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Faith in Practice

He dwells on a cliff

Hannah Kowszun

FIP.jpgBeachy Head near Eastbourne has a dramatic and beautiful headline, extending 535 feet above sea level. But the cliffside has also gained a dark reputation as a suicide spot. Vic Lawrence works with the Beachy Head Chaplaincy team, which patrols there 24 hours a day.

It's a conundrum why they come. It may be that people want to end their lives remembering something more beautiful than their lives have brought them. It may be they've heard about it: once we've had a few suicides with media coverage, it leads to more people coming because they see it as a sure place of dying: they'll jump and they won't survive.

We patrol 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. We search for people on behalf of the police. If they have found out that someone is on their way to Beachy Head threatening to commit suicide we get sent a description and go out searching for them, or we're given licence plate numbers to look for. We have a three mile patrol zone, from Cow Gap up to Birling Gap.

We have about 14 volunteers at the moment. We go in twos, looking for memorabilia like mobile phones that might have been left with a message on, or notes that may have been left under a stone at the edge, which happens quite regularly where people have jumped. If we believe someone has gone we get the coastguard or helicopter to search for a body.

If we do see someone looking suspicious we try to approach them, not in a rushed way but just to start up a conversation. We say hello, tell them who we are and why we're up there, and try to ascertain why they might be there. Very often they're up there just to enjoy the scenery or take photographs but occasionally we get from them that they're there because of a break up in their relationship or they've become homeless or because they've lost their job. We get a lot of students up there concerned about exams. They come up there just to sit and ponder. I don't know why they do that, perhaps they see it as where, if they do decide to, it's the place they want to end it all.

Sometimes we can be in conversation for hours before they come away from the edge. When we do find out that somebody is contemplating suicide, the second person on patrol will get in touch with the police - not within earshot of the person - to get them up there as soon as possible, so they can be arrested under the mental health section of law and taken to a hospital, or taken to an interview room to speak with them more intimately. Sometimes we take them to our hut, which we share with the coast guards, where we can have a cup of coffee. We offer to pray for them and then they open up a lot more, or we offer to get a member of their family up to take them home. We very rarely let them leave on their own.

Sadly, a number of times people have jumped in front of chaplains, which causes a certain amount of trauma. It's never happened to me but it has happened to several of my colleagues. We try, because of the numbers involved, to stand back a little because otherwise we would be overwhelmed by the sadness. But in five years we've probably talked down over a thousand people from the edge - 200 people a year that we've either persuaded not to take their lives or given them answers they were looking for.

Last year I met a boy who was worried about his exams: whether he would meet his parents' expectations. It touched me because when I lived in Chelmsford we knew someone whose son came all the way here on his motorbike and drove over. He left a note to say he did it because he wasn't sure he could come up to the expectations of his peers. And yet when his exam results came through they were all brilliant.

It's always personal. Very few people are fed up with 'the world', they're fed up with their world. Many of the cases are relationship problems: husbands and wives who have broken up. We had one child who had been abused by the family he was living with. The police had to take action.

The emergency services appreciate the work we do. On any one evening we could have half a dozen searches telephoned through to us by the police. It's only once we've found the person that the police get involved. They do rely on us and I think because we're there it's a great assistance.

Just our presence up there, without even talking to people, has stopped them from jumping. We've had a number of letters from people who've said that they came up there with the specific purpose of taking their own lives but that because they weren't left alone, or they because they kept seeing us in our fluorescent uniforms, they couldn't find a time when they wanted to do it, so they went back home again!

The sadness is we don't get enough volunteers. Our area to cover is getting larger and larger and I think more and more people are going up there. We currently have around 60 incidents per month.

Each time we find someone, we ring our prayer line as well as the police. Without it none of us could survive. We couldn't do it in our own strength; it's something we can only do in God's strength. He gives us the words. It's God with our help reaching out to these people. We go out in his strength and love to bring hope to people that have lost all hope in life.

At the moment I'm the only ordained person on the team. We have a whole variety of people who feel called into this type of ministry: a retired chief superintendant, a salvation army captain, a couple of school teachers, a retired doctor. We have a training scheme which can run over two or three months. We go through the different forms of emergency service training: how to search for people, how to talk to people, how to deal with different types of incidents on the edge.

It can all sound very nice when you're sitting in an armchair but when you're up there at minus five degrees in the pouring rain trying to patrol and talk to the police with the infamous Beachy Head wind blowing round your ears it can be pretty daunting. You have to believe God is calling you into this valuable work and you don't want to enter into it lightly.

Vic Lawrence was talking to Hannah Kowszun.