Silent Witness is the title of a long-running television crime drama, and also the basis of a French & Saunders skit, Witless Silence! However, as a name, it seemed to fit with what members of a Baptist church in Swindon were planning on doing, on Good Friday.
I’m the new Minister at Lawn Community Church, in Lawn, Swindon. We’re a small congregation and I’m trying to encourage the church to take church ‘out there’. To catch the flame and take something of God’s love ‘out there’, as most people will never hear about His love, all the while we’re in here.
When it came to preparing church services for the Easter weekend, I realised that I could be creative and do some outreach. I remembered an activity that I participated in, for a number of years, when I lived in Southend-on-Sea. During the afternoon of Good Friday, I would meet with a small number of Christians from different denominations, in the High Street there, with Jesus words, “could you not wait with me, one hour”, in mind. We would gather in a circle, around a large, wooden cross, for one hour – in silence.
I remembered how powerful a spectacle it was. I realised that there was scope for Silent Witness, now, in Swindon town-centre.
So there I was, with around a dozen people from Lawn Community Church, at 3.00pm on Good Friday at ‘the crossing’, in Regents Street, Swindon. Gradually, during the hour, others also joined us, including those from three other Baptist churches in the town.
At the start of our Silent Witness, I stood in the middle of the circle, holding up the wooden cross. Immediately, I felt that I was in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. I felt content, although I was aware that many of the others didn’t feel the same as I did, being there. Yet they still stood with me – some had brought chairs with them and after a while, sensibly sat down on them, still in silence. It was a warm, sunny afternoon.
Although it was a public holiday, all the shops were open and in the nice weather, there were many people walking past us, at ‘the crossroads’, from all four directions, in the pedestrianised heart of the town. I noticed that people were looking us, with curious looks. Some could see what we were doing and slowed down their pace, even bowing their heads, momentarily.
Clearly, our Silent Witness was being noticed from the start. Within a few minutes, a couple of teenagers began shouting, “Faggots, faggots…” at us, obviously keen to explain what they’d just had for lunch. A man began swearing at us, and told us all, that we were “brainwashed”. That was nothing compared to what was to happen with another man, just a few minutes later.
I was still holding the cross at roughly 3.15pm, when I heard someone else shouting and mocking us. Behind me, over my right shoulder, I heard him identify Rev. Jamie Reeves, of Rodbourne Cheney Baptist Church, standing in the circle, as the subject of his forthcoming ire. Jamie was dressed in a clerical collar and sensible shirt. I was dressed in a clerical Biker’s jacket. The man began firing off all sorts of questions and allegations at Jamie, “the vicar”. I was listening intently, in the silence, as Jamie dealt patiently with what sounded like a deluge of offensive remarks.
More Christians came to join us at the circle, as our friend continued his tirade. Members of the public looked on. Around 3.30pm, a lady in our group, with blindness, made her way over to where our accuser was standing and, with her white stick, began to take him on. Briefly, he was taken aback and didn’t know how to respond, at first. I noticed that others, from Upper Stratham and Gorse Hill Baptist Churches, were praying silently.
I noticed that he was making all sorts of claims and allegations about the Bible and Jesus. At one point the man even said to me, “What do you have to say about Exodus 21?”
I asked him, what he had to say about that chapter. He couldn’t answer – I kept pressing him about it. I knew that it referred to slavery. He didn’t? Thinking that he’d probably heard those two words ‘Exodus 21’ from an atheist handbook of some sort, I asked him other questions about the Bible, which he couldn’t answer.
As someone who has experience of public Debating Societies, I realise the value of not accepting what your ‘opponent’ claims, on face-value. If you find yourself in an outreach situation like this, don’t be afraid to challenge their claims, or ask them questions, in return. In the face of claims that God-condones-slavery-genocide-war-anti-Semitism and it says so, in the Bible, do ask them to show you where it says that. Ask them what the Bible actually says about these matters and see if they can come up with the evidence. Talking of evidence, when someone (like our hour-long friend) asks you for evidence that Christianity is true – ask them what evidence they would like, specifically. What would convince them – do they themselves know? Get them to do the work; don’t let them make accusations easily.
Otherwise, if you feel like attempting street outreach like this, remember that you need a large, wooden cross, willing volunteers, and patience – in the silence, if people walking past you abuse you, ignore them and bless them on their way.
The following morning, there was the headline in the local radio and press: around an hour before we’d met at 3 o’clock, there was an incident at Metro Bank, only a few yards away from where we soon took our stance. A teenager in a quad bike drove into pedestrians and then pulled out a knife. I wondered why there were police officers there, when I first arrived.
An hour later, and we may have been his possible target, instead; who knows. When doing anything like this, do pray for God’s protection. He promises to never leave us or forsake us and we knew His presence with us, that afternoon.
Originally from Southend, John Cheek is the Minister at Lawn Community Church and has a background in religious broadcasting, for Flame Radio (Merseyside) and BBC Essex