With gang culture on the rise and 26 teenagers stabbed to death in the capital last year, we meet the Christians battling for peace
'I was locked up after the London Riots. But I read the Bible in prison and everything changed'
Sephton Henry shares his amazing story from gang violence to a life of love
I came from a broken home and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says that when your basic needs are not met, you’re likely to go elsewhere. So the things I was looking for – affection, love and all the things a child hungers for – I ended up searching for out on the streets.
When I was eight years old, the older boys in my area in south-east London told me to deliver something to a man down the road. I didn’t know that the package had drugs in it until I saw the man overdosing on the floor. I started to feel bad; that somehow it was my fault, so I said to myself I would avoid going near the older boys. But I was a kid, and when you’re a kid you only go as far as the shops and the park, and that’s where they are, so I was bound to bump into them. And I did – again and again and again.
Initiation into gangs is so subtle you don’t even realise you are being manipulated into doing stuff. I felt like I had no choice but to do what the older boys wanted in order to fit in and be accepted.
When I was twelve, the older boys came back to encourage me to sell drugs again. I never had much – I was sleeping from sofa to sofa and on kitchen floors, and people used to cuss me and call me all the names under the sun because I never had anything. So the older boys said: “Look, sell these drugs and you’ll make money, people won’t talk to you like that and you’ll have respect.” So I did.
There was so much violence around me that at 13 I joined a gang to protect myself. I got caught by the police several times, but often the charges would get dropped because people were too afraid to pursue it – I had become very violent myself. I was engaging in antisocial behaviour: breaking windows, setting my dog on other dogs. This led to the first heavy violence – setting my dog on people. I was desensitised to pain by this point. Violence was how we dealt with situations – it was normal, nothing new. If someone violated me, I hurt them; those were my morals.
I have seen some horrific things – people being stabbed with Samurai swords, a woman being violently assaulted. Often people wonder why kids are out on the streets, but little do they know it’s sometimes more dangerous at home.
Prison and Rehabilitation
I’ve been in prison seven times. The last time I went to jail was for the London riots. At the time, I was dating a Christian lady and I have to give her the credit; she was the one who woke me up to Christ. One day she preached to me about Jesus and I was blown away. She started praying for me and when I went to the police station to hand myself in, they said they’d lost my papers. Now, consider this: I’m a PPO (Persistent and Prolific Offender), I was on the front of the Greenwich Time newspaper. You don’t lose my papers, I’m not the one you lose papers for. Especially not in Plumstead Police Station; they knew me very well! When they said to come back in three months – I was blown away. I knew it must be God. I looked up into the sky that day and I remembered her prayers. It was like I got a revelation then and there and I prayed a prayer asking God to change me. Boom – the Holy Spirit came and something happened. It was the next day that I really knew life had changed: I was all smiles. My girlfriend was like: what sort of gang member is this?
After the police had gathered enough evidence on me, I was sent to prison for a year for the riots, but it was faith that was my real rehabilitation. I spent that year reading my Bible and changing my mindset. The violent thoughts I once had were replaced with humility. Everything I read was changing the way I saw the world. In street life you have a gang mentality of repay bad for bad, but when I read the Bible it was telling me to do good to those who mistreated me.
"People wonder why kids are out on the streets, but little do they know it's sometimes more dangerous at home"
I found myself meditating on Romans 12:1-2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
I discovered that my behaviour started changing. I no longer responded to people in the same aggressive way I once did; I was set free from a lot. I also asked God for forgiveness for the hurt I had caused others. I was repenting every day. The fruits of the Spirit began to grow in my life and that shaped my character a lot. You don’t see love, peace, joy and faithfulness in gang culture.
Returning to my community
My new life in Christ is wonderful but it hasn’t always been easy. I don’t always feel accepted in church because I don’t conform, and sometimes I’ve felt used. I’ve been asked to do certain stuff because of my testimony but I’ve not always been listened to.
Coming back to the community also hasn’t been without its difficulties. Because I was so deep in gang life, I have to hide some of the things I now do (I work as a gangs consultant for the charity Gangsline). Some people I used to know still see me as a gang ‘boss’ – on the streets they nudge me and show me respect, but it’s not because they like me, it’s because they’re scared of me. But when they notice that I’ve changed, they’re blown away and convicted that God is real. The power of God’s love has changed a thug into a man of integrity and humility.
Sephton Henry was speaking to Premier Christianity’s deputy editor, Megan Cornwell