Are you ready to be saved?

This is London/November 2, 2001
By Decca Aitkenhead

In the Friday-night scrum of Leicester Square, a band of what appear to be buskers have drawn a crowd three deep outside the Hippodrome. Men and women on guitars and tom-tom drums skip in circles, arms in the air, whooping like ravers at a party. The crowd doesn't watch so much as stare. Arms folded, grinning but fascinated, they take in the lead singer's cross around his neck, and the meaning of his lyrics. 'Come and party with us! I don't know what you came to do. But I came to praise the Lord!'

As the music grows louder, an old drunk in crocodile shoes lurches into the semicircle and strikes up on an air guitar. Four City boys in suits stumble in, clutching fags and Stella cans, and take photos of each other hugging the singer. Teenage girls waltz with each other, then double over in giggles. And through the noisy muddle of the destitute and the merry, glowing young men and women in Jesus Army jackets hand out leaflets and smiles, and try to preach the word of God. The winos slumped along the railings, bemused and addled, are sitting ducks.

Some of Leicester Square's needy may be brought home tonight in the bus to the Battlecentre, the Jesus Army's house in West London. Others might make their own way there in the coming days, hoping for a warm meal. All are prayed for, maybe fed, perhaps given a bed for a couple of nights. They come every week. And a few, who may never have given God a thought in their lives, will find him in the house, be baptised into the army, and live as permanent members of this fanatically devout Christian sect.

Spiritual interest has registered a surge since 11 September. St Paul's Cathedral is printing an extra 200 service sheets each Sunday, and demand in bookshops for Bibles has shot up. A London soup kitchen run by the American Church has reported a 30 per cent rise in volunteers, and our prime minister's speeches have assumed a distinctly messianic tone. In this heightened religious atmosphere, a new Channel 4 documentary about the 25 Christians who live in the Battlecentre, to be screened next month, could not be more timely. The house is wary of the media, and until now its activities have been conducted largely in private, but the film-maker Leo Regan spent the past 12 months in the house and has produced a grippingly intimate story of a spiritual community. Their leader is putting it mildly when he describes their home as a 'radical Christian lifestyle'.

From the outside, the house looks like a conventional red-brick semi, but life inside is in many ways closer to a monastery than a family home. There is no private property, besides clothes and personal effects, and all members donate their entire income to 'the common purse', which is spent according to the wishes of the four house 'elders', or leaders. Some members contribute only their unemployment benefit; others, like the architect, or the solicitor, donate substantial salaries. All are expected to relinquish worldly goods, although there is no fixed definition of worldliness.

'I was playing the Beatles only last night,' Steve says. What about Madonna? 'Erm, some Madonna songs are OK, some probably not.' Hardcore rap? 'No, I'd definitely tell someone to turn that off.'

Apart from two families with small children, the men and women live in segregated quarters, and although the group eat and pray together, they tend to congregate separately. If a man and a woman wish to begin a relationship, they are expected to confide in Steve, who will inform the house of this development. 'Because everything here is relational, we need to know what's happening.' Only if the courtship is successful and the two marry is sex permitted. A number of the residents, like Steve, have committed themselves to celibacy. Masturbation, he concedes, 'is an acceptable norm. But that doesn't mean it's encouraged.'

Twenty-five years ago, Steve was a hippie in Buckinghamshire, hair down to his waist, working in a factory and dropping acid at the weekends. A sudden spiritual experience called him into the Jesus Fellowship, a charismatic Christian group in the Midlands, and when it decided to 'plant' a church in London 12 years ago, Steve was chosen to set up the Battlecentre. Since then, another house has been bought further up the street, housing 20 more members, from Europe, Africa, Malaysia, Australia, all drawn to a community of intense and regimented prayer.

Leo Regan entered the house as a lapsed Catholic, harbouring 'huge problems with Christianity'. He had no agenda, though, and his willingness to engage with his subject, rather than expose it, has produced a rare film that tries to challenge the church, not discredit it. As the film opens, he introduces himself as the narrator, telling us that: 'I feel uncomfortable around Christianity. So why did I try to make this film? I wanted to know if they have something that I have lost.'

During the film, we hear him tell Steve he doesn't want to be saved by Jesus, but he cannot say why, and now a doubt hangs over Leo's secularism. He tells me softly that it is an 'ongoing question'. 'I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's God. But there's some kind of supernatural thing going on in this house.'

A central character in the documentary is Alec, who was hitchhiking on the motorway when the Jesus Army picked him up. A big drinker from Aberdeen, he had been working abroad for ten years, and had returned home with the looks and personality of Steve Coogan's Paul Calf. Understandably, Alec is startled to find himself in the company of Christians. When they take him to a mass church gathering, during which celibates are applauded on stage, we see him emerge in shock. 'I love sex, you know. It's brilliant! And here's them up on the stage in the middle of Birmingham, about 500 people, saying,"I'm celibate!" Well, whoopeedoo, you know? How could you get excited about that? I can't comprehend that. Let's cheer, let's roar, let's blow whistles, let's have a "party"?' Alec is reeling. 'I mean, why would you want anyone to know?'

But in the following weeks, the film shows Alec unravelling dramatically, unbalanced by the unconditional love of the household. As he relives past experiences, he looks increasingly disturbed, hearing voices in his head which he believes belong to God. Veering between tearful introspection and jubilation, he looks like somebody having a breakdown.

'I think I've had a hard-on every morning for all of my life, right? And I haven't had a hard-on in the morning this week,' he marvels. 'It's something totally different. You are not yourself. You don't recognise yourself.' At one point he hears voices in his head telling him to kill himself - 'this message, saying "total sacrifice"' - but the house elders are surprisingly sanguine about his turmoil. 'Well,' suggests one rather casually, 'all sorts of things go on when the devil attacks you. The devil doesn't want him to get baptised, does he?' But Alec does get baptised, a euphoric experience that leaves him speechless and visibly transformed. He leaves the house a few weeks later, to the community's dismay, but takes a Bible with him.

Keith, a 17-year-old runaway, undergoes less of a transformation. He is picked up on the street, having fled his foster family, but soon it emerges that Keith has a problem with lying and stealing. Despite the house's efforts, no spiritual awakening is detected in the disturbed boy, and after some months they decide he must leave. His foster family do not want him back, so we watch one of the elders, Billy, drive him around London to one hostel after another, but at each door he is rejected. Billy delivers a cold ultimatum. 'You have nowhere to stay tonight. You are now homeless.' Keith looks stricken. 'If the hostels don't have any vacancies, shall I just come back to the Battlecentre?' 'I don't think you realise what I've just said. You are not to come back to the Battlecentre. That's not your home.' And Keith is turned out of the car. When I ask Steve is this wasn't cruel, his answer is simple. 'This is a spiritual environment. If he doesn't want that, what on earth is the point in him being here?'

The Jesus Army church is a curious mixture of awesome selflessness and unbending harshness. 'We try not to put people under the false impression that this is a charity,' stresses Billy, and having watched him put Keith out onto the street, I can see what he means. But he is also anxious to stress the community's love. For example, unlike some churches, this one loves homosexuals. What he means by this is that homosexuals deserve love and compassion because they were not born that way, but made - in Billy's case, he says, by sexual abuse as a child. The Jesus Army teaches gays that they can learn to love 'naturally' and get married. Billy did, although it 'didn't work out.'

Billy now has Aids. He discovers this during the film, and the decline in his health is sudden and shocking. Having claimed to have tested negative, he finally admits that he had never had an HIV test, despite knowing that a former lover died of Aids, an omission which he sobs was 'criminal'. The kindness and love from everyone in the house is overwhelming, although the question of whether Aids might be God's punishment is never addressed. 'We try to take people where they are at,' Steve explains to me. 'The Bible as it stands is our basic moral guideline, but some Christians use the Bible as a hammer to hit people on the head.'

Steve doesn't like to use the word sin, worrying that people 'can't relate to it', and he presents a broad picture of sexual equality in the house. However, he concedes that women play a less prominent part and can become only 'senior sisters', not elders. They also tend to be responsible for the housework. 'It's the basic Bible principle. One of overall male leadership.' I ask Steve if, being a non-believer, I will go to hell. He laughs. 'Don't ask me that!' But what else could I ask?

'My faith,' he says, when pressed, 'is evolving and growing. Once I would have said categorically yes. Now, well, if hell is a place separated from God, - if you sow love, you will reap love. If you don't have a relationship with God now, you can't have one with him after you die.' 'So that's still a yes? 'Yes,' he agrees, slightly uncomfortable. 'I suppose it is. But you see how I got there?'

Perhaps the most controversial side of the Jesus Army is its choice of flock. Ministering to the homeless and addicted and abused, it is open to the charge that its gutter conversions are akin to men persuading drunk girls to sleep with them. Unlike, for instance, the famous Alpha course, which brings affluent professionals into the faith, the Jesus Army is offering God to a vulnerable constituency who you may say had little choice. The prize for finding Him is less often worldly sacrifice than the comfort of a loving home. 'All I can say,' counters Steve, 'is that it says in the Bible, the poor will receive.' Those most in despair are his church's priority - and there is no doubt that it can transform lives. 'These are people who pulled me out of the gutter when I was a worthless tramp standing on the doorstep. These people gave me life,' weeps Billy in the film. 'They gave me love.' There is no room for faking it. As Keith discovered, only those who undergo a genuine spiritual experience are accepted, however desperate their needs. And so did Leo Regan have a spiritual experience? He looks a little uneasy. 'It's a powerful place,' he says. 'And there's nowhere to hide.'

The same could be said of Leicester Square - by Friday night another church has set up a PA, and boys who look like Craig David are rapping scripture, until a policeman moves them on. 'We do get quite a lot of complaints about this sort of thing,' he explains. 'The residents, usually. And sometimes the drunks - they don't like being pestered all the time.'

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