Funding crisis may stop Beachy Head chaplins saving lives

Created on: 7th June 2014

Christ in the community is what Christians are called to do and very often it is not known or recognised, but one shining example of this are the Chaplins who work 24 hours a day, to stop people committing suicide at one of the most famous cliff drops in England. 

There is a man on the edge of the cliff who looks distressed. He’s pacing up and down the line, just a few steps from the drop. 

This is Beachy Head, where the ground falls away suddenly, hundreds of feet down to the rocks and sea below. These bright white chalk cliffs are beautiful but deadly. 

“We need to get to him fast and see if he’s okay,” says Mark Pybus, director of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team which patrols here 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

The chaplains don’t mince words: they say they are looking for the lost and the broken-hearted and trying to prevent suicide. The director watches through binoculars as his colleague rushes to the man on the next headland, then suddenly slows. This is to make his breathing regular and his voice normal. “We don’t want the other person to become any more agitated than they are.” 

This should be a great time for the team, which was given the Queen’s Award For Voluntary Service in the Birthday Honours List on Monday. The chaplains had face-to-face encounters last year with 368 people who were considered to be at risk. Some had indeed come to take their own lives, but chose not to do so after meeting a chaplain who listened to their troubles and put them in touch with others who could help. 

But instead of celebrating the royal accolade this weekend, the chaplains are facing a crisis of their own. The money has run out. 

The four professional chaplains employed to work with a team of 14 trained volunteers have just been told they are to be made redundant. If no more cash comes in by the end of the month, their last wages will be paid by selling off the team’s Land Rover patrol cars, sophisticated thermal imaging cameras and other kit. That will mean the end.
“If you take the equipment away, then the volunteers will have nothing to work with. We will have to finish,” says Mr Pybus, a 57-year-old former financial sales adviser who is now director. That is why he is talking to the Telegraph, breaking a code of silence that has been in place since the team was founded 10 years ago.
The chaplains have always refused all interviews and publicity, until now. “I do believe that more lives will be saved if we talk about this and get the financial help we need to continue.” 
This hefty, confident man strides over the downlands in his red fleece and high-visibility jacket, both of which identify him as a chaplain. He shouts a warning to a young lad who has got too close to the edge. There are faded warning signs and a negligible fence made from a single wire, but only at the highest point. “We can’t stop people being stupid but we can make them aware of the risk they are taking,” says Mr Pybus. “The drop is 500ft and the edge is not stable.” 
The lad realises his mistake, turns pale with fright and hastens inland. So the chaplain takes up his binoculars again to watch as his colleague – who wants to be known only as T, for the sake of his privacy – reaches the agitated man on the next headland.
“We usually ask an innocuous question about the weather or the view. The response will tell us a lot about the condition of that person.” 
For a while, the two figures are silhouetted against a shimmering sea. These initial conversations can go on for hours, even in extreme weather. Some people refuse to respond at all. But if they are eventually willing to engage in conversation, the chances are that they will also come away and accept help.
“I’m told by people who know better than me that feeling suicidal is not a permanent state of mind,” says the team director. “Therefore, we will do what we can to help people to not take their lives at that point of crisis, which is not going to last forever.” 
To make a donation to the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team  or Call Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90
Posted by Amanda Hopkins
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