Praise Him on the Bass Drum

Zacchaeus Outreach Project

The marching band community is one of the most vilified parts of the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist (PUL) community in Northern Ireland, but it’s where Church Army evangelist, Valerie Thom, felt called to ministry over a decade ago.  

“I grew up in the band community, my dad was in a band for 56 years, my brothers are in bands, I was in a band for a while. Everyone has this preconceived idea, that bands are awful, bigoted, that they don’t do any good, and only go out to stir trouble. Even within the church, band members would be seen as drinkers, alcoholics, and troublemakers. People would be accepted until they put on a uniform.” 

The Zacchaeus Outreach Project, named after the repentant tax collector in Luke 19, runs a ‘tea bus’ that serves tea, coffee, and cakes at band parades.  

“God said, take a step for me. And in what better way than what Church Army has always done, through providing tea and sustenance? If you go back through the years, tea and cake was always in the most successful outreaches. Even during the war, Church Army was giving out tea.  
At first, we weren’t sure how it would go down, being a Christian organisation. The bands are so used to people shouting and roaring about the gospel. So, we made a choice, that before we’d go to a parade, we’d visit the band forum and only attend where we were invited.  

I still remember that first parade, it was pure disaster! One of the vats we put the water in had turned over in the journey and so we had water running all over the bus. And then when we got to the parade, I’d forgotten matches so had to go round the bands trying to find matches to get the gas lit. At the end of the night, the people from the chip van opposite came to sit with us, and said to us, ‘you’re doing a great job.’ 

We’re just trying to share God’s love in a practical way.

All our regulars on the bus have their favourite buns, we call them buns [cakes] here, and so once you find somebody’s favourite bun, you make sure it’s there for them when they come again. It’s the little things that make people feel welcome and feel that you’re there for them. We pray, and talk together, drink tea, and catch up about life.

It’s all about the friendship and care, connecting with people, so that they get a positive view of God.

We used to hand out tracts at the parades, but other groups do that and so we’d often come back with more tracts than when we started! Which was why I thought about there must be a better way of reaching people than tracts. So, we started gathering stories from the band members themselves, and got them printed. We’re now on book four of our Marching On series and have distributed thousands. Books 1-3, have all had to be pre-printed. It’s about sharing faith, acceptance, and community.  

When we’d been going three or four years, I was having a conversation with this lady and I asked her, ‘Marian, am I just a tea bus?’, and she replied, ‘No, The Zaccheaus Project is so much more than that. It’s the first time the bands’ community have ever realised that the church cares about them, and more than that, that God cares about them.’ That lady wasn’t a Christian then, but she’s since become a Christian. 

It’s so humbling. This community has its problems, but I get back so much more than I give.” 

The Zaccheaus Project is supported by the Diocese of Armagh, Church Army, and the Church of Ireland Priorities Fund.  

As part of Church Army’s vision for “everyone everywhere to encounter God’s love”, we believe in raising up and equipping evangelists who understand, have compassion, and want to follow God’s call on their life to be the Jesus’ hands and feet in their community. 

Commit to raise a new generation of evangelists with us, to reach beyond perception, and share the love of God to the least, the last, and the lost.

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