Jo Peters is one of the founding members of Cork Street Pastors group, which was set up in 2012 and whose tag line is ‘caring, listening and helping’. The group of around 18 volunteers, and another six in training, take to the city streets, usually every Saturday night, in a team of three or four, to do just that. They hand out flip-flops (about 3,500 pairs to date), sweep up broken glasses, collect bottles (25,600 at the last count), provide a listening ear, and help people get home safely.
Jo’s only daughter, Sarah, had been working in Dublin as an animator, but when the pandemic hit she moved back to the family home on Western Road, where she’s been since.
And now, with the city centre reopening, and restrictions lifting, she’s joined her mum in the Christian group, and the two couldn’t be more excited to make a little difference where it’s needed.
The Peters sound a bit like a modern day Brady Bunch — albeit a very spiritual one. Jo, who grew up mostly in Canada, and her Canadian husband Frank, and five children (four sons as well as Sarah) moved to Cork 16 years ago from California.
They had been living in San Jose in Silicon Valley, but after praying to God to see what their future might look like, Frank saw a job for a physics lecturer advertised in UCC. A research scientist, he pursued it and the family moved here, despite having no connection to Cork, or even Ireland. It was a huge change, but it’s worked out perfectly and they’ve lived on Western Road for the past 16 years.
For the past nine of those, Jo has been involved with Cork Street Pastors whose volunteers are from eight different Christian churches including Methodist, Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Baptist and independent churches including ‘Radical Life Church’ in Douglas, an Evangelical, non-denominational church which the Peters attend.
Living on a busy stretch like Western Road, along with her involvement in a group that distributed soup and sandwiches to those living on the streets, had increased Jo’s awareness of issues related to the Cork nightlife. In 2011, the leadership in that group began looking for new ways to benefit Cork city and came across Street Pastors.
"We were blown away, it was incredible, so when we came back we started dreaming and planning and set up in 2012,” said the 54-year-old.
There are two phases to what they do: street pastors — teams on the streets on Saturday night currently from 8.30pm to around 12.30pm, or 4am pre-Covid — and prayer pastors at their base in the Haven Café, Bachelors Quay.
“If, for example, we find someone vulnerable, whose friends we need to contact, or whose phone we need to get into to reach help, we phone in and ask for prayer. And it’s incredible the results I’ve seen over the years. Within minutes, some friends might come around the corner. So many situations have been resolved by this.
“I believe God makes such a difference on the streets. The only reason I can go out each week is because I know they’re praying for us, as truthfully I feel very inadequate. God directs our steps and puts us in the right place, and connects us with the right people,” said Jo.
And while she’s never felt personally afraid, she has seen situations which escalated and turned violent.
Sarah, aged 26, had already helped out as a prayer pastor along with three of her brothers, while one also worked with Jo on the streets. She has an equally strong faith as her mum, but neither push it in anyone’s face.
“God has helped me become who I am,” said Sarah. “But my faith was never something that was forced on me. We were always encouraged to ask questions, seek answers, and to think for ourselves.
“My faith is my own, and nothing to do with my parents. I’ve lived away from home for the past seven years and my faith has only grown”
She said that working as a street pastor is her way of showing God’s love in a practical way.
Jo added: “There are people who hear ‘street pastors’ and who sometimes want to stir things up and provoke a reaction, but we don’t engage. There have been occasions where people have walked behind us screaming things at us, but not often. Some situations have started that way and ended with a hug or handshake.”
Sometimes, when they introduce themselves as street pastors, people presume they know what they’re all about, she said.
“They might mock us and say things about Jesus, but we wait to get our moment and explain our role and most are pretty happy about it. Obviously, no one likes to be not liked, it’s not comfortable but we have to let that roll off us and keep going..”
Over the past 12 years, Jo has seen just about everything imaginable on the streets, from aggression, to fights, to bottles being smashed to be used as weapons.
The first time she went out she found it very difficult to reconcile the city she knew by day, to what she saw at night.
However, the group are keenly aware of the vulnerability of people, especially after alcohol, and how predators are out there to take advantage.
“That’s where we come in. We look after the vulnerable, do our little bit, and get them home,” said Jo.
“But over the years the city has got much better and street pastors have played a role in that. It almost got to the stage (pre-lockdown) where it was boring as there was not as much for us to do!” said Jo.
The atmosphere on their first Saturday night back after restrictions were lifted was pleasant, even if there were more young people drinking. The first team back collected 400 bottles that Saturday night.
Jo says it’s a real delight working with Sarah.
“I’m so proud of her — to see her get involved and give back to the city. She’s so kind and compassionate and can relate to people in so many different ways.”
Sarah says it’s cool to see her mum in action. Jo had, she said, instilled in her, and her brothers, the idea to help wherever they could, and being back home, the timing felt right for her to get involved.
“We just want people to have a good night without any worries and for parents to know that people are there to look after their children,” she said.
David Hoey, co-ordinator of the group, added: “So much of Jo’s compassion and heart for people is reflected in Sarah, and kindness is in their DNA.
“They are a great fit for the street, strong-minded, principled women, with complementary qualities and well used to rolling up their sleeves for the job.”
He said they were continually grateful for the support from Cork City Council and An Garda Siochana from the very beginning, and are always keen to speak with anyone who might consider joining them.
For more see https://streetpastors.org/locations/cork/