BRITAIN: Church and State worry about teenage stabbings

August 26, 2008

Celebrations marking Britain's best Olympic success in 100 years, with the country's athletes winning 19 gold medals, were marred by the fatal stabbing of an 18-year-old Londoner, adding to a knife-wielding trend that is worrying both church and government leaders. The young man's death on August 24 brought the total number of violent teenage killings in the British capital alone to 24 so far this year. The Anglican bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish, who also sits in the House of Lords, Britain's upper parliamentary chamber, said that knife crime, which some politicians have described as an "epidemic," should be tackled by a "long-term strategic approach." Langrish said in July, "Addressing the issue of knife and other violent crime, it emphasizes that what is really needed are long-term strategic partnerships between churches, community groups, the police, criminal justice partners and local authorities." The majority of those killed in Britain as a result of the use of knives and guns, say sociologists, are young males, mainly of Afro-Caribbean descent. Researchers say that the crimes are related to drug pushing, gang rivalry based on members' post (zip) code addresses, or even just a "look" deemed to show a lack of respect. Both British government and church leaders are looking for answers. One government response has been to launch a 100 million British pounds (US$185 million) Youth Action Plan. Other government initiatives involve increasing police patrols, orders making parents legally responsible for their children who are completing community service penalties, and a range of family intervention projects on troubled housing estates. The interdenominational church response includes individual initiatives such as "Bite the Bullet." This follows a recent meeting in Brixton in south London between the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the Street Pastors organization to exchange ideas and recruit volunteers to go out on the streets at the closing times of pubs and night clubs, in order to offer help to young people when they are at their most vulnerable. The Rev. Les Isaac, who founded Street Pastors five years ago, became a gang member himself when he was 13 because he felt isolated at school and friendless after the break up of his parents' marriage. Later, he says, a sense of "Is this all?" led him to reassess his life in the light of a new-found faith, and the realization that he need not be a victim of circumstance. Street pastors wear distinctive blue jackets and caps, and are members of their local church. They agree after training to be available at least once a month to go out at the weekend between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. to engage with people leaving pubs and night clubs. The street pastors offer a range of help including the immediately practical, such as advice on how to get home, providing slip-on sandals for shoeless clubbers, and in extreme cases offering sleeping bags at a base in a nearby church. Pastors also lend an ear to more general problems raised on street corners, and suggest government and voluntary agencies that may be able to help. Britain's minister of state for security, counter-terrorism, crime and policing, Tony McNulty, recently joined a street pastors' patrol in Brixton, and recounts how impressed he had been by a 70-year-old woman pastor who prevented a fight developing over a bag of crisps (potato chips). Isaac told Ecumenical News International that in the five years the pastors had been operating at 70 sites in British cities and towns, none of the pastors had been met personally with violence. "We are asked whether we are paid for the work we are doing, and when told that we are not, there is an acceptance that we are there in good faith," he said. While there is no short-term fix to the problem of knife crime and youth gangs, Isaac believes providing young people with a sense of self-esteem is crucial. This is also stressed in a report, "Who is my neighbour?" recently launched at the British parliament by the umbrella body Churches Together in England. The report recommends placing more young people in positions of responsibility and leadership in the Church, and in greater partnership with specialist agencies.