Street pastor Sandy Gunn, 79, on saving lives and Perth’s declining nightlife

Published in The Courier

October 19 2022, 5.53am

Sandy Gunn has seen plenty of change in 15 years as a street pastor in Perth.

A city centre that once burst at the seams every weekend with life, merriment and activity is now a quieter, more nuanced place.

Many of the hen parties routinely staged here have relocated to more exotic climes.

And the cast-iron guarantee of a busy night out has been punctured by changing drinking habits, Covid restrictions and the ensuing social and economic fallout, contributing to extraordinary levels of inflation.

But the street pastors aren?t going anywhere.

They are still volunteering on the streets of Perth, and parts of Fife, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 10pm until closing-down time.

They are still providing vital, and sometimes lifesaving, care to those in need and at risk of harm.

And Sandy is still as dedicated as ever, ahead of his 80th birthday in February next year.

“I enjoy it and find it meaningful,” he says.

In this article Sandy talks about the serious and lighter moments of being a street pastor while observing how Perth?s nightlife has changed in his 15 years in the role.

Perth via Aberfeldy

Sandy Gunn?s commitment to helping vulnerable people is rooted in his devotion to the Church.

Inverness-born, he had minister positions at churches in Wick, Glasgow and then from 1986 in Aberfeldy, retiring 21 years later.

He continues to be locum minister at Aberdalgie, Forteviot, Aberuthven and Dunning.

Since 2007 he has lived in Perth with Ruth, his wife of 43 years who was a ward sister at Perth Royal Infirmary.

His two daughters live in Inverness; one works in social work, the other is a church community worker.

Bridge alert for missing people

Fifteen years ago Sandy was involved in the creation of Perth Street Pastors, a group that is now chaired by Gordon Loudon.

He has remained at the forefront of the scheme, taking on a supervisory role in Perth and becoming the vice-chair of street pastors in Scotland.

There are 21 units in Scotland. In Fife, pastors are on the streets of Dunfermline, Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy.

Perth has 30 street pastors who each do around one shift in the city centre every month.

They carry a defibrillator and are trained in first aid. The Church-led scheme provides comfort, reassurance and a listening ear for people who need it.

Volunteers also keep an eye out on Perth?s bridges if there is cause of concern for a missing person.

“We are not an agent of the police but if they need help with that type of thing we try to help them,” Sandy said.

Pastors go out in teams of four, usually comprising two older volunteers and two younger ones.

“If you put out a gang of four young lads it may be seen as a threat to people, but grannies are not seen as a threat,” Sandy said.

“Age is not a restrictive thing. What counts is that you are genuinely interested in people.”

Covid ‘changed night economy’

The pastors ordinarily stayed out until 3am but this is one of many things that has changed since Covid restrictions were enacted in 2020.

“With Covid the night economy changed,” Sandy said. “People are inclined to be out earlier in the day now.

“It?s intelligence led. There is no point staying on if there are only four people in The Loft, for example.

“We try to do it according to what we judge the need to be.

“We deal with people going through hard times in their lives.

“I spoke to someone who became bankrupt through Covid.

“They set up a business and had their house mortgaged against it. When the business went under they lost their house.

“That is the kind of thing that Covid has caused complications with.”

‘Already loaded’ revellers aren’t judged

In truth, things were changing in the city centre for a while before the Covid restrictions.

“There has been quite a lot of change with the night economy. It is coming back but very slowly,” Sandy said.

“When we started 15 years ago we had a lot of hen nights but Perth isn?t the same attraction now.

“People are going abroad, for example Prague or Dublin, for their hen dos.

“You don?t like seeing people whose jobs are very uncertain because of the economy. That can be a problem.

“Increasingly we found that people were coming out at night already loaded, drinking at home where drink is cheaper and then go to a pub or nightclub.

“We try not to be judgmental and want to show something of the love of Jesus to let people know they aren?t a number in a file.

“We want to treat people as people, whether we agree with them or not.”

Life-saving intervention

Street pastors have helped save a number of lives over the years. Sandy recalls one such occasion six years ago when his presence was vital.

He said: “We have had a number of people who have come up to us and said ‘we were going to take pills one night but you helped stop me.?

“I remember one night stopping somebody who was going to go on the old bridge and go over.

“I basically listened.

“He was a super guy in many, many ways. He had a reasonable job, reasonable cash, reasonably good looking.

“But underneath he was hurting deeply because of something that had happened.

“A tired, weary person takes a while to open up. He had had a jar or two but was by no means drunk but he felt it would have been better if he wasn?t here.

“You just never know the results of what you do.

“We are called to be faithful rather than successful, which would be judging people.”

Mum saw ‘sleepover? daughter on the town

There are also some lighter moments.

“On one occasion we spoke to a girl who said ‘my mum thinks I am having a sleepover so we are out on the streets,” Sandy said.

“We went round the corner and recognised the mother of this girl out herself.

“She told us, ‘it?s great, my daughter?s having a sleepover so we can go out on the town now?.

“Unbeknown to each other they were both out on the town and were about to meet each other.

“We left it to them to deal with!

“You do see amusing incidents.”

Teaching doctors to master eye contact

Sandy emphasises his ethos that “bottling it out is better than bottling it up” in training sessions to prospective pastors.

He has been taking seminars to student doctors at St Andrews University Medical School who are going on placement with pastors on the streets of Fife, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

He explained: “The reason we are training doctors is so they can deal with unpredictable things and see people in a holistic way instead of just anyone.

“For example, if you have been to the doctor it is nice for them to be looking at you.

“But some doctors are inclined to look at their notes and looking at the screen all the time, so we try to train medical students that eye contact is precious.”

Shingles concern

Sandy is keen to continue his work as a street pastor but he has recently suffered a bout of shingles that is causing nerve damage on his right leg.

“I am on the board for Scotland and can keep on doing that,” he said.

“We will see how this leg goes and if it eases up.

“I can walk for an hour but we are talking about a three, four, five hour shifts. That would be difficult.”