Modern Family

There's a new family on the block: gangs. CEO of XLP, Patrick Regan, outlines the state of gang activity in the UK, and explores how the Church can be the hope – and the family – these young people need.

The media loves talking about gangs. It’s a sensational and dramatic topic which fuels society’s fears, especially if no real solutions are evident. Their otherworldliness fascinates us and their apparent lack of regard for human life horrifies us. Gangs have become a symbol of the reality facing a broken and lost generation.

Yet, living in Peckham, gangs are not such a remote, abstract concept. This really hit home when my daughter (who was seven months old at the time) was awoken by the sound of gunshots just down the road from where we live. Another stark reminder of how serious and immediate this issue is for young people came when I met 15 year-old Rakeem, who wore a bullet-proof vest to school. At first I thought it was bravado – why would any teenager in London need a bullet-proof vest? Then I found out that a rival gang, who had already put Rakeem’s brother in hospital and shot his cousin, wanted to kill him. Six weeks later Rakeem was stabbed in broad daylight outside his school and narrowly escaped with his life.

The statistics seem to back up my own experience. According to the Metropolitan Police, London is home to 250 active gangs and this issue is not just confined to the capital. The Home Office has identified 33 areas around the country, including Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, which are particularly affected by gangs. Friends of mine were performing at a gig in Birmingham when two young women were shot dead nearby. It seems two rival gangs were targeting each other and the girls who had nothing to do with the gangs got caught in the crossfire. This tragic scenario is not unusual.

When I assisted with an independent political think-tank’s research on gangs, we found three worrying developments in UK gang culture. Firstly, the age that young people get involved in gangs has dropped; kids as young as eight are becoming involved. Secondly, girls are increasingly becoming part of gangs and becoming more violent themselves. Thirdly, the level of violence is rising, with gang members trying to outdo each other in terms of who can be the most violent and carry out the worst acts.

It’s a devastating part of our work when circumstances lead to us attending the funeral of a young person who has died as a consequence of gang-related violence. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do is look into the eyes of a parent who has lost their child and try to find something, anything, to say to offer comfort in the face of such an utterly senseless tragedy. It hits you in the gut that kids are killing each other, leaving a stream of total destruction in their wake. I cannot simply accept that this is how it has to be for our communities. God has shared something of his love for the people of Peckham with me, and I am desperate to see it turned around. The same story keeps coming back to me from the book of Joshua, where Achan is found guilty of theft and is taken to the Valley of Achor to be stoned (Joshua 7). Achor means ‘a place of trouble’, but later, through the prophet Hosea, God promises he will ‘make the Valley of Achor a door of hope’ (Hosea 2:15). Isn’t that the crux of the gospel? To take a place labelled as no good and, by working with the community, see it transformed into a place of hope.

Why do young people get involved?

I knew we had to do something to help those young people caught up in gang life or at risk of getting into gangs. I realised early on that the best starting point was to try and understand the world from their perspective. I struggled to comprehend what would make someone want to live that kind of lifestyle. Why would you choose to join a gang? Why would you want to put your life in danger and live constantly looking over your shoulder, fearing retaliation at any moment? What would make you so full of anger that you could put a knife in someone’s chest or shoot them dead?

Not surprisingly, I found that there is no single answer. There are a few key factors; they rarely work in isolation, but when combined they can lead to someone turning to gang life. It seems that persistent poverty, a lack of positive male role models, educational failure, unemployment, fear and anger all play a part; many of these reinforce and perpetuate the others. Family breakdown appears to play a key role in whether someone is drawn to gang activity. In our work we’ve seen single mothers having to work long hours between multiple jobs just to pay the bills, meaning they are not there for their kids in the way they would like to be. Without a strong family connection, life can be unstable for a child and they’ll look for a sense of belonging anywhere they can. Gangs can be seen as substitute families, with members looking out for and protecting each other. This is a powerful pull for a child who is regularly left to fend for themselves and is feeling alone. One girl, Amy, poignantly said: ‘The gangs I joined seemed the only people in the world to offer a kind of comfort and care. The desire to feel wanted, in a world that seemed to regard me as scum, was very powerful.’

The absence of a father figure often results in young guys looking elsewhere for a model of what it means to be a man. On many estates the person looked up to is often the guy who has the flashiest car, the prettiest girlfriends and the bulging wallet. In many cases these are all earned through drugs and crime, and so in a world devoid of positive aspirations, this becomes something to aim for. This is particularly the case where there is no one in a young person’s life encouraging them to stay in education and offering an appealing, valid alternative to gangs. For many kids with a chaotic home life, it’s hard to concentrate in school. Anger issues often cause them to become disruptive and get involved in fights, which can mean they are labelled as trouble makers. Ultimately, many young people believe they won’t get anywhere at school, and many are thrust out of mainstream education altogether. If this is the case, they often start to hang around with other similarly disenfranchised kids and find, in a system that has lost hope in them, that it’s easier to influence each other into a life of crime than to pursue an alternative.

Without an education, a job with good financial prospects seems hard to come by. When a drug dealer on an estate offers someone more than a week’s wages just for carrying some drugs, the offer can be too tempting to resist. And so the vicious cycle continues. Put simply, when a number of these issues are combined the result is often that many children and young people find themselves feeling unloved and unwanted, with no sense of belonging or hope for the future. Many of our young people are living with a poverty of aspiration – an unrelenting sense of utter hopelessness. It is one of the most insidious and harmful conditions for any human being, leaving you with a distorted view of what is right and wrong, and a deep cynicism and grinding despair that causes you to feel worthless and unable to access or engage with community. If we do not give young people hope about the positive things they can achieve with their lives, they will embrace the things which will eventually destroy them and all those around them. 

Hopeful kids don’t join gangs: young people who feel secure, who have a stable family life, good role models, and a hope for their future, are unlikely to be attracted to that lifestyle 

Is change possible?

Hopeful kids don’t join gangs. Young people who feel secure, who have a stable family life, good role models, and a hope for their future are unlikely to be attracted to that lifestyle. In order to offer this, we will need courage and commitment, firmly rooted in trusting Jesus with our own lives. We might sometimes worry that by accepting and loving people as they are, we will be, or will be perceived to be, merely overlooking their actions. Perhaps we are even concerned what other people might say or think about us if we are discovered engaging with the ‘wrong’ people.

Yet Jesus radically put his concern for those who were lost and needed the hope of the kingdom before concern for his own reputation or what others thought. He understood that if people’s lives are to change, they need to be offered a radical new kind of relationship where mercy and grace go hand in hand with compassionate truth, courage and commitment. A relationship like this can be transformational in terms of their past, present, future and even eternity.

One great example of this was Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus was a traitor in the eyes of the Jewish people. He was not only collecting money for the Roman oppressors from a population already struggling with poverty, he was also skimming even more money off for himself. He was feared and despised. But Jesus saw Zacchaeus through a different lens – one where no one is irredeemable, unimportant or outside of the reach of his attention and love. Jesus could see something that others could not; he could see past what Zacchaeus had done to who he could be. He didn’t tell Zacchaeus that everything he was doing was okay, but he showed Zacchaeus that he still loved and believed in him in spite of it.

When he came face to face with the truth and the love of God in Jesus’ extended friendship, Zacchaeus could, perhaps for the first time, let down his defences and see the reality of the person he had become and all the possibilities of who he could be instead. That’s the first step to hope: realising that you need help and opening your eyes to the alternative reality being offered to you. The second step is acting on it. Zacchaeus responded to the hope of the good news of the kingdom and chose to embrace his new-found future right there and then. He committed to repaying all he’d taken and making generous amends for what he had done.

Time and again Jesus refused to let his understanding of God’s kingdom be defined or limited by the customs and assumptions of the day. He engaged in conversation and ate meals with all the wrong people. He earned himself the nickname ‘friend of sinners’. It’s a title we don’t think too much about today but it offers us an incredible insight into the true heart of a loving and highly relational God. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could offer God’s truth alongside God’s love in this way? How different would our young people look if we had the eyes of Jesus? That should be our daily prayer – that we would see past what people have become and instead see what they could be.

At XLP, we place relationships at the heart of all we do, whether that be with parents, local church leaders, funders or young people, and it’s just as important when it comes to engaging with gang-affiliated young people. Through our mentoring programme, XL-Mentoring, meeting young people on their estates with our two buses or X-Mobile recording studio, we allow these young people to feel safe, have fun and give them the opportunity to be heard as we listen to them share about the issues they are facing day-to-day. For some of them, it quickly becomes apparent that they need specific support; gang members will often have constructed more barriers to a brighter future through acquiring criminal records and deep emotional trauma.

For the majority of the young people who have turned their life around, they would say the turning point in their life was finding someone who cared about them and believed they could be something more. Instead of gangs providing belonging and a sense of worth in young people’s lives - wouldn’t it be brilliant if Amy’s quote read: ‘The Church seemed the only people in the world to offer a kind of comfort and care. The desire to feel wanted, in a world that seemed to regard me as scum, was very powerful.’ Although gang culture can seem complex, overwhelming and irredeemable, hope is a refusal to accept a situation as it is. Through investing in relationships with young people for the long haul we can be powerful bringers of hope to this generation.

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