Mr Gil, Street Preacher
For street preacher Gilbert Eruchala – widely known as Mr Gil – the soaring arch of the railway bridge in Shoreditch High St is his cathedral and the fly-pitchers of the Bethnal Green Rd are his congregation. He is the self-appointed spiritual guardian of these pavement traders, who are constantly harassed by market inspectors trying to move them along – prior to the imminent opening of a shopping centre selling lifestyle brands from sea containers on this site.
You will find Mr Gil on the corner here every Sunday morning, a loose-limbed tall gangly evangelist reaching out his long arms to passersby, offering them tracts, pamphlets and the possibility of salvation. In the midst of the throng squeezing through this bottleneck at the junction of two roads, Mr Gil commands his position with gravity, speaking with a calm voice in the chaos of the market. And it was here that Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Colin O’Brien caught up with him last week to take this series of vibrant portraits.
An imposing figure in a long black coat and hat, Mr Gil is there from early morning and wears a sweater under his collar and tie to keep him warm while pursuing God’s work, which includes selling half a dozen pairs of old shoes and a few pieces of worn clothing hung on the fence behind him, to make the necessary fifteen pounds each week to top up his mobile phone and feed the electricity and gas meter. “I just buy a few things, I’ve never walked into a shop to buy anything,” he admitted, declaring an asceticism readily apparent in his demeanour and physique, “I don’t eat much. I hope to follow the precedent of those who came before.”
Gesturing discreetly to the traders seated upon the pavement around us, “You have to examine this as a microcosm – because people live in localities, so all politics are local.” he explained to me. “If John Wesley, or John Bunyan, or Thomas Cranmer, or if William Booth came back to England today, they would weep to see the disintegration of this land.”
I could see Mr Gil’s point. The situation of these vulnerable fly-pitchers who may shortly be denied selling a few items on a Sunday morning for the sake of a shopping centre selling global brands is itself a pitiful microcosm of the current crisis. Yet beyond this observation, it fascinated me to hear Mr Gil evoke the names of English preachers with an egalitarian sensibility – speaking of them with a vivid familiarity as if they were his fellows, and knowing their opinions and histories intimately. “We need to go back and read them, because the spirit is still here,” he assured me.
“These people are be able to make maybe fifteen pounds,” he continued, in paternal contemplation of the fly-pitchers, “They’ll be able to get milk, bread and cheese. They are content. That’s the best of English culture – you are content with little, compared with the Americans who just want more and more. The bankers may have money, but the question is – Do they have contentment? Contentment can be the antithesis of greed and violence. It can bring you rest, instead of pursuing passing fads like money, fame and pleasure.”
Born in West Africa, Mr Gil grew up the United States and studied for a Bachelor of Science at Oklahoma Graduate School before turning his attention to a Masters in Mythology and Divinity Studies. “I’m studying Greek at the moment because I want to understand the New Testament better,” he revealed to me, lowering his voice in modesty,“but I want to speak two other modern languages, so I am teaching myself French and Spanish.”
As the market quietened down, Mr Gil began packing up his wares into a bag in preparation for cycling off down Bishopsgate. “I’m going to St Paul’s to deliver a card expressing my solidarity with the Bishop of London,” he informed me brightly, “I want to say, ‘We’re praying for you.’” From there. Mr Gil planned to cycle up to Speaker’s Corner to join the discussion. One of fifteen Street Pastors in his group, working in partnership with the City of Westminster and the Metropolitan Police, Mr Gil’s week was entirely plotted out.“It fulfils me to do the work of Christ.” he confessed open-heartedly, “We should go to every man’s world and share the gospel gently.”
Mr Gil continued offering tracts to passersby throughout our conversation. Undeterred by constant rejections, he maintains a buoyant nature in spite of everything he witnesses on the street. “I try to take a redemptive view.” Mr Gil said simply, as he climbed onto his second-hand bicycle laden with bags, to leave the fly-pitchers for another week, “I hope the council will be sensitive to these people and not flush them out – because they can’t afford to open a shop.”
Gilbert Eruchala - “Contentment can be the antithesis of greed and violence.”
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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