Wale Hudson-Roberts: Government and church must unite on gun and knife crime

|PIC1|This July, BUGB and Ascension Trust will lead a one-day conference, Bite the Bullet, to help young people resist the lure of 'glamorous crime' and equip churches and youth leaders in building positive relationships with young people in the face of an increasingly violent world.

Here, Wale sheds some light on the scale of the challenge facing the church in helping young people find a redemptive alternative to a life of violence.

CT: Gun and knife crime is a real concern to people in the UK right now. What is your experience of it?

WHR: I've been a Baptist minister now for about 14 years and I used to have a church in Finsbury Park. As a pastor I was very much aware of the increase in violent crime and particularly gun and knife crime. That was of deep concern to me particularly as I buried a number of people - both young and old - who had lost their lives as a result of violent crime.

I left the pastorate about five years ago and since then I have become the national race advisor for BUGB. It was in this capacity that I spent a weekend away with young people last year, just taking time to invest in their lives really, and the main item on their agenda in terms of discussion and reflection was violent crime.

I was surprised by how things had changed since I had been a pastor in my church in North London, only five years ago. When I was a pastor violent crime was prevalent but not as prevalent as it is now and speaking to those young people only reinforced to me just how increasingly dangerous and concerning violent crime has become.

CT: So it is not simply something the media has latched on, it is actually getting worse?

WHR: I think it is. In the context of speaking to this particular group of young people - around 30 in all, every single one had been affected by gun or knife crime in some way, shape or form. If it was not they themselves personally, then it was a friend or a family member. They were telling me some really concerning stories in relation to gangs, the lure and attraction of gangs, the penalty of leaving gangs. All those stories really impacted on me.

It was within that context that I came together with Ascension Trust. I felt we had to link up and start to work together to curb and address violent crime, particularly where it concerns young black kids.

CT: Leading the funerals must have made a lasting impression?

WHR: Absolutely, it had a huge impact on me. These people were not members of my church but they were people in the community who died as a result of violent crime, and I knew most of them so I was privileged to do their funeral services.

CT: The media headlines, at least in London, tend to detail incidences of gun and knife crime involving black perpetrators and black victims. But is it confined to the black community and if so, what conclusions are we to draw from that?

WHR: This is certainly not confined to the African and Caribbean community. There is increasingly violent crime - gun and knife - in places like Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. In Manchester, there are clearly a lot of African and Caribbean people but there is a preponderance of white people and the gang turf war is primarily among white people in Manchester, as it is in Liverpool and Glasgow too. So the phenomenon is spreading and impacting all groups of people. Having said that, it is undeniably having a significant effect upon the African and Caribbean community.

CT: You mentioned briefly the lure of gangs. What are you hearing back from the young people you work with about the attractiveness of joining a gang?

WHR: Gang crime is symptomatic of dysfunctional families. Where you have a dysfunctional family it is natural that a young person will seek an escape from that dysfunctionality and pursue a functional space where they can find a sense of belonging and identity. And that is often in some sort of a community that is synonymous to a home.

Gangs are in one sense synonymous to a family because they appear to replace that dysfunctionality within the home. They appear to provide young people with a sense of protection, and they appear to give shape or identity to an individual. They certainly give a false sense of purpose.

Some young people are attracted to the gangs because these desires are not being fulfilled within the home, and so there is a replacement issue here. You replace dysfunctionality with apparent functionality, a lack of protection for apparent protection, a lack of identity for apparent identity. So I can understand why young people feel a gang is a good place. It is secure, at least for the time being, until they are asked to pick up a gun.

CT: Do those living in areas where gangs are an issue fear being approached by gangs and having to join, even if they don't want to?

WHR: I think there are a lot of scared young people out there who are deeply concerned about gangs. And there are also those who are deeply concerned about saying no to gangs, because as I understand it, if you say no to some gang members there are personal consequences to your rejection, and possible family consequences. So young people clearly are afraid to say no to gangs.

But at the same time there is an attraction about them and an apparent glamour. If you are not a gang member you hear how exciting the lifestyle is and about the possibility of making a substantial amount of money, driving flash cars and wearing good clothing. It's interesting that a lot of gang members come from not only dysfunctional families but from poor families as well.

Within the context of a gang clearly they have access to things that their parents were not able to provide for them.

CT: Does that perceived glamour stem from the high-status image of gangs within certain areas of rap music culture?

WHR: I certainly think that the music culture has contributed to the glamour and given the impression that whatever you want, you can get it in a gang immediately. I certainly think that the music industry has contributed to this notion of 'I want, therefore I get - and I get quickly'. The factors that contribute to this phenomenon are, however, very multifaceted and complex so I wouldn't want to put the blame on just one particular space or genre, but I certainly think that the music industry has had a part to play.

CT: Are gangs an issue for girls too?

WHR:Yes, girls are also being brought into gangs - girls increasingly so. Girls want what boys want, boys want what girls want. If a boy wants functionality, so does a girl. If a boy wants a nice car, which his parents can't provide for him or he can't earn enough money for, then a girl wants that too. If a boy wants power, a girl wants power too. The attraction is the same.

But regardless of the attraction, we need to be saying to our young people that violence is not an option, and that there are ways of living that can be creative to themselves and redemptive to other people.

CT: If a church wants to engage with gangs that could be quite a daunting prospect. What's your advice in reaching out to gang members?

WHR: I can understand the hesitation and fear, but I would say get advice from organisations like Peace Alliance, Street Pastors, Ascension Trust. There is a plethora of specialists out there who continue to navigate and negotiate this complex, violent world. I think it's really important for a church to access as much support, help and advice from as many different sources as possible. Get advice and support from them before you do it, but please do go ahead and do it once you've got that support and advice.

CT: Are you optimistic that there will be a turnaround in society, and that as the church, we can engage and make a positive difference that will give young people a new sense of identity and a new sense of hope?

WHR: I think it will get worse if we do not begin to challenge the root causes of violent crime, which centres on family. It will get worse if the church is not mobilised to work with strategic organisations in addressing violent crime on our streets. It will get worse if the Government is not strategic and intentional in seeking to curb violent crime.

If Government and church are willing to work in collaboration with each other, both from a relational perspective and a strategic perspective then yes, there is optimism in the air. If we don't then there is little prospect of it getting better.

The bottom line is that it is our problem. Theologically speaking it's God's problem but He has given us the mandate to work together and to seek to address these concerns. And I feel that if we do not rise up as a society and as a Christian community assume our moral responsibility for tackling violent crime then not only do we let God down, but we let our young people down as well.

Bite the Bullet will take place at Brixton Baptist Church, London on Saturday 12 July 2008.

For more information visit www.bitethebullet.info