The gun crime in Britain is ‘growing like a cancer’ according to the Association of Chief Police Officers. And gun gangs are no longer confined to a handful of London boroughs but are spreading across the country, with a record 35% jump in incidents nationwide in 2002. This averages out at 30 people shot on a British street, each and every day. In Merseyside shootings nearly quadrupled in 2003; in Manchester the figure increased by 23%, and in London, it almost trebled. Criminals cash in on fear in a growing gun culture, with the use of imitation guns in crime nearly doubling in the year to 2003.
The link between gun crime and the drug trade is a given. Police find the now-mandatory five-year sentence for carrying a firearm has made little difference to the number of guns on the street. The reason, they say, is that dealers are often in possession of enough drugs to have them jailed for 10 years if caught. ‘Because of that, they feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by carrying a gun,’ said one drug squad detective, speaking anonymously to The Observer.
While historically viewed as the problem of black communities, gun crime is not limited to any particular ethnic group. "The use of firearms is not an Afro-Caribbean issue alone," says Nick Tofiluk, assistant chief constable of West Midlands Police. "White and Asian networks exist that possess firearms and are involved in the supply of illicit drugs both to the African-Caribbean networks and in competition with existing networks." And he fears the violence will escalate: "The potential for inter-ethnic criminal disputes is increasing."
A community sickness is at the heart of much of what leads to gun and drug crime. Black theologian Robert Beckford states: ‘I believe that the underlying causes of gun crime and gang violence are the product of a systemic failure, or multiple breakdown, in social, cultural, political, communal and moral forces in the urban context …[This] does not mean that we ignore personal responsibility. Young people committing crimes have to be held accountable for their actions. [But] faced with an inability to create a meaningful place in the world, many have simply opted out of mainstream life, choosing alternative economic and social existences.’
The police themselves recognise this sickness: "It’s all down to a lack of hope," says Paul Scott-Lee, chief constable for the West Midlands Police. And London police chief Sir John Stevens recently gave his support to a joint police/Evangelical Alliance initiative, Hope for London. This booklet flagged up Christian-led stories of hope for communities dogged by crime, in the capital and beyond. "We wanted to showcase the ways churches can make a real difference when they pray and work in partnership with the police and other community agencies," says Evangelical Alliance head Joel Edwards. UK cities are crying out for this approach: the London mayor’s race chief, Lee Jasper has called on government to pour money into community work in the most deprived areas if there is to be any chance of beating gun and drug-related crime.
Hope for London showed that, behind the depressing gun-slaughter headlines, there are places where Christians have decided they will be counter-cultural and will stand up for their community. Christians in Haringey, a London borough with one of the highest incidences of gun crime, got to the point where they knew to just stand by was no longer a godly option, and the Haringey Peace Alliance was born. Pioneered by Rev Nims Obunge, the Peace Alliance draws together church, council, community and other faith leaders who have united to turn their community around. On the churches’ part, prayer undergirds all their efforts with around 30 churches actively involved through the Pray Haringey coalition.
The Peace Alliance tackles gun crime at the sharp end, launching in Haringey the ‘Not Another Drop’ anti-gun campaign, which had been successfully used in Brent. Home Secretary, David Blunkett was sufficiently impressed by their track record to include Nims and other Haringey leaders in a gun summit in early 2004. But the churches see the work they do with disadvantaged young people in the borough as equally important, opening up choices for them which otherwise would not exist, and heading youngsters away from crime. Schemes have included multi-media training, schools work where ex-cons talk to the kids to deglamourise the life of guns and gangs, and support for a low-income community, including plans for a credit union.
And it’s working: Haringey had the biggest drop in gun crime of any London borough in 2003, at 18%, with overall crime falling by nearly six per cent. Haringey community safety head Nilgun Canver puts it down to "the successful partnership between the police, the council and other agencies, which is second to none in the capital."
Nims explains why they are getting results in Haringey: "There are four foundations we build on. First, the reality that we can’t do any of this in isolation. We need each other – partnership is key. Second, we in the Church need to take responsibility for our community. We need to look beyond our own four walls, and the four walls of our homes, and own the issues. Third, we work with young people and the issues they face, and see them as part of the answer, not part of the problem. Finally, we cannot ignore the role of prayer. I take that as a given.
"We have an acronym for PEACE – P for parenting, E is effective education, A is achievement, C stands for community and civic responsibility and E for enterprise. That’s because what we’re doing is not just about gun crime. Gun crime is just a symptom of the deeper issues. We get involved in anything that affects the quality of life for those in our community. Any group of churches might focus on one or more aspects of the PEACE outline," says Nims, "but first has to come partnership and prayer. When you bring leaders together, a nucleus will form and it will grow from there."
This has been the experience of over 200 Birmingham church leaders, who attended the first citywide strategy meeting on drugs, guns and gangs earlier this year. The move was initiated by black and white-majority churches, working with the police and city council. But it all started with two men meeting to pray once a week.
"I guess we were challenged about what the Church was doing about this problem, and we couldn’t robustly say we were doing a lot," says Rev Carver Anderson, a former national director with the New Testament Church of God, who now works with radically disaffected youth in Birmingham.
"Proactivity is a key here: look at Luke 4: 18 where Jesus quotes from Isaiah. The Church does have the answer when we start to live with our responsibility to deal with those who have lost their way. We can place hope back into the community."
But it’s not for the fainthearted, Carver finds: "It needs courage. I have been working on the frontline and sometimes it’s disheartening. Like God says to Joshua, ‘be courageous and be very courageous’. It takes consistency and perserverance. But it’s not rocket science – it just needs Christians to say we’ve had enough of our community being disempowered by this evil."
Christians from Manchester, Birmingham and London are saying enough is enough by volunteering for the recently launched ‘street pastors’ initiative in their cities. At its heart, a street pastor is a simple way of relating to people at risk on the street. It was the brainchild of Les Isaac of the Ascension Trust, and it uses trained volunteers in some of the UK’s most troubled estates. Crime rates in Lewisham, south London, have tumbled by some 30% since the scheme kicked off in May 2003, and its team of London volunteers has grown from 18 to 100. One year on, the scheme operates in six London boroughs, at the request of police and local councils.
The team goes out on the streets in pairs or threes through the night to chat to those they meet and to be a peaceful presence. They are identifiable by a distinctive jacket and baseball cap. A wide range of people volunteer, from students to pensioners, with six women to every man. Alison Lievesley, a 27-year-old medical student, helps in Brixton once every two or three weeks: "We walk around the estates and say hello to people we pass. People will often come up to us because of the jackets, and ask who we are. We say we’re from a group of churches and quite often that comes round to conversations about faith. I’ve talked to homeless people, clubbers, bouncers – anyone. We’re not there to judge but to tell people they’re worth something.
"In 10 months I’ve never felt personally threatened. I was uncertain what to do once when a fight broke out among some women who had kids with them. But we managed to calm everyone down and disperse them. I feel I can’t just turn up in church on Sunday and that’s my life – I have to go out and look for people on the margins."
Being there is what counts, says Paul Keeble, who heads up the Manchester street pastors scheme launched in summer 2004. "It doesn’t count for much with people round here if the churches say they’re praying for them. What does count is physically being there with them. Street pastors gets Christians out of their buildings to do something visible, practical and positive for at risk young people, on their turf, no strings attached, to encourage them towards alternatives to crime. We pray too, of course!"
Beating gun crime is not about wrenching a weapon out of someone’s hand but about tackling the reasons a 16-year-old thinks he’s only worth something if he’s a respected member of a drugs gang. "We are aiming [to] prevent young men in particular picking up the gun, picking up the drugs, going into gangs," explains founder Les Isaac, "… because we believe that these young men not only become a danger to themselves but to their community and society." Street pastors are trained to refer contacts, where appropriate, to support agencies who help with education, employment or rehabilitation.
"Street pastors don’t preach [but they do] bring hope," he continues. "The guys in the streets know they are in a mess. Their communities know they are in a mess. The most important thing is to address selfesteem. There has always got to be hope - hope that life can be different, hope for education and training, hope for employment."
Hope can desert people at a very early age, finds Manchester’s Patsy McKie. Christian mother Patsy lost her 20-year-old son Dorrie five years ago, when he was shot dead by a Manchester gang, despite never having been in any trouble with the police himself. Her response was to found Mothers Against Violence (MAV) which supports families and communities affected by gun crime. As well as featuring in the national media, Patsy recently received a top ‘Winning Women’ award for her work, which includes speaking in schools and prisons.
"A lot of these boys go into gangs because there’s safety in numbers," says Patsy. "We want to give them an alternative … we go into schools to meet young people, teachers and parents. Asian men are now getting involved in gangs. Asian mothers are concerned about their young men. These parents are talking about their fears as well, what’s happening in their communities. You have to value your own life before you can value other people’s lives. Some boys are saying ‘we ain’t gonna live past 20’. They think life is nothing."
She is convinced that "you can only blow someone else’s head off if you don’t think much of yourself" and she feels passionate about helping children understand how important and valuable they are, especially when they have experienced academic difficulties or inadequate parenting. This kind of input into damaged lives is only what Jesus would do if he were in Manchester, she says. "Jesus got called a winebibber because he was sitting in the equivalent of the pub, talking to people. It’s the sick that need help, not the well."
Find out more
For help with planning and funding a church-led community project, make a start with faithworks’ seven-step guide. Free resource when you register (also free) at www.faithworks.info and click on Resources.
Birmingham church coalition: firstname.lastname@example.org
Street pastors: (020) 7771 9770 Email: ascensionswjp@ yahoo.com
Mothers Against Violence: 07985 490333
Impact (Liverpool): (0151) 281 1540
Hope for London: free with SAE. (020) 7207 2147. Email: email@example.com
God and the gangs: Robert Beckford - Darton Longman and Todd. £10.95 ISBN 0-232-52518-8