Defeating Youth Violence Through The Church
Church Army Evangelist Nick Russell is lead evangelist for the Greenwich Centre of Mission and works across five housing estates in south east London. Nick writes about his experience of knife crime and how the church can respond.
Spirit-powered love is uniquely powerful in combatting violent youth crime. The church can be the most effective answer to increasing youth violence.
Among the young people we have worked with over the years, violence has never been far away. Two have carried out stabbings, others have been victims.
One of these was stabbed in the stomach in an argument that turned into a fight. The same evening we took all his friends to a golf driving range to defuse their anger and persuade them not to take revenge.
Some of our youths got into trouble for knife-carrying. One had a machete. Our teaching stopped this, only for them to be held up at knife point themselves.
In November 2018 one of our youths found an 18-year-old who had been stabbed 11 times and called an ambulance that saved his life. He was at the park where we do weekly detached work with London youth charity XLP. High on cocaine and alcohol, the attacker thought he had been looked at with disrespect. He had previously taken our youth to sell drugs in another city at £300 per day. The youth was 15, from a poverty-stricken family torn apart by violence and sexual abuse. The money was irresistible. He gave a statement to the police and lives in fear of revenge.
- A distorting lens and a distorting mirror – harsh experiences in infancy and childhood distorting children’s views both of other people and resulting in painfully low self-esteem
- Pipeline to Prison – disruptive behaviour in school leading to expulsion leading to drug gangs
- Stressed Brains and Gangs – neglect or abuse in childhood lead hinders the development of the prefrontal cortex that controls impulses and weakens empathy
- Gang Violence – If home life is harsh, gang life becomes a source of relationships and status
- Focus on Girls – Girls are of course equally victims of troubled homes and damaged children can become damaging parents – a vicious cycle
Hope Through God’s Love
Many psychologists recognise that only love can lead to healing and hope for young people whose infant minds have been contorted and scarred by harrowing relationships with adults. As Christians our core quality must be unconditional and tenacious Spirit-powered love: “Love… always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
How Love Works
My first Church Army post involved living on a notorious estate. We woke up one day to the smell of burning newspaper, put through our letterbox by a 12-year-old. His father had been an extremely violent drinker, beating up mother and children. The next partner was also violent, fathering a son and subjecting his stepsons to savage beatings.
Over several years we lavished 1 Corinthians 13 love on the 12-year-old would-be arsonist. On a youth camp, a stunningly good youth worker even slept in the open across his tent door because he was frightened.
Gradually the distorting lens and mirror straightened out, though not before 3 years in prison for aggravated burglary. He and another youth club member aged 14 were armed with golf clubs and taken by a woman to recover a drug debt. One later became a Christian, and both can now relate normally to people and hold down jobs. Another youth my wife reported to the police for burglary threatened to petrol bomb our flat. He now regards us as family. The loyalty and gratitude of young people who have been won over by love is immense and undying.
We need to step out and meet young people with practical love where they congregate – providing food at fast food venues and on the streets and bring them into clubs. Instead of boys finding self-esteem through gangs, or girls entering abusive relationships, they become part of communities of Spirit-powered love. They can gradually learn trust instead of fear and anger, build self-esteem and develop their gifts, experience good role models and norms. They can find faith in the God who is love, and be healed.
You can read this article in full in our latest Catalyst magazine.