras are free and they make you blissful. It’s a natural way of life.

What makes a good preacher?
I’m not big headed enough to call myself a good preacher, I’m just repeating the words of the gurus and passing them on.

How long you been preaching?
We’ve been doing this about eight years, sometimes we chant, sometimes we sit down and play music, and sometimes we walk around different streets as well. People are seeing us naturally happy and we tell them, we’re living a natural, simple life. This is how we follow our spiritual life.

The Reverend Jim Hamilton, Pentecostal Christian: When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for our sins.

VICE: How's it going?
Fine. I've been preaching out here for 30 years. I've preached everywhere from Tirana to Wisconsin.

Where is it that you're from originally?
I'm from Glasgow.

In those 30 years, has your faith ever been shaken by anything you've seen on the streets?
I wouldn’t say shaken but I’m appalled at the unbelief [sic]. In the 30 years I’ve been doing this I’ve seen a gradual hardening of the people. People have become reluctant to talk about matters spiritual and we see that reflected in people’s behaviour, actions and words.

Why the change, do you think?
Liberalism has diluted the bible’s message and, going back further, there’s Darwin. He popularised atheism, and now you have his modern counterparts like Dawkins and his folly. I think the theory, and I emphasise "theory", of evolution has done the most damage. It’s taught in schools, colleges, universities and has hold of the media. Christianity fell by the wayside a long time ago. The only voice Christianity has left is the Church of England, which is totally apostate, and the Roman Catholic Church is a pagan outfit that never was Christian.

What about the evidence for evolution?
The bible teaches that God created the heavens, the Earth, the entire universe, in six literal days, 24-hour periods, supernaturally. Evolution is taught as a fact while Christian creationism is derided and opposed militantly. But there has to be a starting place, which evolution doesn’t give. Scientists say, "It started with the big bang" – OK, but where did that come from? "Chemicals," they say – OK, where did they come from? It’s a theory of development, and doesn’t give a beginning. The bible does: in the beginning there was God, and God said, "Let there be light."

How did you become a believer?
Growing up, I was disinterested in Christianity. I joined the RAF at 17 and travelled and – as was the way in the forces back then – I was quite a heavy drinker. Then, when I left the RAF, I worked as a truck driver. I wasn’t actually converted until 1980 following an almost fatal accident on the M1 motorway, near Watford Gap.

Mind if I ask what happened?
There were two trucks involved, and the one behind mine was leaking nitric acid. To cut a long story short, I fell into the acid and had a month of operations, skin grafts, terrible pain. The doctors told me, as I was laid in hospital, that I would encounter some measure of depression because of the trauma my body had been through. That was quite the understatement, the depression was horrendous. I suppose today you would be given counselling, tranquilisers and all sorts, but back then there was none of that. So I tried to fight it the only way I knew how: with more drink. I drank myself down and the depression got worse.

Whem was the turning point?
Come 1980, I'd hit rock bottom and life seemed pointless. Then I picked up a book my sister had given me several years previously, by John Haggai, and it began to make sense. Hope was revived and I saw that the cause of all my troubles was my sin, and the answer to that was Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. There were no flashing lights or anything weird, I just read this book and at the end of it I prayed, for the first time since I was a child.

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