Pastor Ben Lindsay: Harnessing the Potential and Resources of Faith Groups
As a pastor, community leader and charity CEO, I welcome the final report of the Youth Violence Commission. This in-depth report looks at the root causes of violence between young people and gains insight from a wide range of sources, presenting a holistic view which is often missing. It is refreshing to see an acknowledgment of the role faith groups can play in the reduction of youth violence and the creation of more peaceful communities. The findings of this report will undoubtedly further encourage faith groups to identify the contributions they can make to these objectives. Youth violence is an issue which belongs to the whole of society – not just to particular groups – and so it requires all of us to play our part.
With recent research showing that spending on youth services in England and Wales has been cut by 70% in the last decade, resulting in a loss of £1bn of investment and zero funding in some areas, the need for faith groups to increase their commitment to youth work has become more urgent. Since the budget cuts in 2011, youth clubs have closed and front-line youth services have been eradicated. According to research by Unison, freedom of information requests from 168 local authorities across the UK show that youth services lost at least £60m of funding between 2012 and 2014. More than 2000 jobs were lost. Around 350 youth centres closed and 41,000 youth service places for young people and at least 35,000 hours of outreach work by youth workers were cut.
Faith groups have access to three resources that, due to the austerity measures of the last decade, are now in short supply: buildings, unrestricted funds and volunteers. Many faith groups own buildings and halls in the heart of their communities at a time when public space is increasingly under threat. A study published in BMJ Open in 2018 identified the hours after school as a period of significantly heightened risk of violence for school-aged children, with the majority of incidents occurring close to home and school. Places of worship, like other public buildings, are vital to our communities and if accessible to young people, can offer places of refuge.
With unrestricted funds, mainly from congregational giving, faith groups are able to be more responsive to needs in their community by delivering funds to organisations and individuals in need much faster than public sector grants can. Faith groups have established cultures of volunteering and a long history of providing support to families and young people in the UK. They consistently provide free and safe spaces for children and young people through Sunday schools, youth clubs and programmes for students and young adults. They often include free meals, providing community and nutrition to young people who otherwise may be home alone. Faith groups offer mentoring, advice, support and guidance that, due to austerity, statutory services struggle to provide. They provide connection to an intergenerational community, which can help to build resilience against criminality and violence.
Tragically, some faith groups have been slow to respond to safeguarding issues, sometimes due to negligence and in other cases, due to a willingness to help the vulnerable without understanding the risks and complexities involved. Across the board, faith groups must learn the lessons and improve in the area of child protection. While many have strong safeguarding procedures in place, we know there have been many high-profile incidents where faith groups have either ignored basic safeguarding procedures or have out of date policies. As a member of the Contextual Safeguarding network, I encourage all faith groups to take this seriously and to be open to fresh approaches that can improve their practice and keep young people safe.
Diversity and inclusion is also an important issue for faith communities to engage with and respond to. While some groups are uniquely placed to develop leaders from ethnically diverse backgrounds, in other cases, they can struggle to find youth leaders from the context they are serving and therefore lack the cultural competency to serve their local community with understanding. Often, there can be a lack of a leadership pipeline for working class young people, because of a reliance on unpaid internships and gap years, which tend to be more accessible to white middle class young people.
At Power the Fight we advocate for a partnership approach in which faith groups receive effective training and support as well as access to a network of well-resourced services. The goal is that the bringing together of all of these groups will form part of a wider public health response.
With evidence proving the existence of a ‘school exclusion to pupil referral unit to prison pipeline’, it is clear that this needs to be disrupted through more nurturing school environments (as pioneered in Glasgow). While fixed period and permanent exclusions are the highest in England and Wales since 2012 it’s heartening to see faith-based charities like Transforming Lives for Good (TLG) working in partnership with local churches to develop alternative education provision.
With the number of police officers in England and Wales falling by 20,600 between March 2010 and March 2019 and a growing ‘wall of silence’ between officers and the communities they serve, confidence in the police – and particularly by minority communities – is low. Faith groups – often in a position of trust – can be uniquely placed to build stronger relationships between the community and the police.
Some faith groups have, for example, held prayer meetings where the police are given the opportunity to share about their work, answer questions and hear concerns and observations from the general public. Faith leaders often hold critical insights that might support criminal investigations but often do not have clear pathways or procedures to assist the police. There are examples of good partnership work, such as Project Mosaic, an interfaith initiative in Greenwich south east London, which brings faith leaders together with the local authority and Greenwich MET police.
Faith groups have a clear mandate to stand with those who mourn. In my experience it is often people of faith supporting families through grief, conducting funerals and ‘nine nights’ and providing support to traumatised youth, who for various reasons find it difficult to access therapeutic services.
Many churches, mosques, temples and synagogues are the glue in their local community. With the right training, faith groups could be a major resource in the ongoing battle to reduce youth violence. This will require policy-makers to engage with faith leaders and listen to a wide range of community voices. It will require faith groups to open themselves up to receiving training and specialist support. It will require different parts of the community getting better at working together for the common good of our towns and cities. Clearer guidance is needed to facilitate effective collaboration between local authorities and faith groups.
Through my work with Power the Fight I have seen first-hand the change that comes when people work together. This is why I am heartened that partnership and collaboration is at the centre of this report.
Pastor Ben Lindsay is CEO of Power the Fight