After the heartbreaking death of 15-year-old schoolgirl Elianne Andam, London City Mission's Efrem Buckle speaks to Christian Today about the important role of churches in their communities and how an initiative called Operation Forgiveness is helping young people to choose a different path from violence.
How is the mood in the capital after Elianne's death?
There's a sense of deep devastation, despair, and disgust that things like this continue to happen - especially for such reasons. It's devastating because when we look at the circumstances surrounding her death, for a 15-year-old girl to be stabbed to death in that way, it typifies just how terrible a situation we're in.
How bad is knife crime in London in general? Is it a chronic problem?
This latest tragedy is not a flash in the pan. Knife crime has been going on for years now and has impacted many people and my own life personally. One of the young people from my church, Zac, was killed in a knife attack in 2010 when he was just 15. In addition to my work with the LCM, I am also a church pastor and I walked with Zac's family during that season - and continue to walk with them. Sadly Zac is not the only young person I've known personally who has been killed in such a tragic manner.
Many victims - and perpetrators - of knife crime in London have been young. What do you think is driving knife crime among the city's young people?
The reasons are layered and complex and there are no simplistic answers, but I think we're seeing a culture that has become quite entrenched. We have to all, as a society, and especially as Christians, take stock of our place within the community and the difference that we can make. One of the reasons why LCM forwards Operation Forgiveness is because it's helping churches to take their place in responding to these issues. This problem hasn't arisen overnight and it isn't going to disappear overnight but when local churches and Christians recognise there is a significant contribution they can make, then the tide can be turned.
Is there any connection between the prevalence of knife crime and gangs?
Certainly in the case of Elianne's death, there isn't any suggestion that this was related to gangs and in many cases, incidents of knife crime or even carrying a knife aren't related to gangs. We've heard countless stories of young people carrying knives simply because they felt the need to protect themselves. So this is a problem that's affecting young people from a whole variety of communities, it's not marginalised to gangs.
What is Operation Forgiveness?
Operation Forgiveness is an initiative of LCM that is led by Zac's family, so people who are themselves the victims of knife crime. They use their story to train churches to go into schools and engage with young people as an early intervention. Young people get to hear about the family's experience of losing Zac, what forgiveness looks like, and areas of their own life where they might need to extend forgiveness.
Quite often young people struggle to deal with their emotions and their own trauma and negative experiences, so it gets bottled up and is then expressed as anger. In those moments when they are faced with rejection or some type of offence, they feel disregarded or disrespected and their anger gets expressed in ways that are out of all proportion to the situation.
Giving young people an opportunity to extend forgiveness and understand what that means can help to defuse feelings of anger and frustration, or trauma and hurt in ways that allow them to be more self-regulated as they navigate different challenges. In that sense, it's an early intervention initiative that seeks to help young people think through how they can better self-regulate before they reach the tipping point of carrying a knife or using one so that if they are ever faced with this kind of situation, they can choose a different path away from engaging in violence.
After they've had the chance to reflect in this way, they're then given the chance to creatively communicate this act of forgiveness and their commitment to the ideal with their peers. It's extremely powerful and there have been so many people - teachers even - who have been moved to tears by the story of Zac's loss, how his family went on that journey to forgiveness, and how they are now in turn helping others to wrestle with forgiveness.
How can churches be there for their communities at times like this?
I think the Church is really good at being there in times like this. On Sunday, there was a memorial service for Elianne. And Elianne was a member of a local church and that church has really rallied around the family.
The Church has grown to become very responsive in situations like this. Part of this is down to prayer - praying for those who are grieving, praying for justice, and even praying for the perpetrator, that there would be a change of heart as they wrestle with God about what they've done and that they would come to know the light of Christ.
But it's important that churches engage as well as pray. Through initiatives like Operation Forgiveness, churches can continue to be on the front foot in responding and directing their efforts in practical ways that can help to turn the tide. Initiatives like Operation Forgiveness are a very practical way that churches can engage with their schools and support young people through early intervention.
Despite so many senseless tragedies, there is hope in Christ. When the darkness seems to be at its deepest, the light shines more brightly and there are ways we can respond as Christians that really will make a difference.