What churches can do now
Mentors and buddies
Churches have excellent assets in the form of volunteers, who are often teachers, lawyers, medical professionals and those in positions of authority. While many of these men and women carry out a variety of roles at their churches, their talents could also be used as mentors or buddies for young people in both the church and local communities. There is little doubt that a good number of young people caught up in serious youth violence often come from backgrounds where there is a deficit of positive (male) role model figures. According to the Bedfordshire Assistant Chief Constable Jackie Sebire said some young people who do not have the “protective factor” of a father figure instead look up to drug dealers and gangsters.
It can be argued that to suggest that a lack of positive male role model figures is the cause of SYV is both naïve and simplistic. Just as it is wrong to suggest that all SYV is gang-related. There are a multiplicity of reasons as to why SYV is currently taking place. However, if one is seeking to use a joined-up, rounded approach to address this matter, role models have to be part of the conversation.
With this mind, churches can establish a mentoring or buddy scheme where an adult male or female (who is suitably DBS checked) works with a younger person of a similar gender. This person would share with their young charge information about their own career path, as well as provide guidance, motivation, emotional support, and role modeling. Depending on the church and those carrying out the mentoring, this activity could be either part of structured programme with specific expectations and guidelines or more informal in nature.
The most important issue is that there is trust and confidence between the two parties.
It is commonly said that the hours between 3pm and 6pm – or anytime between the ending of school and when young people return to the place they call home, are flashpoints for SYV. Again, churches have excellent assets in the forms of buildings which are often located in the heart of the community (and in those communities most affected by SYV.) While it would be great if all churches made their buildings available during weekdays during these hours to provide diversions for students, logistically many would struggle to do so. It needs to be pointed out that such churches need to be staffed by people who are equipped to engage with young people, some of whom exhibit challenging behaviours. Equally, these safe spaces need to be properly resourced so that the young people can learn, play, relax and be advised. A great deal of the former is dependent on finance; many of our churches are already cash-strapped and struggling to carry out their current activities.
It is therefore suggested that the leaders of the various churches in an area come together and agree that a designated premise is used for this purpose. The other churches would put resource into this church in the form of volunteers, equipment, food etc. Such an approach is currently used regarding Foodbanks or night shelters for the homeless. It would also show unity of purpose and proper Christian unity and witness on an issue that is a ‘life and death’ one.
Knife bins in hotspots
One growing response to the knife crime issue is to have knife bins in areas associated with SYV hotspots. (Knives and dangerous weapons are left in these receptacles for safe collection/disposal.) Churches in hotspot areas are encouraged to install knife bins near to their premises. Those churches not currently plagued by SYV are encouraged to work with those that are. Knife bins cost several thousands of pounds which is quite a financial undertaking for any church. SYV is very much a justice issue because it disproportionately impacts poorer communities. In London, you are more likely to experience it if you live in Brixton or Bermondsey as opposed to Belgravia or Belsize Park. As such, wealthier churches would be asked to work with those located in poorer socio-economic bracket to accrue funding for these containers. Not only does this show church-related collaboration, it also does the important activity of getting these knives off out of the hands of vulnerable young people and off our streets!
Prioritising youth work
With regard to young people, churches carry out a disproportionate amount of youth work in Britain and Ireland, as well as the commensurate amount of youthwork training.
Churches have invariably prioritised youthwork, particularly that involving the young people within their congregations, in the form of youth workers or some related position. A reasonable amount of this work was funded in some capacity by local authorities. However, as a result of the Coalition Government cuts from 2010, many churches struggled to maintain this provision. In recent years some churches have opted for youth ‘ministers’ as opposed to youth workers who carry out discipleship and formational activity among their congregation’s young people. The thinking is that they will develop the next generation of leaders, deacons, stewards, etc.
It is suggested that churches continue to prioritise youth work, but ensure that their workers are engaged in detached work (within the local community) as well as among their young people. There are various models to this form of dual engagement. However, what is vital is that church workers get to engage with this who are hard to reach and will often never darken the churches’ doors.
It is also suggested that churches with youth workers encourage them to retrain to ensure they are properly equipped to engage with those affected by SYV. Several years ago, a church-related report showed a disparity in topics young people want to engage with and what the church is actually doing; see: this link.
Support for families affected by Serious Youth Violence
In many towns and cities in England, those caught up in the tragedy of SYV have links of various sorts to the church. Sometimes, both the victims and perpetrators have family members who are part of the same congregation. Equally, churches are often on the doorsteps of where these acts of violence take place.
All the above mean that the church leader is often forced to engage with what has taken place. It is therefore important he or she is suitably equipped to engage with everything from finding the right words to speak to a parent/family who have lost a love one to SYV and in need of counselling as well as help with planning of the funeral, which may mean fundraising. One such resource can be found here.
Much like youth workers, clergy do require the requisite training to enable them to engage with those at risk or involved in SYV.