Pat Allerton became known as the ‘Portable Priest’ during Covid for taking his message out onto the streets of London during lockdown. He has written an accessible book A Pocketful of Hope and I had the chance to ask him about it and his ministry.
IP: During Covid, you become known as the ‘Portable Priest’ in your parish in London. How did that happen, and how has it shaped the writing of the book?
PA: It came about as I was leaving our church building for the final time, realising that we wouldn’t be gathering again for who knew how long! The thought came into my head, ‘what if I just headed to the streets of my parish, playing a well known hymn and leading people in the Lord’s Prayer’, looking to lift spirits and point people to the God who loves them. So that’s what I began to do. I grabbed some speakers and a mic from our church building, selected a beautiful version of Amazing Grace (sung by Judy Collins) on Spotify, and headed to the Portobello Road.
I didn’t know what to expect, so gently introduced myself over the 1K sound system saying that I was their local vicar and was here to lift spirits and bring hope, as well as pointing us to the Good Shepherd who’s overcome the grave and wants to walk with us through this ‘valley of the shadow of death’. So I encouraged people to their windows and doorways, played the song, held a moment’s silence to pray or think of those who were sick, those grieving the loss of loved ones, those working in the NHS and those who were just living in fear and anxiety, then I invited anyone who’d like to to join in saying the Lord’s Prayer with me.
When all was done, I was surprised to hear a ripple of applause that grew and increased with whoops and cheers. Better than rotten tomatoes I thought! But more importantly, I sensed God’s presence and that he was meeting people where they were at. From that day on, I proceeded to head out 64 times in all, visiting streets and hospitals (and a prison) all over London on my hired cargo bike. I’d simply say that my thinking was, ‘if people can’t go to church, maybe church should go to the people’, or a bit of it at least! The media, not having much to write about at the time (!) and looking for good news stories, picked up on what I was up to and so a fair bit of coverage followed. Indeed, it was a reporter who renamed me ‘The Portable Priest’ where before I was ‘The Portobello Priest’ due to my parish being in Notting Hill. Rather an apt rechristening!
IP: The aim of the book appears to be to build bridges between the reader’s everyday experience and Christian faith. Why did you take this approach, and why do you think that it is important as part of contemporary apologetics?
PA: I’m from a family of non-believers, having become a Christian when I was 18. So I’m constantly wondering, ‘what would reach my friends and family?’ As Christians, we all know the difference that Jesus makes to our lives, and how he equips us to face anything that comes our way, and also enjoy the journey. I just feel that if we’re to reach this generation and show the credibility of our faith, then that is something we need to help show people. That Christianity works, that it’s got answers. And that it’s beautiful as well!
We’re all, believer and non-believer, going through this thing called ‘life’ and experiencing what it is to be a human being. And all of us need stories or meta-narratives to help us make sense of life and what we’re going through. In taking on 50 of the biggest questions or issues that we will all go through, I’m simply looking to establish a connection, point to how we often try to find hope or answers but so often fail, and then show the difference Jesus makes. The difference that seeing life through the lens of faith can bring.
IP: You tell a lot of stories through the chapters. Was this a deliberate strategy, or simply a reflection of who you are? How does this shape your approach to ministry and sharing faith?
PA: I think that whilst human beings require facts and data, we make sense of our lives through stories. And we enjoy them! They open up our hearts and help us connect with truth. No wonder Jesus used them so much! So yes, it was very much a deliberate choice. At the same time, it’s probably naturally who I am as well. I think that to win over and persuade folks today, we must capture their hearts as well as their minds. I’ve always loved that quote from Pascal, ‘make men wish it was true and then show them that it is.’ I’d say that principle is always active in anything I do, whether I’m speaking, writing, or dancing. (I’m joking. I definitely don’t evangelise through the latter)
IP: You quite often tell stories where you did not succeed or where you are unsure—this is not an account of faith making life an easy success! Do you see this as an important part of leadership within the church, or sharing faith outside—or both?
PA: Ha, well mainly because I’ve got more of those stories! But also, because I think we’re just living at time now where people can smell the BS (if you’ll pardon my french). They’re not interested in the super polished, picture-perfect façade. In fact I think it puts them off. I believe I quote Brene Brown in my chapter on Authenticity, which as we know, people are crying out for, where she says, ‘we impress people with our strengths, but we connect with people through our vulnerabilities’. And at the end of the day, we follow a Lord who ended up naked on a cross. If that’s not vulnerable, I don’t know what is! And yet look at the connection that it’s brought us. With God, one another and the world. Yes, faith is everything to the one who truly believes.
Yes it’s a crutch of sorts, or a backbone if we’re honest. But does it solve every issue? Does it guarantee a problem free life? Does it mean we’re immune from suffering, and the lot that faces us all? Absolutely not! So why are we afraid to share that or show it? As the world continues to feel more crazy, I firmly believe that it’s only as we share honestly about our own failures and brokenness, that we’ll have success in reaching and connecting with the broken. Now obviously, if you’re in a position of leadership, then you have to be wise as to how much and what you share, no one wants to see all of our dirty laundry after all (!), but spotless linen garments are only available in heaven, and everybody knows that, so let’s not pretend to be something we’re not. Let’s be honest, authentic, real.
IP: Despite not assuming faith on the part of the reader, you do not hesitate to quote Scripture or refer to elements of the biblical story. Is that part of a deliberate, practical ‘apologetic’ for the relevance and power of Scripture? Should we be seeking opportunities to read the Bible with our non-Christian friends?
PA: That’s a really interesting question. And I’d probably say, why not? My overall hunch is that whilst we might not be seeing revival right now, I believe the spiritual temperature is rising and that people are increasingly open to hearing what we’ve got to say. So why not ask them?
And beyond that, let’s rediscover our confidence in the word of God! It’s powerful. It’s changed lives and shaped civilisations! So yes, it was very much a deliberate approach and strategy. My hope is that having gained a hearing in each chapter by showing that we’re all in the same boat, stumbling around in the dark and looking for the light switch, that it’s then OK to share what the Scriptures have to say about the issue and the difference that such a perspective or approach can make. If it really is seed, as Jesus tells us, or really is a hammer that breaks a rock, as Jeremiah says, then we’d be foolish not to use it, trusting God’s Spirit to speak to people.
It’s amazing how sticky God’s word is and how if you say a word in season, it might stay with someone their entire life. So all I’d say is be natural, be yourself, don’t force it, but humbly offer to others what you’ve found helpful for yourself.
IP: In the gospels, Jesus does not shy away from making clear the challenge of his message. In fact, his opening words appear to challenge people to turn from their sin if they are to receive the good news of the kingdom. Do you manage to include this part of the gospel message in the book—if so, how? At what stage in the conversation should we be making the cost of the gospel clear?
PA: It’s a good question. So one of my favourite stories in the gospel of John is when Jesus meets with the woman at the well. It’s just the most extraordinary account that details the masterful journey that Jesus takes this woman on from his asking her for a drink of water to her receiving the water of life and telling her village! I mean, talk about a turnaround! But one of the things I find most striking is that despite her having had five husbands and currently being shacked up with someone who isn’t, Jesus doesn’t lead with that or come down heavy on her. No doubt just mentioning it allows the Holy Spirit to bring gentle conviction, but on this occasion, it’s not what he goes big on, unlike other occasions with the pharisees etc.
Now please don’t mishear me, I am not saying that we take this example and apply it to all of our preaching and encounters. There is a time and a place for strong clarity about the need to repent, and a faithful ministry will always contain that element. Indeed, the issue with our world and with ourselves, is often alluded to. But I think it depends on the context and audience. For me, in writing this book, I am targeting those who are far from faith and church, agnostics or even atheists who don’t yet believe or even know what they’re looking for. In many ways, I am seeking to help people realise, like this woman, that deep down, they are spiritually thirsty, and that Jesus is what and who they’re looking for.
So these are the opening words of the book, which in essence sum up whom it’s aimed:
- This isn’t a book for religious people. (But by all means read it if you are!)
- This isn’t even a book for those with faith, although I hope it encourages you if you have it.
- This is a book for the seeking ones. The searchers. Those who know there must be more…
So I think I’d say, as the question states, that we should very much see our contact with and outreach to the world as a conversation. And like with any conversation, we don’t need to say everything at once! Rather, the most crucial thing to do first is gain a hearing. We must make Jesus and what he offers compellingly attractive to people who don’t yet know him. Make them want to take a drink of living water so to speak! That’s what I try to do in every chapter of this book. It’s a book to be given away to our non-Christian friends and family, hopefully helping the reader to better understand and glimpse the Jesus we all love, adore and follow.
IP: What response have you had to the book? Would it make a good Christmas present? For whom?
PA: From those who’ve read it, I’ve had some wonderfully encouraging responses. And there are some very kind reviews on Amazon too! We’ve got one new member of our church, J, who turned up because he was feeling completely lost in life and stumbled across the book in Waterstones. He picked it up and could barely put it down. In fact it helped bring him to faith and we baptised him two weeks ago! J’s father is Hindu and the J had stood for Joginder, meaning Lord, in a Hindu sense. Just before getting baptised, J legally had his name changed to Joseph, out of honour for the one true Lord of all.
It’s stories like that that led me to write the book. But one of the biggest challenges with a book like this, trying to reach the target audience that it is, is how to get it in their hands. After all, why would you pick up a book you didn’t really know you were looking for? So this is where the church comes in. I personally don’t think there are enough books and gently and respectfully introduce people to the faith and begin to sow those seeds. My hope is that this book can meet that need. So in a word, yes! It would absolutely be a good Christmas present! So why not give the gift of HOPE this year…?
Pat Allerton is vicar of St. Peter’s Notting Hill and the author of A Pocketful of Hope. He is married to Kirsty and they have a daughter called Phoebe, whom he is constantly trying to cuddle.