Volume 18 Number 4
Dawnecia Palmer: 'Can We Pray for You?'
01 August 2005

On the streets of Bristol, UK, one woman is fighting crime with a silent force. Stan Hazell finds out more.

‘Hi,’ says a smiling Rev Dawnecia Palmer as she greets two young men in baseball caps on the streets of St Paul’s, Bristol—a part of the city with a reputation for drug related crime and violence. ‘Can we pray for you?’ she asks. The Prayer Patrol are on the march.

The youngsters in the baseball caps hesitate, but then stop and begin talking. One of them says yes, he would like a prayer. His brother is in trouble with the police and he would like them to pray for him and their mother. Rev Palmer and her yellow-jacketed team form a half circle facing the boys as they talk. Some passers- by give a cheery wave, others, a puzzled stare. The patrol moves on down the street with a ‘God bless you’ ringing out. They have promised to contact the boy’s mother and give her their support and will be looking out for the youngsters again. They’ll be offering up a prayer or two as well.

This encounter with the two young men is typical of many experienced by Rev Palmer and fellow members of the Prayer Patrol. Their fluorescent jackets have now become a familiar sight in St Paul’s and the neighbouring Easton district where drug rings operate to the dismay of the many law-abiding citizens who live there.

Launched in 2003 to help bring peace back to the streets of the area, the patrols are proving so effective that Avon and Somerset Police recently credited the group with helping to remove the threat of gun crime in the city and awarded Jamaican-born Rev Palmer with a special commendation.

The patrols began at a time when Bristol, and in particular St Paul’s, was faced with the threat of a major showdown between local drug gangs and Jamaican ‘Yardies’. Police were on high alert and armed officers were patrolling the area.

Rev Palmer, a local minister, was surprised and alarmed to discover how bad the situation was in the city and felt compelled to try to do something to change the culture of violence on the streets. At first she set up a prayer surgery in a local community centre encouraging local people, including those involved in drugs, to come in. But no one did. Her response was to abandon the surgery and go out onto the streets: the Prayer Patrol was born.

Before long she had recruited dozens of volunteers to help her. She got police backing for her action. They provided fluorescent yellow jackets for Rev Palmer and her team and gave training on what they could expect out on the streets; telling them how to deal with people on drugs and aggressive behaviour.

‘Not everyone wants to talk. Some run off or ignore us. But others take the chance to say what is on their minds. We try to help them. If they are involved in crime or violence we attempt to show them a better way,’ says Rev Palmer.

‘I came over from Jamaica to Bristol as a small child with my parents,’ she says. ‘I am now a proud British citizen. I love Bristol and want to do something for the city and the people here.’

Presenting her with the police commendation for the work of the Prayer Patrol, Chief Superintendent Mike Roe of Avon and Somerset Police acknowledged this contribution, saying: ‘We are pleased to recognize Rev Palmer and her patrols formally for their support in the community to bring crime down and try and stop people from getting involved in a life of crime.’

He noted also that, ‘since 2003 the threat of gun crime has been reduced and Bristol City Prayer Patrols have flourished’. Indeed, over the past 18 months gun-related crime in Bristol has fallen unlike other UK cities where it has increased.

The Prayer Patrols go out four times a day, with the last patrol at midnight. Each member of the patrol, which usually numbers four, has two other people behind the scenes praying for their safety and effectiveness out on the streets. Many of the encounters continue to be surprising.

Rev Palmer and the patrol recently walked into a neighbourhood pub where the clientele included members of local drug gangs. At first, the people inside were not too responsive saying they had a different lifestyle. But, as they got talking, one of the crowd there, a local drug dealer, said he would like a prayer for his young daughter who was ill. An ambulance was arriving at that moment to take her to hospital. Another of the group then asked Rev Palmer to keep in touch. He said he wanted to change his life and would like to do something for the local community.

That night the patrol also came across a crowd of youngsters, most of them no more than ten years old, who were causing trouble outside the local community centre. They had not been allowed in because they were misbehaving. Rev Palmer and the rest of the patrol managed to calm the atmosphere which had become tense. They talked to the children about setting up more youth facilities in the area.

Rev Palmer can sometimes find herself acting as a bridge between the community and the police when problems occur in the community. Patrolling the streets armed with Bibles has won them a new name—’Peace Makers’—and they have started to target anti-social behaviour as well.

In another encounter, reported in the local evening newspaper, Rev Palmer came across a youngster sitting on a litterbin and asked if she could pray for him. The boy replied: ‘I don’t want no prayers saying for me.’

She asked him why he was so angry. He said: ‘Well, this ain’t a hopeful nation. It’s pretty bad around here.’ The boy suddenly shouted at the crew of a passing police car: ‘Hey, can’t you see we’re praying?’

His defences seemed to come down and he said, as Rev Palmer took both his hands in hers: ‘I didn’t pray yesterday and I won’t pray tomorrow. But I’ll pray tonight because you’ve prayed with me.’ Another time Rev Palmer saw a man dealing drugs openly on the street. ‘I decided to start praying for him,’ she says. ‘When I opened my eyes I saw there were tears streaming down his face.’

A few days later, someone tried to shoot him in a club. The bullet missed and struck someone else. The next time Rev Palmer saw him he had changed his appearance, given up dealing and enrolled in college.

Rev Palmer has just returned from visiting Jamaica where many members of the Bristol drug rings come from or have family links. She wants to help change the culture there as well. ‘We went to schools, churches and into homes to meet families,’ she says.

‘Many of these people have had a traditional West Indian Christian upbringing and whatever trouble they might be involved in they understand right from wrong,’ says Rev Palmer. She and members of her group are establishing a coordinating team to reach out into the communities and change the thinking of those involved in, or vulnerable to, the drug culture.

‘If we can change things out there it will affect things in other countries too, including Britain,’ she says.

The Jamaica Observer reported, ‘As the nation is being fed with a steady diet of crime and violence, it is truly heartening to know that an amazing woman with an amazing strategy is here in Jamaica to see how her proven method can be replicated.’

It is now planned to extend the Prayer Patrols to other parts of Bristol. But the idea is also spreading nationwide. Nottingham has recently started its own patrols after learning about the Bristol experience following a visit from Rev Palmer. Edinburgh is planning to follow suit. More cities are expressing interest and are expected to launch their own patrols.

‘I am still amazed at what has happened,’ she says. ‘We feel we have been able to help produce a more peaceful atmosphere on the streets. It just shows what the power of prayer can do.’