THE voice of the Area Bishop of Woolwich, Dr Karowei Dorgu, echoed around Southwark Cathedral as he recited a verse from Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Dr Dorgu was speaking at the Pan London Churches Serious Violence Summit — one week after five people, three of them teenage boys, had been stabbed to death in south London in just six days.
Hundreds of clergy and church leaders had gathered in the cathedral to respond to the escalating violence among young people across the capital. The summit was organised before the most recent killings, but the shadow of those deaths hung over the conference.
Clergy in Southwark diocese had visited the family of Jay Hughes, the 15-year-old knifed to death outside a fried-chicken shop in Bellingham, Lewisham, on 1 November; and Dr Dorgu is to lead a vigil in memory of the young man. But more needed to be done, he urged. The summit must not become yet another “talking-shop”, but would instead try to answer two questions: “What can your church do?” And “What can the wider Church do?”
He closed his introduction with a prayer, commissioned by the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun: “Compassionate God: hear our cries, dry our tears, heal our pain, and give us determination to work to find an end to the violence that takes our young people from us.”
The Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime in London, Sophie Linden, thanked those present for their “strength and compassion in supporting families and individuals in such dreadfully difficult and trying circumstances”. The statistics were bad, she said: levels of violence were “unacceptably and shockingly high”. Knife crime in urban areas had risen by 20 per cent, and in London there were 40 offences of violence with a knife every day.
In response, the Mayor’s office had established a Violence Reduction Unit, with a remit to treat the problem as a public-health concern rather than solely a criminal-justice issue.
SOUTHWARK DIOCESAN COMMUNICATIONSChurch leaders and clerics at Southwark Cathedral
London needed more police, she said, but “we know that the police cannot arrest their way out of this problem”; instead, long-term prevention was key, and that was where the Church must come in. She urged those present to apply for grants from the £45-million Young Londoners Fund, which could support youth workers and other community projects run by churches to tackle the root causes of street violence.
The founder of Street Pastors, the Revd Les Isaac, said that the Church was good at praying for things, and good at organising meetings; but this was an issue that needed urgent action instead: “Today is a day looking for answers.”
Some of those answers could come from church schools, the assistant director of the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education, Mike McKeaveney, suggested. Many of the young people caught up in violence — both perpetrators and victims — were not in full-time education.
If church schools could resist the pressure to exclude pupils who were vulnerable to gang membership or crime, he said, they could become a significant part of the solution. Rather than give up on troubled teenagers, church schools should follow a “cycle of grace”, he suggested, rooted in a biblical ethic of forgiveness and restorative justice instead of punitive punishment.
A former senior Metropolitan Police officer, Leroy Logan, encouraged the church leaders to “open their hearts to those seen as unclean or deprived”: they could reach vulnerable youths who would never engage with a police officer in uniform.
The other part of the puzzle was supporting and rebuilding families, he suggested. When he was growing up as a young black man in London, Mr Logan said, it was only the values implanted in him by his stable, loving, and “God-fearing” family which had steered him away from trouble.
He underlined this with an anecdote from his teenage years. Three close friends had tried to persuade him to join them in stealing apples. He had said no, having been taught that all theft was wrong. “Three hours later, all three of them were arrested for a gang rape. That really registered to me the importance of a loving family.”
Finally, the cathedral audience listened to a speech from Mercia Perin, a young volunteer from the youth charity XLP. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” she said, “because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor . . . to set the oppressed free.” She thanked those present for including young people in their deliberations, and urged them never to stop trying to bring teenagers at risk into their communities.
“It takes a village to raise a child, but the same village can kill a child,” she said. “If young people feel they are not part of that village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth. It is our duty to be our brother’s keeper.”
SOUTHWARK DIOCESAN COMMUNICATIONSLeroy Logan, a retired Metropolitan Police superintendent
The second half of the summit was devoted to workshops exploring how congregations could get involved in tackling the violence among young people in London. Ben Lindsay, the Pastor of Emmanuel Church, in New Cross, south London, spoke about how, in 2016, two boys — the sons of some of his best friends — had been killed just six months apart.
His church had soon realised that the grieving families needed significant support, both financial — so that they could continue attending the months-long trials without a job — and emotional and therapeutic, as well as pastorally through funerals and visiting.
Simply offering support after someone had died, however, was not enough, he said. Churches were good at social welfare but not so good at social justice: at challenging the structures that create need in the first place.
He had set up a charity, Power the Fight, to enable churches to work with young people at risk of gang violence and crime before it was too late. There was a range of options — one church was considering offering free chicken and chips from its hall each afternoon, after seeing research that suggested that the most dangerous time of day for stabbings was from 4 to 6 p.m., when children bought food on their way home from school.
At another workshop, staff from XLP offered more advice: church members could mentor at-risk teenagers, they suggested, or offer their buildings for youth work.
Do not be afraid to contact the local authority to offer help, the church leaders were told. XLP was ready to connect a congregation with schools near by to be a bridge between the church and its community, if required.
Mr Lindsay closed by quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had said that all people, when faced with evil, fell into three categories: perpetraors, bystanders, or resisters. “Are you a bystander? Or are we prepared to be a resister?”