In Corringham, Essex, a mobile youth club is getting young people excited about prayer. Susan Hegedus pays a visit
Mobile youth club: teenagers using the Corringham Bar’nBus eagerly pose for the camera

IT IS A MILD Thursday evening and the Bar ’N’ Bus mobile youth club is about to open its doors to punters. Barbed wire loops across one side of a wall in the sprawling, mostly-empty car park where the bus is parked. Corringham Police Station is located behind it; an open faceless park lies opposite.
Outside, a symphony of revving motorbike engines with L-plates leaves behind a cloud of milky fumes. A few teenagers are playing football, and others are hanging around in small groups.
But it’s the sight of Lucy, 15, in navy tracksuit bottoms and trainers with her hair swept back into a ponytail, that grabs everybody’s attention: “Why don’t you all fuck off,” she mutters, as she strides over to a black Ford, and juts her head in through the car window.
Later she says: “If I didn’t have the bus, I’d be over the park getting drunk. I call it the ‘Alco Bus’, because I’m only happy when I’m drunk or I’m on the bus.”
Phil Anderson, 41 — a former leader of Thurrock Christian Fellowship, who now works for the national prayer initiative, 24-7 — is one of the team of volunteers on the Corringham bus.

David Acreman plays games with the “passengers” in the top deck

“It all started in Southend in 1993,” he explains. “There were a lot of kids hanging around the street getting into petty crime. A group of Christians came up with the idea of converting a bus into a mobile youth-centre. They went out on the seafront once a week and provided a place where [young people] could hang out. So the initial project became the Bar ’N’ Bus charity.”
Bar ’N’ Bus now oversees three graffiti-covered buses in South Essex. The Thurrock bus spends one night a week each in Corringham, West Thurrock, and Chafford Hundred. The other two buses cover Basildon, Rayleigh, South Woodham, Ferrers, and Laindon.

Youth matters: Corringham young people in front of the bus

The momentum for the Thurrock bus came from police in the area. Sergeant Debbie Fordham — previously a police officer in Hadleigh and Benfleet district, near Southend — had been intrigued by one of the other Bar ’N’ Bus vehicles because of its psychedelic exterior.
“Hadleigh is fairly quiet, so it was quite bizarre to suddenly see this huge double decker grafittied bus going through the area. Being nosy, I popped in on the bus and they told me about the idea.”
When Ms Fordham moved to Grays, Essex, she felt the area needed something similar.
“When I started talking to the youths that hung around and seemed to be causing trouble, they were saying: ‘We’ve nothing to do.’ I rang Bar ’N’ Bus and said: ‘Have you any plans to come to Thurrock?’”
When the charity said no, she threw out a challenge: “If I get you a bus, will you come?”

Janet Dipper with young people in the chat corner

Ms Fordham made a successful £20,000 bid for the bus through the Home Office’s Crime and Disorder Drugs and Alcohol partnership. Bar ’N’ Bus approached a youth leader, Tim Harrold, now leader of Transformation Thurrock, to begin the task of recruiting a team of volunteers to staff it.
“It cost £23,000 to get this bus up and running,” says Stuart Christian, operations manager for Bar ’N’ Bus. But the ongoing cost of the bus is covered by churches in each area: it costs £100 for a bus to go out each night — including Bar ’N’ Bus salaries, maintenance, diesel, snacks, and drinks.
Corringham’s bus is supported financially by four churches: St Margaret’s, Stanford-le-Hope; Stanford-le-Hope Methodist Church; Corringham Baptist Church; and Thurrock Christian Fellowship. Teams from the four congregations also staff the bus on its Thursday night visits.
Janet 58, is a former teacher. “Team members’ ages range from 22 to 72; we are an unlikely lot. I have taught teenagers for 31 years, and I love them,” she says.
Janet laughs as the singing of “Happy Birthday” from the lower deck of the bus gets louder and eventually drowns her out. But later she tells me what is happening, spiritually, among the young people using the Corringham bus.
Each vehicle comes equipped with a prayer room. “The prayer room was initially only used by staff, who would pray for God’s peace over the area and for opportunities to talk to the young people. A few children were using the bus too.
“One day a boy burst into the prayer room and said he wanted to pray for his mum who had cancer. From then on, children have prayed in the prayer room [consistently]. Now, four children from this bus are going on an Alpha course.”
TEENAGERS clad in hoodies and jeans are at the back of the lower deck. They contentedly sink their teeth into doughnuts and chat to their friends. Andy Biddell, 56, an ex-police officer and a Corringham bus team-leader, hands out seemingly endless cups of juice and hot chocolate.
“Children regard the prayer bus affectionately. They wish it could be here every night. There’s a curfew for some of them in Corringham town centre, because they’re so rowdy. Yet, when they’re on the bus, they’re pretty good kids.”
On the top deck Scrabble and Stack ’em are being played by a dozen or so teens who know each other from school. There’s a lot of laughing and a bit of swearing.
Lucy appears again, and bops up the aisle. She pouts, strikes a pose, and announces: “I want to be famous,” before planting a kiss on the nearest unsuspecting boy.
David Acreman, a newly qualified teacher, sits among them. As the youngest team member, he doesn’t look much older than the customers.
David is playing chess with James; a baby-faced 15-year-old who has been coming to the bus since it began, 18 months ago.
“My dad died of cancer three weeks ago,” says James. “I prayed for him in the prayer room, and I pray for him now. I didn’t pray until I came on the bus.”

A Corringham team member, Robb Harman, chats with young people on the lower deck

James is handed a hot chocolate. He starts what seems like a deep conversation with a couple of the team members. For the first time tonight, he raises a smile.
Another team member, Rob, 43, runs his own printing business and frequently drives the Corringham bus. “I like to give something back. I’ve children of my own. I remember one day this girl said ‘Who do I pray to, Jesus or God?’ I said, ‘well, either’. So she started off her prayer with ‘Dear both.’” He grins.
Prayer requests written on yellow Post-it notes are stuck on a board in the corner of the prayer room. One of them says: “Please pray for Joan — she is having a heart operation at the end of July.”
Joan is a spritely 72-year-old team member, who previously worked as a midwife in the United Arab Emirates. “I think it’s lovely that these kids pray for me. I’m really touched.”
Other prayers or requests include: “Break the addiction of taking drugs. Make the craving less and less in all young people of our town. Take that desire away.” “I pray that every young person will know the purpose for living and to know that God you do care.” “Thank you I am not worried about anything.”
There is one prayer that reads: “Thank you God for the bus”. All prayer requests posted by young people are also fed through to the 24-7 prayer team in the area.
ESSEX Police crime statistics section shows that, since the bus has been in operation in Corringham, crime on Thursday nights (that is, criminal damage, shoplifting, theft and handling, theft and taking motor vehicles, theft from motor vehicles, theft of pedal cycles and vehicle interference) is down by 32 per cent.
Sergeant Debbie Fordham cautions: “There are certain aspects of what the bus does that you’re never going to be able to measure. How do you measure that a kid could potentially go off the rails, but doesn’t as a result of the contact and interaction of the bus? You can’t measure that, because they haven’t gone off the rails.
“The bus has been running in certain areas for a very long time, and these kids would come back to the bus as adults saying: ‘This bus saved me. This bus saved me from what I was heading to do.’”
Connor, 16, is elfin-faced. He wears a single stud earring and a white zip-up top. “If it wasn’t for the bus, we’d be on the streets drinking or smoking weed, getting into trouble and a whole lot of other stuff. But since the bus has been here, we’ve started praying a lot. We love the prayer room.
“I had had problems with my dad — he’d hurt his back on the trampoline, and I prayed it would get better. My prayers were answered.”
Connor’s friend, Lewis, 16, joins in: “We never used to pray in school or anything, but we do now. I pray for relationships. The bus stops people stealing and stuff because they can catch a beverage,” he laughs.
At that moment Lucy emerges from the prayer room. Two team members man their prayer room every night. Tonight she had asked for prayer. “No one’s ever prayed for me before,” she sobs, clearly touched by the experience. Her cheeks are streaked with tears. She buries her head in her hands and slumps on to a seat.
Connor perks up: “We respect the bus. We may get into trouble and hate the police, but we’d never have a fight on the bus. This is God’s bus, ain’t it.”
His mates holler “Yeah” in unison.