Read All About It! Our Mr Bell and Urban Hope in the Church Times.
29 November 2011
The word on the street
If churches wish to help young people escape the gang culture, they need commitment and co-ordinated approach, says Julia McGuinness
TELEVISION images of rioters on the streets of English cities this summer were quickly succeeded by David Cameron’s declaration of a “social fightback” in the form of an “all-out war on gangs and gang culture”.
The emerging picture of the unrest challenged initial assumptions that the rioters were essentially black teenagers in organised gangs. Never the less, August’s disturbing events again raised the issue of urban deprivation, and put gang culture, in particular, firmly back on the agenda 2008,Churches Together in England (CTE) published the report Who is my Neighbour? A Church response to social disorder linked to gangs, drugs, guns and knives. One thousand copies were released, and its findings were presented at key cities around the country.
The report highlighted the concern felt by churches about issues of violence and social disorder, and their desire to form partnerships with others to help to address them, but, also, awareness of their own lack of training and expertise.
It also noted that, despite strengths in areas such as mentoring, drug rehabilitation, and youth activities, there was still a need for churches to come alongside with compassion, and engage more deeply with the hopes and fears of marginalised young people.
The Secretaryfor Minority Ethnic Christian Affairs at CTE who is a co-author of the report, Bishop Joe Aldred, says that, while the church response to it has not been officially monitored, his personal observation is that “Churches perse do not seem to have a coherent or co-ordinated approach to the issue ofsocial alienation. There are spasmodic attempts to engage across local congregations, but the national picture is diverse and fragmented.”
A freelance trainer and worker with hard-to-reach young people in London, Pip Wilson, says that the challenge for Christians is to leave their comfort zone and get alongside people who seem very different: “We see a person’s behavioural issues, but we can’t see their experience unless we come close enough to buildtrust and find out.
“As a mentor, I listen to young people’s stories of neglect and abuse. They might look fine,but their souls are lost in insecurity.”
Some churches have recognised the need for a shift of focus. The Revd Simon Heathfield isTeam Rector of St Mary’s, Walthamstow, a large urban team ministry that comprises four churches. The parish includes areas of significant deprivation,youth unemployment, vulnerability to gang culture, and a fear of crime.
“Around four years ago, the church made a major decision. We had employed a full-time youth worker to oversee our church groups, but we realised that the youths outside church were just as much a priority.
“We were not reaching them, and our peer-group networks could go only so far; so we took ona youth worker who would allocate 70 per cent of their time toten-to-14-year-olds outside the church doors, and 30 per cent to co-ordinating our internal programme.”
Church giving funded this work, and is now also supporting the development of a new charity, Chaos Theory, specifically to tackle gang culture.
Chaos Theory,which also receives funding from the Church Urban Fund (CUF), is a violence-prevention organisation aimed at those young people who are likely to become drawn into agang. It seeks to reduce shootings and stabbings by using the “CeaseFire”intervention model pioneered successfully in Chicago, in which ex-gang members mentor vulnerable youths.
Through community networking, Chaos Theory recruits and trains gang members as“violence interrupters”, who mentor young people and act as mediators to avert violent acts and retaliations. Gang members who wish to be accepted fortraining have to demonstrate that they have left their violent ways behind by committing no offences over a 12-month period.
Chaos Theory’s chief executive, Jason Featherstone,says: “There are some great programmes around that focus on early intervention,such as confidence-building workshops, anti-bullying programmes, and others,but Chaos Theory focuses on stopping violence immediately and directly.”
RESPONDING to gang culture means identifying what that culture actually is. The director offunding and development at CUF, Andy Turner, says that “gang” does not always mean “gangster”, and that negative perceptions can cloud a gang’s positive aspects. “We naturally gather together with those of similar interests. Jesus was in a gang. We all have a need for security.
“In some communities, there is an undercurrent of violence which leaves young people trying to navigate their way safely through a difficult and violent context.Gangs offer the camaraderie of a supportive environment, but there is atrade-off: sometimes, loyalty can lead to illegal activity.
“At the extreme end are a minority of highly organised gangs, with a hierarchy and initiation ceremonies. But most are just boisterous young people congregating in groups. Local residents feel intimidated, as the loss of community means they have no connection with these kids.”
Ben Bell agrees. He is the senior youth worker at St Stephen’s, Canonbury, and runs their UrbanHope project in Islington — where Ben Kinsella’s murder, in 2008, led to a high-profile anti-knife campaign.
Urban Hope seeks to foster relationships and offer purposeful activities for marginalised young people aged 8 to 20. “The problem is that we like to label people. We can end up writing a whole group of people off as ‘just a gang’,” Mr Bell says.
Finding ways to break down “us-and-them” barriers is vital. Other wise, young people are atrisk of being drawn into gangs. “‘Belonging’ is a key theme,” Mr Bell says. “We work to build relationships in the community long-term. If exclusion is a catalyst for entering into crime, then inclusion has to be the answer.”
Urban Hope uses a modified church hall as its base, and is supported by volunteers from all walks of life. “We have a fashion designer and a lawyer on our team,” Mr Bell says. “When people of different ages and backgrounds be friend each other, perspectives and lives are challenged both ways. This is what makes for a cohesive community and transforms lives.”
As well as a regular drop-in, Urban Hope runs sessions including workshops on life skills and cooking, and young women’s self-esteem groups. “We’re introducing young people to alternative ways of living and ways of having fun, being creative and taking risks — which boys particularly need.”
Urban Hope lays the groundwork for relationships early, with holiday clubs for eight-year-olds and efforts to establish links with parents. Mentoring comes later, but, Mr Bell hopes, not too late: “We are working with 14-year-olds who have older siblings already in prison. This is hard. Twenty-year-olds who’ve got £30,000 from a smash-and-grab raid are looked up to by their peers. We are trying to prevent the younger ones’ being drawn into that world. But if you’re living on a drab housing estate with no money and few prospects, it’s a temptation.”
In the case of preventative youth-work, the earlier that work starts the better, Mr Heathfield says. “It’s a risky time for children coming up to the teenage years. In fact, they may be lost by around ten years old — young ones can be recruited by older gang members as drug runners with their bikes.”
Urban Hope works with about 60 to 80 young people a week, representing about 300 different faces over a year. “We support individual young people if they are arrested, excluded from school, or meeting a social worker,” Mr Bell says.
“The presence of a trust worthy and persistent adult can foster change. It works to some extent. Relationships make a difference. But working at a high quality of relationship limits the number we can workwith.”
URBAN HOPE is supported by Streetspace, a national youth project run jointly by the Frontier Youth Trust and the Church Mission Society. Alongside its own network of projects, Streetspace also partners and supports church ventures.
The work is growing fast. Street space has been operating for 18 months, and now has 30 projects on its books. Some of them work directly with gang culture; others are targeting vulnerable hard-to-reach young people: the school-excluded, NEETS (Not in Education, Training, or Employment), and those with no connection with any formal youth service.
Streetspace’s project leader, Richard Passmore, says that, although few churches arecurrently engaging with hard-to-reach groups, Streetspace can help them if they do. For £500 a year, Streetspace will train two church volunteers and will meet them for support in evaluating their impact and strategy.
“Churches are good at loving young people, but not so much at knowing how to move relationships on,” Mr Passmore says. “Relational youth work is at the heart of our vision, but it can be a bit chaotic at times.”
Street space’s relational approach may begin with identifying a group of young people on a street corner or at a skatepark, and simply walking past and saying hello. “We want to mirror how young people build relationships; so we are relating for the relationship’s sake, and not as an activity provider.”
As conversation develops, Mr Pass more says, the next stages involve spending more time with a particular group. “Gradually, you reach the point where you risk the time and energy you have invested by moving on to a different level of relationship. You may be able to tackle deeper issues and trust that they will engage with you, and not just walk off.”
CHURCHES wanting to respond to issues of gang culture need to do their groundwork, says the RevdCarver Anderson, co-founder and trustee of the Birmingham-based charity Bringing Hope, which helps to equip churches to respond to the needs of urban communities — particularly those affected by gang culture through the misuse of drugs, guns, and knives.
Mr Anderson urges the training of church leaders about urban community engagement within a theological framework and church context. This then needs to be supplemented by local knowledge.
“Churches need to assess their own community. What are the local needs? What gangs are there in the neighbourhood? What groups or agencies are already at work, and what impact are they making? Could you partner with them in some way?”
Risk assessment of planned initiatives, and an audit of the congregation’s skills are also important, Mr Anderson says. “A lawyer has a professional skill to offer, but everyone in a church can do something, from praying to making a cup of tea, or writing a letter to someone in prison.”
Any church response to broken young people and anti-social behaviours in urban space needs to be holistic, he adds. “Gangs are symptomatic of the wider issues around poverty.”
Bringing Hopeworks towards all eviating the lifestyle and attitude of hopelessness which can result in anti-social and criminal behaviour.
One way in which Bringing Hope expresses this approach is in its Damascus Road Second Chance initiative, which supports offenders who are trying to rebuild a life after their release from prison. “We are working holistically with the gap between the prisons and community,” the chief executive and co-founder of Bringing Hope, the Revd Robin Thompson, explains.
CHRISTIANS also need to work more collaboratively to tackle issues such as gang culture. “Our denominations form the biggest gangs in the world,” Mr Thompson says. “Leaders need to ask whether small pockets of help could be turned into a bigger reservoir by joining together.”
Some churches have begun ex pressing a more inter-denominational response to urban deprivation through involvement in para-church agencies. Bishop Aldred notes asignificant growth of church-related agencies since the publication of Who is my Neighbour?, from Black Boys Can and Bringing Hope to Street Pastors.
But he notes the danger of a gap opening up. “Para-church agencies are engaged and growing ineffective ness. Their challenge is not to see themselves as completely separate from church structures. I think the gap will be closed in due course. One wonders how much they can ultimately do apart from the active spiritual life of the church.”
As council-funding cuts begin to affect youth workers, the Church’s presence and ministry may become particularly valuable. Mr Heathfield says that having outwardly focused youth work has fostered deeper community connections. After a young person was shot, across the road, the church held an outdoor service for the victim, which was attended by young people from local gangs.
What makes a church really distinctive is that it is living in the midst of the situation. A member of the congregation of St Mary’s was murdered in the churchyard, and Mr Heathfield’s vicarage has been burgled five times in five years. “We pay the price of being incarnational,” he says, but, because it has no agenda, “the church is the only agency on the ground that can have a real relationship from within the community.”
Jennifer Blake,43, is a former gang leader. She now runs Safe’n’Sound, a youth project basedin Peckham which helps young people to leave the gang lifestyle
IT TOOK me along time to make the right choice. Having been brought up in a Christian family, my Christian foundations were always there, but I had to go through a near-death experience before I came to faith. I thought: I’ll give Jesus a try before I give up hope. That was seven years ago.
Things started going wrong for me when I ran away from home, aged 13, and was taken into care. Living in various children’s homes, it wasn’t long before I joined a gang and got involved in cheque-book and card fraud, muggings, robberies, and dealing drugs. Moving in the circles I did meant that by the time I was in my early 30s, I’d been kidnapped, tortured, raped, and abused.
Jesus gave me the way out. The phrase “gang culture” puts fear into people, but US-stylestreet gangs are not prevalent on our streets. It’s more about groups who join up to sell drugs. Protecting their territory leads them into illegal activity, with guns and knives. Individual young people get caught up in it.
We have people inside our churches affected by this. Even church leaders’ children get caught up in this stuff. But we play too much at being church behind closed doors.
I talk to a lot of Christians who say they want to say help young people, but they are scared. I’m amazed at that. We say that we serve a God who protects us.
We need to check ourselves as Christians, and remind ourselves of who we are. We have been given a commandment not to fear. We need to wake up and take God out of the box