Lindsey Johnstone in Glasgow
In the basement of a Glasgow church, around a table littered with mince pies and Starbucks cups, bibles and walkie-talkies, the Street Pastors say a quick prayer of thanks for the free fish and chips they will be getting later from a business owner who admires the work they do on his doorstep, and then head out into the night, armed with Mars bars, sandwiches, hats and gloves for distribution to Glasgow's needy, hungry and drunk.
In January, the Street Pastors – a multi-denominational group of Christian volunteers who walk the streets of Scotland's cities on Friday and Saturday nights – will reach their 10th anniversary, and last week were commended in the Scottish Parliament, particularly for their work helping the homeless community. The first person they speak to tonight is James, who is sleeping rough. The only help he asks for is that they take his phone to the church to charge it and return it to him later, but he has previously spoken to Stuart, the Street Pastors' co-ordinator, when he was contemplating suicide.
Stuart says: “We are seeing more and more cases of a combination of homelessness and mental health issues and addiction issues. It makes the situation very complex, because which one do you start with?”
Five minutes later they give a pair of gloves to another homeless man, and then – when he asks them to pray for his mother – a new scarf and gloves for him to give her as a Christmas present, and a hug. One of the pastors, Moira, says: “That’s one of the main things about being homeless – people don’t want to touch you. He may not have had a cuddle for a long time.”
It's not just the city's homeless who are drawn to the pastors – a young woman thrusts her bag at Gary, another of the volunteers, asking him to hold it while she looks for her phone. When she notices the badge on his jacket, out tumbles the story of how this is the first Christmas she will be spending without her grandmother, who died this year, and that as a lapsed Catholic married to an atheist, she doesn't feel she has anyone to talk to about whether her grandmother is in Heaven.
Round the corner the doorman at a bar asks for help dealing with a customer who has become anxious and agitated and whose tears are attracting negative attention from another group of men. The young man is autistic and after they attempt to calm him down, asks the pastors not to crowd him, but waits nearby as they co-ordinate with the doorman to find his friend inside, who then takes over.
The pastors are linked to the city's CCTV network and work closely with the police and door stewards. However, as pastor Ian explains, the police were initially wary. “They were a bit like, who are these Bible bashers and are they just more people we’ll have to look after? But now they see that we can handle situations that they would previously have been tied up in.”
Like Kieran's predicament – he is sitting at a bus stop where he has just been sick, sobbing that he may have lost his job at a club because he got too drunk there after finishing work. As he wails that he has made a mess of his life, Ian responds by telling him so has he, many times, and calls his mother to ask her if she'll come and collect him, after attempts to persuade taxi drivers have failed.
A fight breaks out a few steps from Kieran's perch and two pastors peel off to stand near it – saying and doing nothing, just there if they are needed.