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Since 2005 179 teenagers have been murdered in London. 123 have been fatally stabbed (Source Citizens Report). Since then numerous reports have been published by the UK government and think tanks suggesting strategies, ideas and solutions to solve and combat the issue of serious youth violence (SYV). These include: Dying to Belong - An In-depth Review of Street Gangs in Britain (2009), Time for Action - Equipping Young People for the Future and Preventing Violence (2008) and Ending gang and youth violence: cross-government report (2011) to name a few.
None of these reports have managed to stem the tide of serious youth violence (SYV) in London. The capital is currently seeing the highest rate of teenage knife crime fatalities since 2011. In this year alone there have been 11 teenage murders. 10 of the victims were Black Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME). Nine out of the 11 were stabbed. (Source: Citizens Report). While we know that the majority of young people want nothing to do with gangs and serious youth violence, for some young people violence is part of their daily lives and we need to support them to transform their thinking.
So how should we respond? Faith groups and more specifically the Church, have too often been silent on the issue. As someone who has worked on the SYV agenda for 15 years and now works as a pastor of a church in southeast London, the lack of action from Christians both saddens and infuriates me.
The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us to examine our religious and social prejudices. The twist in the Good Samaritan is that the religious leaders do not step up to defend the weak, perhaps due to fear or ignorance. It is the outsider who ‘knows nothing of God’s temple’ who shows those in need the kingdom of God. The Good Samaritan demonstrates compassion. Full bloodied, uncompromising and relentless compassion. He offers friendship, advocacy, emergency medical treatment, transportation, a hefty financial subsidy, even a follow up visit. To engage in the SYV agenda that impacts our streets, families, neighborhoods and congregations, churches must replicate the compassion and concern shown in Luke 10.
Below are 6 ways Christians can engage in the serious youth violence issue and help save lives. As a Londoner I’m going to give a London perspective but this clearly is an issue in major cities across the UK.
James 2:14 says: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Austerity cuts, youth clubs closing, youth workers losing their jobs has all impacted those young people deemed disengaged and marginalised. It’s no coincidence that the first year of youth service cuts in this country coincided with the 2011 UK riots. The UK youth engagement teams who were once there to connect with young people are no longer active. The church is unique in having a very strong volunteer force. Churches should be at the forefront of offering time, expertise and encouragement to young people where role models are lacking.
In 2001 a friend and I volunteered our time in the evening to local youth centres in London teaching young people music production skills. We eventually helped them to create a radio station and through this taught them the business and legal aspects of the music industry and other life skills. 15 years on some of these young people are carving out successful careers in the music industry; others work in the education sector or are progressing in other fields. Like all of us, young people need people to talk to. Young people’s lives are becoming increasingly stressful and complex and a wide range of factors can lead to poor decision-making. We can offer hope and shine the light of our Father into dark situations. Whatever skills you have can be used to divert young people away from a life of crime. You may have a career that could inspire someone or a skill to pass on; perhaps you’re a good listener. If you’d like to become a mentor contact a local charity. Many of them will provide training and support for mentors. Suggested charities include: XLP, MAC-UK, Street Pastors, Chance UK, PYE, St Giles Trust, MsUnderstood
Most important is how you as an individual view young people. Do you actually say hello to young people on your street? Do you build relationships with them? Do you place yourself in a position to listen to their needs and concerns? There is a gap between the generations where older and younger people do not engage. Young people need role models. Christians can be the bridge. As it says in Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” We need take this command seriously in relation to young people. It could be difference between life and death.
2. Get a job
Young people need Christian teachers, teaching assistants, police officers, clinical psychologists, drama-therapists, SENCOs, learning mentors, behavioral specialists, MPs, youth offending service officers, youth workers, probation officers, mental health workers, substance misuse workers, social workers and creatives. Anywhere society comes into contact with the most marginalised and most challenging young people Christians should be present. Christians along with their skill set need to demonstrate the reconciliation, forgiveness, hope and abundant love of our Lord Jesus Christ. As said in 2 Peter 1 we are partakers in his divine nature and therefore through us, God can change the hearts of young people. My first paid role working with young people was as a learning mentor. I not only worked alongside the young people but also connected with parents and teachers. I really felt the presence of God change the culture of the school.
If you feel called to work with young people, start talking to others in the field, volunteer, get training and gain experience.
3. Wrestle and Pray
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:10
This seems like a no brainier but you will be surprised how many Christians do not pray or do not know how to pray (see Romans 8:26) for these issues. We spend our time debating and theorising but rarely commit ourselves to persistent prayer. Prayer should be our first weapon against SYV. Like Jacob and Habakkuk we are to wrestle with God in prayer. We should never be satisfied with what we see happening to our young people in the UK and therefore we should ask God to move mightily to change the circumstances that cause young people to succumb to SYV.
The Lord’s Prayer directs us to pray for heaven to invade earth. When we pray this line "your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, we are acknowledging that this world is broken but there is another world which is perfect in every way. We’re asking our Father to send his power - which is just and excellent - into this sinful world. As Christians we know there will be a time when 'He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). However the Lord’s Prayer encourages us to pray for a piece of heaven to invade earth today. We cannot ignore such an invitation. In 2010 I started working for a community safety team in London. I was tasked with developing and implementing a gangs and SYV strategy. I knew this would be hard and so I prayed a bold prayer. During the year I prayed that there would not be a fatality to SYV in that borough. Heaven invaded earth for that year and no one died. Let’s remember we serve a God who is mighty to save and act on our behalf.
4. Use your influence and partner with others
We need to recognise the voice we have and use it to advocate for change. Together we can influence and work alongside decision makers to work for the common good of society and in particular for those who may be most marginalised or at risk. For example, you can attend council meetings or join your borough’s Independent Advisory Group (IAG). The role of independent advisors is best described as a “critical friend in time of need” – a group of non police people who can:
- Provide advice and guidance to the police to help prevent critical incidents escalating (these may be external or internal incidents).
- Provide a sounding board for the police to understand the potential impact on communities of police practices and operations.
You can also write letters of concern and support to local MPs when SYV incidents occur locally. You can raise money or give encouragement and support when a fatality occurs in your neighborhood. Christians shouldn’t be afraid to find common ground with other faith groups or those of no faith at all. We need to be humble enough to learn from each other and work together to find solutions. In the borough of Greenwich we have Project Mosaic (Hyperlink). The project, which seeks to increase community safety and confidence in the police and other agencies, also aims to enhance youth safety and increase access to the range of youth provision and activities in the borough. In the last six months, as part of Project Mosaic, 130 faith leaders from across the borough of Greenwich have attended training sessions provided by police, Royal Borough of Greenwich, NHS Greenwich and voluntary organisations on a variety of matters including safeguarding children, gangs, youth violence and domestic violence.
5. Get creative
With a wealth of resources and volunteers, the Church should be thinking of creative ways of early intervention and prevention to divert young people away from SYV. Many of us have the flexibility to go beyond the traditional boundaries of 9-5 work to offer youth provision in the evenings and weekends. This gives Christians an advantage in creating programmes and activities that can really support the most marginalised young people. This doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. There are young people who have never travelled outside of their borough or have never gone to a gallery or museum. Attempt to give young people alternative views of life.
One of the biggest challenges facing young people is unemployment. In April 2014 I started a 10-week pilot project. The Grind Coffee School is a partnership between Emmanuel Church London, Browns of Brockley and Positive Youth Expression (PYE). The idea for the project came from a conversation with Ross Brown who owns Browns of Brockley. We both observed that with the increased coffee shops in inner city areas, there seemed to be a lack of variety in the people working in these establishments. We identified a group of young people, a group disaffected with life, demotivated to work who made up a large amount of the 21% of 16- to 25-year-olds (958,000) young people out of work in the UK. This project would aim to help young people identify their true needs; offer relevant support and signpost them to employment. Although challenging at times, we gave these young people an opportunity to gains skill in an area, which was not previously available to them because of various barriers.
6. Get low
John Piper says this: “So this is really clear. Jesus is high. His rank is high. His standing is high. And therefore, by ordinary standards of this world, he should be served. But instead he contradicts the ordinary standards of this world, and serves. From his height he goes low. From his high standing, he goes to lowly serving.”
Or to be more penetrating, let your whole life have this mind-set: you are servants (Philippians 2:5–8). All that you do, do it with a view to getting under others to lift them up, not getting over others to look down and feel superior. As Churches we should aim to adopt what American church pastor Matt Chandler calls “Incarnational Ministry”. In other words discipleship and evangelism shouldn’t be taking place simply within the church walls but also outside the church walls. The incarnational approach tries to break down the walls of sacred/secular so we can begin to see everything as sacred and quit being so fearful of the secular. In all domains of society the church should be at the forefront of to help providing innovation and support in the battle against serious youth violence.
The incarnational mode of ministry, the church’s mission of evangelism and discipleship has us intentionally living as agents of gospel reconciliation. After all isn’t this what the Good Samaritan demonstrated to the man in the need? He got low, served in these domains and took risks on behalf of those in need.
Social reformer Frederick Douglass said: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. Let’s invest in all children and young people and try to live out Isaiah 1:16-17:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.
If we do this with guile, zeal and passion, the Church will demonstrate the light of our Lord Jesus Christ and young people’s lives will be transformed.
Ben offers consultancy on Gangs and Serious Youth Violence. Find out more at www.bcwlindsay.com