Sadly, serious youth violence, particularly but not exclusively in the capital, has not abated. A shooting in a part of Feltham in south west London late last week brought this epidemic to the edge of our circuit for the first time.
At the same time churches are continuing to respond as best as they are able, and the Methodist Church in London at a senior level is involved in ongoing discussions with ecumenical partners about what can be done to stop it. This column has described before how churches might respond by deploying their safeguarding knowledge and experience in their direct work with young people. Our greater understanding of ‘contextual safeguarding’ and the drivers that seem to propel a small number of young people to commit serious crimes is also helpful as it shows us something of a culture of alienation, exploitation and violence that permeates the lives of some youngsters. The problem has also been defined as a public health issue, and this too is helpful, as solutions need to be joined up, holistic and carefully focused.
One London Anglican vicar suggested last week that churches could open their doors as places of sanctuary for school children making their way home from school or college. Some violence seems to erupt at the end of the school day and so there is a logic in trying to provide safe spaces where young people can find some peace. It’s a good idea, but having run a youth drop in centre early in my youth work career, I know that danger does not always check itself into the cloakroom at the entrance. It will be important to ensure that any church embarking on this approach thinks through the offer with care, being clear they are sufficiently resourced in terms of adult supervision and have well prepared practice protocols to deal with the myriad of issues that could present themselves. These are not reasons to close off this particular type of response but a note to reflect on that the root causes of serious youth violence are complex and that apparently simple solutions may be just that, not fully matching what’s required.
It’s again worth re-stating that youth violence in itself is not exclusively a 21st century phenomenon. Social history over at least the last two centuries is littered with examples of gang culture and periodic moral panics. What’s different this time is the speed at which things happen and their transmission by social media. There is also a sense that a recourse to violence leading to possible death is a result of a different split second calculation about what’s OK or not when an argument erupts. The bloody nose and split lip has been replaced by the fatal stab.
Churches, as key community partners, must play their part as been flagged by recent reports. Let’s deploy the resources and skills at our disposal, but aim to do it safely and securely.