BEACHY HEAD, England – For eight years, Ross Hardy has walked the white chalk cliffs of Beachy Head, England, among the thousands who travel there from around the world.
Many come to take pictures. Some come to die.
And by God’s grace and a keen eye, Hardy usually can tell the difference.
“We are trained in certain signs, to infer things from people’s behavior,” Hardy said. “But many times it is nothing but God’s prompting that makes us know who to go talk to in a crowd of people standing near the edge.”
Ross Hardy, founder of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team, says God has placed him and his fellow chaplains at the white cliffs on the southeast coast of England “to rescue people’s lives.”
The “us” is the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team, a ministry begun by Hardy, a former Baptist pastor. The ministry now encompasses 14 trained chaplains who patrol the cliffs and are on call 24/7 for people in need of help.
It’s not easy work, Hardy said. He’s seen people jump, and he has a fear of heights. He and other chaplains sometimes have to dangle over the edge with a harness. They sit still for hours in the freezing wind and rain to talk to someone. And they all face constant emotional exhaustion.
But Hardy said the team keeps going for two reasons – a vision from God and dismal numbers.
Beachy Head, on the southeast coast of England, consistently ranks in the top four on many lists of the world’s most frequented suicide destinations, along with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; Aokigahara forest at the base of Mount Fuji, Japan; and Niagara Falls in New York.
Hardy isn’t too excited about that.
Crosses dot the cliff edge at Beachy Head, England, where many people have committed suicide.
But there are other numbers he’s happier about – after face-to-face contact and communication with a chaplain, 99 percent of the suicidal people they meet choose to come away from the edge. Since 2004, the team has rescued about 1,750 people.
“It’s very rewarding, invigorating work. We may talk to between two and 14 people in a week,” Hardy said.
The chaplains aren’t all ministers – they’re just followers of Christ who responded to the need to help others, Hardy said. They’re dance teachers, firefighters, builders, doctors and journalists. They’re Baptist, Church of England and several other Christian denominations.
“God has placed us here to rescue people’s lives. It’s terribly sad to see so many broken lives, but we get the opportunity to speak with them and let them talk, and we listen without judging,” he said. “Their situations don’t stop us from loving them.”
As the recession drags on, the level of crisis deepens for people, he said. Some come because they’ve lost a job, committed a crime, had a breakup or simply aren’t happy.
“Some have planned it for months. We talked with one man who had flown all the way here from Switzerland,” Hardy said. “Others have only been thinking of suicide for a few hours and something just caused them to break and make a quick decision to end their life.”
That was the way it was for the first man Hardy encountered in 2004, only 40 minutes into his very first shift. The man was walking up the side path toward the cliff, and something about him caught the attention of Hardy and another chaplain.
“We couldn’t get him out of our heads, so we went back and found him sitting on the edge in a spot hidden from view,” Hardy said. “He wasn’t particularly impressed that we’d shown up, which is what often happens at first. Most think it’s their choice and don’t want us to interfere.”
But as Hardy talked with the man and helped him explore his doubts, he agreed to come back to the chaplaincy hut, have a cup of tea and talk about it more. “We saw his hopelessness. He had a lot of gambling debt and didn’t know how to move on.”
Hardy shared the gospel with him, and he professed faith in Christ that night. Six months later, he came back and asked if he could help with the ministry.
“It’s so amazing how, through the grace of God, we get to be one thing in a chain of events to see lives dramatically transformed,” Hardy said.