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Guns, Gangs and the Christian Gospel

Thursday 25th October 2007

Speech given by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu on opening the Youth for Christ centre in Birmingham...

Message to Young people

Be Yourselves!

My message to each young person in this country is that God created you as a unique individual. Start living like one. With all your own particular gifts and abilities. Stop dreaming about the lives of others, throw away the celebrity magazines and your longing to be someone else. Your own life is much more precious, much more exciting if only you choose to use it, to utilise it. God made you a unique person down to your fingertips. Stop trying to be someone else and start being who you are.

Recognise too that there is more to life than being famous. There is more to life than being on TV, to winning a talent show or being in the papers. God created you to do much more than that. And lest anyone is confused, when I talk about God I don't mean Simon Cowell.

Imagine a judge in a talent contest who sees within you and sees not only all the good that there is, but all the possibilities for good that there can be. There is no humiliation to be feared in audition, no boot camp to fail, but only the recognition of your individual talents and gifts, many and varied as they are. Just ask your parents, ask your friends, and ask God. He gave you your talents and paid with His blood so that you could live to use them.

The world we live in is your inheritance, so value it. Demonstrate about issues of ecology, boycott businesses who support corrupt regimes, campaign for justice for those denied it, befriend the lonely, visit the sick, feed the hungry and transform the world.

The Road Ahead

There is no better place to begin than in the counter cultural teachings of Jesus Christ who calls for a radical lifestyle which give you riches beyond imaging through a relationship with him. Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, each of these knew that to change the world began not with what you can get for yourself, but how you can change the world for your brother or sister. Making the world a better place meant not joining a gang, but starting your own. Whether it be the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the African National Congress, these men knew that road ahead, strewn with more obstacles than we now face, was a road worth travelling. It meant arrest and detention, not for crimes against others, but for standing up for others. It mean a refusal to indulge in vengeance, even where the wrong doing was so clear that the world chorused its condemnation, against the apartheid regimes of South Africa and the vicious racism of the Southern states. It meant an end to selfish pursuit in favour of a pursuit of justice. No crime, no vengeance, no selfishness. This is the path to the greater good of communities and individuals alike and a path that awaits you if you have the strength to take it. Mahatma Gandhi famously said that "you should be the change you want to see in the world". My message to young people is, be that Change, be that catalyst of hope in your community. Stand up to criminality, denounce violence, turn your back on drugs and embrace generosity instead. Seize the best of life, glory in the goodness of it, and then live it before God and humanity alike.

Message to Government

The recent spate of murders and violence linked to gangs, knives and guns has led to initiatives and action plans from all quarters of Government. We all know that there is a problem; the thing we can't seem to agree on is a solution. Part of the problem is the muddle that the Government has found itself in when dealing with issue of faith groups. The approach that it has too often favoured has been a well intentioned but muddled syncretism that treats all faiths equally. This has blinded the Government to the real worth that is actually being carried out by those groups whose values are rooted in the soil of faith.

But if we are to be serious in tackling the challenges presented by gangs, guns and knives we need to examine and support those initiatives that have succeeded and where faith has played a major role, rather than minimising the role of faith in transforming lives and communities.

In Birmingham the Bringing Hope project has produced a report entitled "the Damascus Road Principles", describing the transformational experiences of people classed as "disaffected", "hard to reach" and hopeless with violent and drug induced mindsets through the example of the Apostle Paul after his encounter on the Damascus Road.

The government, police and others who want to challenge the culture of guns, knives and gangs need to recognise the power of the Gospel and how the Christian faith has brought people out of gun crime, drugs and violence and into a place of hope, transformed by faith Jesus Christ. There is a need to look beyond the traditional, reactive, punitive and retributive policies and to look instead at those lives transformed.

In 1991 the 'Damascus Road Principle' became a reality in the life of a 24-year-old man who had grown up in the hard-core environment of the 'street life' code. His life reflected the lived experience, which many young people are dealing with in this present time.

He experienced 15 years of drug abuse

From the age of 13 he was permanently excluded from all schools in Birmingham

He became involved in various levels of criminality and

Participated in early gang related activity and crime

Fifteen years later, following what we have called the 'Damascus experience' this person is a Founding member of Bringing Hope. He achieved an MBA in 2006.

Then there is the young man who had grown up in an environment of guns, drugs, knives and gangs but did not see himself as a gang member. He never had a father so lacked a role model and was living with his grandmother who was not fully aware of the pressurised environment that was engulfing him.

At 18, he got caught up in fight. A knife was pulled on him. He was handed a baseball bat, which he used, killing his opponent. The next day he was arrested and charged with murder. Just before his trial one of the chaplains from the prison spoke to him, challenging his lifestyle and he had a serious think

After a couple of weeks he was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. One evening on his own, he looked at himself and what he had done, the words of the chaplain came back to him and this brought him to his "Damascus Road" experience.

Because of this change in attitude, he conducted himself well in prison and is now in an open prison where he can work. He got married, bought a house and is looking forward to his release later this year. Even being in prison now he is able to speak to young people and youth groups about his regrets and subsequent transformation.

Whether through training peer mentors, social entrepreneurship schemes to offer alternatives to destructive lifestyles, or through an approach that puts public and social health alongside or even before crime control and community safety agendas, the work of these groups is bearing fruit.

People can change, but they need the inspiration to do so.

Message to Churches

Here at Youth for Christ you are only too aware of the Hope '08 agenda which calls on churches throughout the country to engage with their communities in word and deed. I am grateful to you for launching this work and for discerning the God's Spirit at work in the world.

If we as Churches are to support those who are tempted or targeted by gangs on our streets, then our churches need to be able to offer young people a place they can call home. As communities based on faith, hope and love, we need to offer each of these to those young people who seek an alternative to the gangs that dominate their lives. In offering community and identity to these young people, in offering belonging and family, we can stand as a bulwark against those who would terrorise and target our young people.

For churches who work in those areas of our country where guns, gangs and knives are issues, the call to each of you must be to prepare a place of safety for our children, a haven from drugs, a refuge from violence, a place of support, nurture and encouragement for those seeking a new way of life.

Let every church be a centre of inspiration, where Christ is mirrored in a community of love.

Message to wider community

But it is not Churches alone who have a role to play. Each of us has a duty to make our communities a safer place not only for ourselves, for our children, but for the children of others, for our neighbours of tomorrow, for our common humanity.

For those of us who lead lives of stability and can offer mentoring, advice, tutelage or encouragement to the young there are numerous examples of actions we can take to play our part.

The Bringing Hope project tells of a businessman who in January 2003 was driving past the location where days earlier two young women had been fatally shot. He felt that he ought to be doing something to address the social issues, which lead to violence and criminality. As a white, middle class man with a successful business in the Birmingham suburbs he did not appear to have the links to do this work. However, shortly after that day in January he helped to transform an ex-offender's life by giving him a job and countless others the opportunities not often afforded to them by people in the private sector. Many of them are now helping young people experiencing similar challenges through peer mentoring. He is now an integral part of the Bringing Hope Executive Committee.

The message to young people, to the government and to the community demands that we look beyond what is, to what can be. Then work tirelessly to bring it about. It's a message of hope. It believes in nothing less than the transformation of the world. It is the message of Jesus Christ himself. He says to us all, come and be changed into life abundant. Then go and be the change in your community.

 

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