In the February 2018 issue of Premier Christianity, I contributed to a piece on knife crime on how Christians can get involved in being part of the solution. Read here
In the February 2018 issue of Premier Christianity, I contributed to a piece on knife crime on how Christians can get involved in being part of the solution. Read here
Back in the summer, I spoke at the excellent Newday event on the subject of knife crime to 400 young people and youth workers. We had a great panel who either work in the field of youth violence or have experienced the issue impacting so many children and families in the UK. It was great day.
Listen back here
This article originally appeared in Premier Christianity June 2017
An album titled Gang Signs and Prayer recently reached number one in the UK charts. Grime record label boss turned church pastor Ben Lindsay explores the connection between hip-hop and faith
You may be surprised to learn the following words are not from a pastor or evangelist. They’re actually from the biggest selling rapper in the world – 29 year-old Kendrick Lamar Duckworth: “I feel it’s my calling to share the joy of 16 God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD. The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment. I love when artists sing about what makes him happy. My balance is to tell you what will make him extinguish you.”
Lamar is straight out of Compton, Los Angeles. But on this side of the Atlantic, another huge rapper is fusing faith and hip-hop. Michael Omari, better known as Stormzy, recently put his own spin on John Newton’s classic hymn ‘Amazing grace’ with a grime song called ‘Blinded by your grace part 2’. The chorus proclaims:
“Lord, I’ve been broken
Although I’m not worthy You fixed me
Now I’m blinded by your grace
You came and saved me”
Why are hip-hop and grime artists suddenly talking about their faith in God? And how can we reconcile the faith of rap artists with the violent and explicit lyrics that often characterise the genre?
Earlier this year Stormzy released his debut album, Gang Signs and Prayerindependently through #Merky Records. The record became the first grime album to reach the top spot in the UK charts. It also set British streaming records for the most first-week streams for a number one album in chart history. All 16 tracks appeared in the top 100 in a single week, making Stormzy only the fourth artist to achieve this after Justin Bieber (Purpose), Beyoncé (Lemonade) and The Weeknd (Starboy).
Everyone from Adele to Manchester United Football Club and former Delirious? frontman Martin Smith have all praised Gang Signs and Prayer. To call Stormzy’s debut a critical and commercial success would be an understatement. The artist’s own prediction of becoming a “young black boy making a milli’ [million] off grime” will likely become a reality sooner rather than later.
Two months after the release of Gang Signs and Prayer, the US hiphop artist Kendrick Lamar released his fourth studio album DAMN (Top Dawg Entertainment, Aftermath Entertainment and Interscope Records). It went to number one in the US and smashed streaming records.
The most interesting connection between Croydon’s Stormzy and California’s Kendrick Lamar is not their shared ethnicity or gritty raps which depict the struggles of their respective neighbourhoods, but the strong themes of God and faith throughout their music.
DAMN is the raw and deeply honest self-analysis of a black man living in the USA. On the album Kendrick Lamar screams the refrain “Ain’t nobody praying for me!” On the track ‘FEAR’, Lamar’s cousin Carl Duckworth (aka Karni Ben Israel) who belongs to a Hebrew Israelite group headquartered in New York quotes Deuteronomy. The album is littered with biblical references.
Stormzy, in a more overt acknowledgement of God, nods to the Last Supper in his album’s artwork (pictured, left). In an interview with The Fader, he said: “I needed to make an album that represented me, which was always going to be a struggle. I wanted to touch on the gospel side of things, and my faith, because that’s so integral to my character. And the other side of my life – growing up in the streets, doing the things I’ve done with the people I was with, that is also a very integral part of me. I’m not a one-dimensional character.”
Stormzy nods to the last supper in his album’s artwork
The crescendo moment of this juxtaposition comes in tracks ten and eleven of Gang Signs and Prayer. ‘Blinded by your grace part 2’ takes you to places only black Pentecostal gospel music can. The earnest simplicity creates a raw gratitude for God’s amazing grace. And then, just as you are about to confess your sins, fall on your knees and give your life to Jesus, Stormzy messes with your senses with the brutal ‘Return of the rucksack’ produced by Sir Spyro and containing a fair amount of foul language. This is Gang Signs and Prayer at its most honest and contradictory.
References to religion, faith and God are, of course, nothing new in hip-hop. The genre has long been associated with the FivePercent Nation, a cultural movement founded in 1964 in Harlem, New York City by a former member of the Nation of Islam named Clarence 13X. Rappers from Rakim to JAY-Z and Wu-Tang Clan to Jay Electronica are connected to the movement.
Some of the biggest selling hiphop albums of the 1990s contained religious themes. The Notorious B.I.G’s last album before his murder in 1997 is titled Life After Death(Bad Boy Records). B.I.G had planned to have a trilogy of albums that started in 1994 with Ready to Die, the final being titled Born Again.
In 1999 Nas caused controversy when he released his third album I Am (Columbia Records). The album was notable for its striking artwork of Nas depicted as a Pharaoh and for the single ‘Hate me now’ which showed Nas and Puff Daddy being crucified.
However, it wasn’t until 2004 when a young rapper from Chicago named Kanye West released the fourth single from his debut album The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) that gospel-infused rap really entered mainstream consciousness. The song was ‘Jesus walks’. It won a Grammy for Best Rap Song that year. The song arguably paved the way for artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Stormzy to have honest conversations about God on their albums.
With ‘Jesus walks’ West addresses the music industry and asks why sexually explicit music gets promoted while songs about faith get no airtime – an idea which becomes ironic given the subsequent commercial success of ‘Jesus walks’.
Last year one of the biggest names in gospel music, Kirk Franklin, collaborated with Kanye West and Chance the Rapper on the song ‘Ultralight beam’. Not everyone embraced the partnership, questioning Franklin’s integrity and motivations. Kanye had perhaps anticipated a backlash; tweeting just hours before the record’s release “Please forgive the profanity and give hugs and blessings to my brother Kirk for standing by me”. After attracting criticism from some Christians, Franklin defended himself by stating on Facebook: “I will not turn my back on my brother. I will love him, prayerfully grow with him. However long he’ll have me, and however long the race takes. To a lot of my Christian family, I’m sorry he’s not good enough, Christian enough, or running at your pace…and as I read some of your comments, neither am I. That won’t stop me from running. Pray we win.”
Hip-hop and spirituality clearly have a long and complex relationship and it seems the relationship is getting closer.
Fight the power
History suggests that in moments of injustice and inequality, musicians step up to be the voice of the voiceless. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (Motown) questioned America’s participation in the Vietnam War and championed the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Paul Simon’s classic Graceland (Warner Bros) was a message to the South African government at a time when the atrocities of apartheid were all too apparent. Rap group NWA stood up against police brutality with their ground-breaking ferocious debut album Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless).
Where there is injustice and suffering, the question comes back to this: where is God? We are living in challenging times. The political and economic environment is unstable. After years of empty, materialistic hip-hop, could we be heading towards a return to the golden age of socially engaged hip-hop?
On Kendrick Lamar’s anthem ‘Alright’, the rapper speaks about the pain on the streets of America at a time when black people are being shot and killed by police officers. Lamar rallies his listeners with a cry to the community – “If God’s got us, we’ll be alright” – which became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. On ‘FEAR’ Lamar goes deeper, lamenting to God in a way that is reminiscent of King David in the psalms:
“Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet
Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle
Why God, why God do I gotta bleed? Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet
Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? Earth is no more, why don’t you burn this muh’******?”
It’s not comfortable listening. For many Christians, no matter how true to life or relevant the messages of artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, Akala or Stormzy are, the profanity is hard to get past.
As a former grime record label boss and now as the pastor of a church in south-east London, I’m fully aware of the conflict that comes with being a Christian and navigating hip-hop culture. On the one hand I’ve been desperate for artists such as Loyle Carner, Stormzy and Wretch 32 to express the anguish that many of us experience growing up on innercity streets. These artists are gifted communicators painting pictures of the environments many of us have lived in. However, there is a danger that we can glorify and normalise tragic and traumatic experiences.
The reference to gang signs in Stormzy’s album title comes at a time when gang-related crime is on the rise in the UK (recent figures show knife crime increased in the UK by 14 per cent between 2015 and 2016). His album is dealing with real issues. How is the Church supporting young people and families in dealing with the complex issues they are facing?
The truth is, in many cases churches have failed to contextualise the Bible to the culture around us. This results in young people leaning towards flawed musicians who never asked to be role models in the first place; young people themselves who are still working out life (Stormzy is 23 years old) and are propelled into the void of leadership.
When I listen to the music of Kendrick Lamar and Stormzy, I take the good and leave the stuff that I know contradicts the teachings of Jesus. I’ve listened to a lot of hiphop in my time and can differentiate between what’s real and what’s fake.
On one side of the coin the new trend for artists to talk about issues such as faith as well as mental health, police brutality, racism, body image and fatherlessness is a refreshing shift from the materialistic, consumerdriven rhymes which hip-hop has become notorious for. For this change in narrative, in a genre renowned for negativity, artists such as Stormzy and Kendrick Lamar should be applauded. On the other side of the coin, the general public only see what artists want us to see. As Miguelito said in his opinion piece ‘Praise & Questions: How Kendrick & Chance Talk to God in Different Ways’: “Words can easily be misconstrued, especially when you discuss the personal beliefs of others in a ‘post-fact’ world. I don’t claim to know the beliefs of either rapper in sum; all I can do is use the information they choose to reveal.”
Could we be heading towards a return to the golden age of socially engaged hip-hop?
We would therefore be wise to not pigeonhole either artist but rather appreciate the layered intricacy of their character and influences. Neither Kendrick Lamar nor Stormzy have directly referred to themselves as Christians. This hasn’t stopped Christians jumping on the bandwagon claiming the contradictions, compromise and conflict in their music is suddenly a new blueprint for Christian living. Instead we should educate ourselves about popular culture and be prepared to have a counter-narrative to the things that appear to be inconsistent. This way albums and artists can be seen for what they truly are – like us all, imperfect.
Ben Lindsay leads Emmanuel Church New Cross in south-east London and has spent most of his career working for and with local and central government tackling serious youth violence in the UK
Another day in London and another young person who has been murdered as a result of youth violence. Michael Jonas was found with multiple wounds in Betts Park, Anerley, South East London on Thursday 2nd November 2017 at about 19:30 GMT. Michael, who was 17, becomes the 16th young person killed in London in 2017. (Source: BBC)
As a society we should be shocked but the truth is we’ve become desensitised to the regularity of youth murder. We should be heartbroken but how many times can a person’s heart be shattered until you become too numb to even shed a tear. So here we are. The bleak reality which impacts our youth culture in 2017.
Here’s the problem. Easy solutions are not being implemented. There are people who are working hard to try and eradicate this problem. There are people who care. There are people who are willing to put their money where their mouth is. But there are not enough people doing this and this is the issue. Too many people protest, pray and shout about youth violence, not many people turn that frustration into production, deed or action.
To quote Mobb Deep “There’s a war goin’ on outside no man is safe from. You could run, but you can’t hide forever”. We’re losing the war because we’re not fighting smartly. Traditionally those working in the youth sector are great at ground war/hand to hand combat: mentoring, delivering short term programmes/interventions and mediation are some examples. The problem is that this type of combat is exhausting and costly. Many soldiers suffer from weariness in this type of battle and many never return to the frontline. Casualties are high. We suffer from what Paul Tough says in his excellent book Whatever It Takes from Superman syndrome: with good intentions, we think we can save everyone. We can’t and become emotionally, mentally and physically spent. What we need to improve is within the area of air warfare: advocating for the victims, changing legalisation, challenging policy, healing hearts and minds, providing jobs and impacting youth culture in the areas where young people get their morals and values from. A couple of victories in the air makes winning the war on the ground a lot more likely.
Pastor TD Jakes being interviewed by Pastor Steven Furtick on his new book SOAR, spoke about how “God never made a table” (I appreciate that the more theological astute may argue that God coming in the form of Jesus who was a carpenter challenges this argument but bare with me). TD Jakes said “God made trees”. His point is that God will meet us more than halfway but we are to take what God has given us and turn it into something special. My challenge to communities impacted by youth violence is to go and “make tables out of trees” and go and solve this horrendous issue. You may be the answers to your own prayers. For things to change we need social enterprises (children need skills, training and money), mentors (children need role models “We can’t become what we can’t see” – Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook), free therapeutic intervention (children and parents need a safe space to open up), free legal advice specific to youth violence issues (children and parents need to be clued up) and more than anything: children, families and communities impacted by youth violence need love.
While I think we are all capable of developing these interventions, my vexation lies with the church. As I always say the church have the biggest resources (Heaven) and the biggest volunteer service (congregations) but quite frankly has an appalling record of engagement in the area of youth violence.
So my message to pastors, senior leaders and elders is this: your communities are suffering from an epidemic of youth violence. You might not think this impacts you but one day it will be on your door step. Trust me. Do not be like the the priests in the story of Good Samaritan and literally walk past dying people. We are called to the lost. Don’t ignore the problem.
The time for protest is over. We need to move to production. “Lead, follow or get out of the way”.
XLP are delivering their annual conference on knife crime tonight. Premier Christian radio interviewed me this afternoon on the issues surrounding knife crime and the potential solutions to this problem.
You can listen back here
6 ways Christians can help stop serious youth violence by Benjamin Lindsay
This post originally appeared for Premier Gospel for black history month October 2015
Since 2005 179 teenagers have been murdered in London. 123 have been fatally stabbed (Source Citizens Report). Since then numerous reports have been published by the UK government and think tanks suggesting strategies, ideas and solutions to solve and combat the issue of serious youth violence (SYV). These include: Dying to Belong – An In-depth Review of Street Gangs in Britain (2009), Time for Action – Equipping Young People for the Future and Preventing Violence (2008) and Ending gang and youth violence: cross-government report (2011) to name a few.
None of these reports have managed to stem the tide of serious youth violence (SYV) in London. The capital is currently seeing the highest rate of teenage knife crime fatalities since 2011. In this year alone there have been 11 teenage murders. 10 of the victims were Black Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME). Nine out of the 11 were stabbed. (Source: Citizens Report). While we know that the majority of young people want nothing to do with gangs and serious youth violence, for some young people violence is part of their daily lives and we need to support them to transform their thinking.
So how should we respond? Faith groups and more specifically the Church, have too often been silent on the issue. As someone who has worked on the SYV agenda for 15 years and now works as a pastor of a church in southeast London, the lack of action from Christians both saddens and infuriates me.
The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us to examine our religious and social prejudices. The twist in the Good Samaritan is that the religious leaders do not step up to defend the weak, perhaps due to fear or ignorance. It is the outsider who ‘knows nothing of God’s temple’ who shows those in need the kingdom of God. The Good Samaritan demonstrates compassion. Full bloodied, uncompromising and relentless compassion. He offers friendship, advocacy, emergency medical treatment, transportation, a hefty financial subsidy, even a follow up visit. To engage in the SYV agenda that impacts our streets, families, neighborhoods and congregations, churches must replicate the compassion and concern shown in Luke 10.
Below are 6 ways Christians can engage in the serious youth violence issue and help save lives. As a Londoner I’m going to give a London perspective but this clearly is an issue in major cities across the UK.
James 2:14 says: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Austerity cuts, youth clubs closing, youth workers losing their jobs has all impacted those young people deemed disengaged and marginalised. It’s no coincidence that the first year of youth service cuts in this country coincided with the 2011 UK riots. The UK youth engagement teams who were once there to connect with young people are no longer active. The church is unique in having a very strong volunteer force. Churches should be at the forefront of offering time, expertise and encouragement to young people where role models are lacking.
In 2001 a friend and I volunteered our time in the evening to local youth centres in London teaching young people music production skills. We eventually helped them to create a radio station and through this taught them the business and legal aspects of the music industry and other life skills. 15 years on some of these young people are carving out successful careers in the music industry; others work in the education sector or are progressing in other fields. Like all of us, young people need people to talk to. Young people’s lives are becoming increasingly stressful and complex and a wide range of factors can lead to poor decision-making. We can offer hope and shine the light of our Father into dark situations. Whatever skills you have can be used to divert young people away from a life of crime. You may have a career that could inspire someone or a skill to pass on; perhaps you’re a good listener. If you’d like to become a mentor contact a local charity. Many of them will provide training and support for mentors. Suggested charities include: XLP, MAC-UK, Street Pastors, Chance UK, PYE, St Giles Trust, MsUnderstood
Most important is how you as an individual view young people. Do you actually say hello to young people on your street? Do you build relationships with them? Do you place yourself in a position to listen to their needs and concerns? There is a gap between the generations where older and younger people do not engage. Young people need role models. Christians can be the bridge. As it says in Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” We need take this command seriously in relation to young people. It could be difference between life and death.
Young people need Christian teachers, teaching assistants, police officers, clinical psychologists, drama-therapists, SENCOs, learning mentors, behavioral specialists, MPs, youth offending service officers, youth workers, probation officers, mental health workers, substance misuse workers, social workers and creatives. Anywhere society comes into contact with the most marginalised and most challenging young people Christians should be present. Christians along with their skill set need to demonstrate the reconciliation, forgiveness, hope and abundant love of our Lord Jesus Christ. As said in 2 Peter 1 we are partakers in his divine nature and therefore through us, God can change the hearts of young people. My first paid role working with young people was as a learning mentor. I not only worked alongside the young people but also connected with parents and teachers. I really felt the presence of God change the culture of the school.
If you feel called to work with young people, start talking to others in the field, volunteer, get training and gain experience.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
This seems like a no brainier but you will be surprised how many Christians do not pray or do not know how to pray (see Romans 8:26) for these issues. We spend our time debating and theorising but rarely commit ourselves to persistent prayer. Prayer should be our first weapon against SYV. Like Jacob and Habakkuk we are to wrestle with God in prayer. We should never be satisfied with what we see happening to our young people in the UK and therefore we should ask God to move mightily to change the circumstances that cause young people to succumb to SYV.
The Lord’s Prayer directs us to pray for heaven to invade earth. When we pray this line “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, we are acknowledging that this world is broken but there is another world which is perfect in every way. We’re asking our Father to send his power – which is just and excellent – into this sinful world. As Christians we know there will be a time when ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). However the Lord’s Prayer encourages us to pray for a piece of heaven to invade earth today. We cannot ignore such an invitation. In 2010 I started working for a community safety team in London. I was tasked with developing and implementing a gangs and SYV strategy. I knew this would be hard and so I prayed a bold prayer. During the year I prayed that there would not be a fatality to SYV in that borough. Heaven invaded earth for that year and no one died. Let’s remember we serve a God who is mighty to save and act on our behalf.
We need to recognise the voice we have and use it to advocate for change. Together we can influence and work alongside decision makers to work for the common good of society and in particular for those who may be most marginalised or at risk. For example, you can attend council meetings or join your borough’s Independent Advisory Group (IAG). The role of independent advisors is best described as a “critical friend in time of need” – a group of non police people who can:
You can also write letters of concern and support to local MPs when SYV incidents occur locally. You can raise money or give encouragement and support when a fatality occurs in your neighborhood. Christians shouldn’t be afraid to find common ground with other faith groups or those of no faith at all. We need to be humble enough to learn from each other and work together to find solutions. In the borough of Greenwich we have Project Mosaic. The project, which seeks to increase community safety and confidence in the police and other agencies, also aims to enhance youth safety and increase access to the range of youth provision and activities in the borough. In the last six months, as part of Project Mosaic, 130 faith leaders from across the borough of Greenwich have attended training sessions provided by police, Royal Borough of Greenwich, NHS Greenwich and voluntary organisations on a variety of matters including safeguarding children, gangs, youth violence and domestic violence.
With a wealth of resources and volunteers, the Church should be thinking of creative ways of early intervention and prevention to divert young people away from SYV. Many of us have the flexibility to go beyond the traditional boundaries of 9-5 work to offer youth provision in the evenings and weekends. This gives Christians an advantage in creating programmes and activities that can really support the most marginalised young people. This doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. There are young people who have never travelled outside of their borough or have never gone to a gallery or museum. Attempt to give young people alternative views of life.
One of the biggest challenges facing young people is unemployment. In April 2014 I started a 10-week pilot project. The Grind Coffee School is a partnership between Emmanuel Church London, Browns of Brockley and Positive Youth Expression (PYE). The idea for the project came from a conversation with Ross Brown who owns Browns of Brockley. We both observed that with the increased coffee shops in inner city areas, there seemed to be a lack of variety in the people working in these establishments. We identified a group of young people, a group disaffected with life, demotivated to work who made up a large amount of the 21% of 16- to 25-year-olds (958,000) young people out of work in the UK. This project would aim to help young people identify their true needs; offer relevant support and signpost them to employment. Although challenging at times, we gave these young people an opportunity to gains skill in an area, which was not previously available to them because of various barriers.
John Piper says this: “So this is really clear. Jesus is high. His rank is high. His standing is high. And therefore, by ordinary standards of this world, he should be served. But instead he contradicts the ordinary standards of this world, and serves. From his height he goes low. From his high standing, he goes to lowly serving.”
Or to be more penetrating, let your whole life have this mind-set: you are servants (Philippians 2:5–8). All that you do, do it with a view to getting under others to lift them up, not getting over others to look down and feel superior. As Churches we should aim to adopt what American church pastor Matt Chandler calls “Incarnational Ministry”. In other words discipleship and evangelism shouldn’t be taking place simply within the church walls but also outside the church walls. The incarnational approach tries to break down the walls of sacred/secular so we can begin to see everything as sacred and quit being so fearful of the secular. In all domains of society the church should be at the forefront of to help providing innovation and support in the battle against serious youth violence.
The incarnational mode of ministry, the church’s mission of evangelism and discipleship has us intentionally living as agents of gospel reconciliation. After all isn’t this what the Good Samaritan demonstrated to the man in the need? He got low, served in these domains and took risks on behalf of those in need.
Social reformer Frederick Douglass said: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. Let’s invest in all children and young people and try to live out Isaiah 1:16-17:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.
If we do this with guile, zeal and passion, the Church will demonstrate the light of our Lord Jesus Christ and young people’s lives will be transformed.
Benjamin Lindsay is the lead pastor at Emmanuel New Cross.
Over the coming weeks and months I have invited key professionals to write a piece on my blog about ideas on how we can combat the Gangs and Serious Youth Violence issue in the UK. Our first guest blogger is Selina Stone who looks at the importance of listening to the voice of the perpetrator to help us develop strategies in combating the gangs and serious youth violence issue.
Listen, Understand, Respond: A Foundation for tackling Serious Youth Violence by Selina Stone
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply” – Stephen Covey
In the area of Serious Youth Violence there are many voices to be heard; the newsreader relaying the media story, the police condemning the crime, the victim’s family demanding justice. There is a place given to every voice, except the voice of the one who has committed the crime. In general, we do not recognise the importance of listening when it comes to those who commit acts of violence. Why should we care what they have to say? Because the key to an effective response can be found in the act of listening; not to reply, but to understand.
So what do I mean by ‘listening’ and why is it so essential?
The temptation for any person who wants to create change is to begin with ideas of what needs to be done. This tendency exists because we assume we already understand what the problem is. We have various means of informing our understanding; we can read statistics on the current picture, we can depend on our own lived experience or the reflections of those who have gone before us. All of these sources of understanding take us away from the reality that regardless prior knowledge, nothing is more important than the stories of those whose lives we want to see transformed.
‘Listening is the process through which speech and information is retrieved by an individual before proceeding to storage.‘
As a community organiser at the Centre for Theology and Community, I depend on 121 meetings to drive the social justice issues we choose to tackle at the grassroots. Before we consider setting an agenda or strategy we begin by listening to the stories of the people who live and work around us. The listening campaign uncovers shared concerns or issues, helps us to clarify a clear objective and to identify leaders. Rather than exerting political power over communities, grassroots organising seeks to develop relational power with people. It is through listening that we uncover what makes people angry, what their self-interest is and who the leaders are who can make change happen.
So how does this relate to youth violence?
Each young person has a story that explains why they think or feel the way they do and how they have ended up where they are in life. The process of storytelling allows them firstly to recognise themselves. A person is able to acknowledge their life journey with its defining moments and influential relationships in order to understand how they have become who they are. The sense of identity and self-understanding this brings causes each of us to have the confidence to imagine the kind of future we want for ourselves.
When we help a young person tell their story and we choose to listen, we give them the respect and dignity due to all human beings. It is an act of humility on our part to listen, acknowledging that in that time and place, what the other person has to say is more important than what we want to communicate.
“(Some young people may have) difficulties understanding and expressing emotions, or (display) challenging behaviour as a means to communicate feelings.”
Aside from the stories of individuals, we must also become experts at listening to the collective story being told by the young generation, including those engaged in violence and crime. Nonverbal communication is as essential to informing our understanding as verbal communication. Young people communicate individually through their choices of dress, their facial expressions and their life choices. Collectively, they communicate through their common interests, trends of behaviour and attitudes which become defining aspects of their generation. Before we seek to address social trends and impacts of serious youth violence, we must be willing to listen to the individual and collective stories of young people. Only through this act of humility will be equipped to reply effectively to young people and to wider society.
So what we can do?
This ‘listening to understand’ needs to take place in our families, in our friendship groups, in our faith communities and in wider society.
How well do we understand the young people in our homes and families? How much time do we spend time listening to those who attend our churches, youth clubs or mosques? How well do we understand the young people we are friends with? Do we take time to listen to young people in prisons or detention centres? Do we know the young people in our neighbourhoods?
Through a regular commitment to 121 conversations we can discover the stories of these young people and work with them to redefine their lives with a brighter future. Violence does not have to be the final voice in the lives of our youth.
Selina Stone is a church based community organiser working to develop the capacity of churches to work on issues of justice in their communities. Her PhD research is looking at the significance of justice in Pentecostal understandings of salvation and mission. Selina currently works for The Centre for Theology and Community
If you would like to contribute to our blog please tweet me @bcwlindsay
Well that was an interesting week.
First a little history. My first experience of Newday was as a youth leader for Kings Church London back in 2007. We took a 100 plus young people from Catford, SE London to Uttoxeter race course in Derby. In a nutshell I felt for the young people we brought with us. Most were Newfrontiers veterans who grew up in this movement and were well accustomed to camping. Talks by Joel Virgo and Stef Liston, seminar streams and Paul Oakley and Matt Redman style worship were the norm. But for many of the young people it was like being a fish out of water. Inner city children, many black, were expected to engage with a culture which was completely foreign to them. Even for myself, aged 29 at the time, and had been in Newfrontiers for 7 years, found the Newday environment a difficult one to participate in and to connect with. The one attempt to engage with these Catford young people was a tent with two broken turn tables playing inappropriate Hip Hop for a Jesus Camp.
I left confused and disheartened and wondered how the gospel could possibly be presented to inner city children in a more accessible way. All around the main meeting, I saw predominately white middle class children meeting with God powerfully, being equipped and commissioned for mission, while inner city children (white & black) were outside the big top meeting, left to their own devises. My own experience of Jesus Camp, Spring harvest was similar but that was in the 80’s and 90’s. Surely we had moved on?
After the 2008 Newday, I was done. I had just helped plant Emmanuel Church London with Stu Gibbs and I was working for the Lewisham Youth Offending service. My two main passions were being met and I trusted God that when the time was right I would re-visit my ire and vexation of Newday. What I didn’t expect was for that opportunity to arise so quickly. It was early 2009 when I was asked by Newday, Jaz Potter specifically, to develop a cafe that would engage the ‘urban youth’ at Newday. Although I have problem with the term ‘urban’, I decided to take on the challenge. We owed it to the increasing number of inner city youth coming to Newday to provide something they could relate to.
At Newday 2009, The Rhythm Factory was born. With the help of my wife and many people from Emmanuel Church London, we developed dance, music production, beatbox and graf workshops for the daytime element of the The Rhythm Factory. In the evening we managed to attract the best in ‘urban’ gospel talent featuring the likes of Faith Child, Victizzle, Tunday, Jaharziel and a 19 year old kid from Essex called Guvna B who had an anthem called Kingdom Skank circulating on the scene. It worked well. Ok thats an understatement. It kicked off. Guvna B even performed Kingdom Skank in the main meeting. Finally these young people had a home. Churches from Catford, Bermondsey, Croydon were happy, the ‘Bosses’ were happy and I was happy. Job done.
Then August 2011 happened.
By this time we had being delivering the Rhythm Factory at Newday for 2 years and the format had been established. In my own walk with God, I was about to be made an Elder at Emmanuel Church London and I was preaching regularly. One of the many problems with me is that I get bored easily. I was already thinking that the format of the Rhythm Factory was getting tired. I felt we needed to be not just giving the children entertainment, not just teaching them how to Kingdom Skank but solid biblical teaching preparing these inner city children for a post Newday world was necessary. Many of these young people come from the most horrific circumstances – domestic abuse, sexual abuse, gang violence, substance misuse and poor mental health. In my job, I was dealing with gang violence and teenage murders weekly. I still felt Newday were not providing answers to these specific issues, for these specific type of young people who were now attending Newday on mass. To be honest, why would they? The issues in Lewisham compared to Eastbourne were worlds apart. But I still felt if Newday were opening up the gates to this new demographic, then provide for their needs. If I’m honest it felt like as long as the Rhythm Factory provided a place for these kids to have a good time, we ticked a box. The problem was that when we spoke to these kids on a level, crazy situations and confessions would come out of the conversations. There was no where to park these discussions. My dissatisfaction was growing.
The weekend after the 2011 Newday, the riots happened. I felt for the children in the RF had been entertained at Newday but I had done them a disservice by not equipping them to the harsh reality the riots brought to the forefront of their lives.
I was done. Finished. The next two years of Newday, I deliberately kept my distance. I was angry, frustrated and annoyed that Newday didn’t see the urgency of teaching specifically to these inner city youth. I saw these children as future leaders, game changers, movers and shakers for Christ. Why did no one else see this? I was upset that what I saw on the main stage didn’t represent their reality and that it appeared that only a few people cared what was happening to these inner city young people. I wanted no part of this. I was happy to focus on my role at Emmanuel and continue fighting the fight at local and central government level in my job.
But I couldn’t get these verses out of mind:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:16, 17 ESV)
The fatherless generation has always played a massive part of why I do Newday and this theme of fatherlessness kept returning to me. A lot of these children from inner city situations had no one to look up to and no one to listen to. The gospel, the answer to understanding who we truly are, was not reaching these young people. Early in 2013 my friend, Owen Hylton, asked me to get back involved in the RF. Owen, now on the management team at Newday, had observed how impactful the RF could be, but also found its lack of bite and reach frustrating.
After a two year break, I felt the time was right to get back involved, but on one condition. We were allowed to run a seminar stream, hosted by the Rhythm Factory for the type of young people we would normally see attending our cafe. I wanted complete control of design, planning and implementation of the stream. Owen agreed and #YOLO #SWAG #PEAK was born.
The basic premiss was to host a week of deconstructing contemporary POP and HIP HOP culture, equipping young men and women to live powerfully through Christ in their day to day lives, looking specifically at the biblical principles in Romans 12. In my experience of working with young people, they can only really focus fully for about 20-25 minutes, so we wanted interaction. Each seminar had a 5 minute video testimony, a talk which was no longer than 25-30 minutes long and then a 30 minute ministry time.
Myself and the fantastic Charlie Rumsby from Revelation Church created and hosted the stream. The five seminar talks were 1) #YOLO (YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE) by myself, exploring what Romans 12 says about Y.O.L.O culture and asks the question ‘Who or what are you conforming to?’ 2) Watch the Throne by Charlie Rumsby examining the topic of belonging, looking at what Romans 12 has to say about the issues peer pressure, gang association and identity. 3) OBEY! – Obedience is boring, right? by Dan Frammingham looking at what Romans 12 says about being obedient and being consistent in your Christian walk 4) God Forgives, I Don’t by Tristan Newman looking at what Romans 12 says about anger, conflict and the power of forgiveness and finally 5) #thatpower by myself and Livy Gibbs exploring the Bible’s definition of power and to facilitate the Holy Spirit to unleash #thatPOWER on those in the seminar.
The response from delegates, youth leaders and has been overwhelming. “real” “straight talking” “easy to understand” “life changing” “relatable” have been some of the words used. One youth leader even said “thank you for cutting out the bull s***” (are we allowed to swear as Christians?). All the ministry times went over by about an hour. Young people who would not normally go to the main meeting were meeting with God powerfully. It was such a beautiful thing to see. One pleasant surprise was the diversity in the room. We were averaging 250-300 young people a day in our seminars and it was such a mix in terms of ethnicity. I have always said that things have changed. Attempting to navigate through popular culture is no longer such a niche task. When I was a teen and wanted to listen to music or watch things that were not mainstream, I had to really hunt for the things that interested me and subcultures developed. Now, with the Internet and fast moving technology, everyone can access everything so easily. Barriers have come down. What an inner city youth listens to is now the same as a kid from the valleys.
A personal highlight was my good friend Tristan’s talk on forgiveness. We prayed and fasted as a team and church before Newday and someone brought a picture that our seminars would be like a thunderstorm, like the heavens opening in our seminar stream. This happened – literally (we had buckets to catch the water) when Tristan spoke. God moved so powerfully. Tristan opened up about the most personal and private things and young people responded. What I also loved, was the synergy of our seminar with Joel Virgo talking on forgiveness in the 15-18’s in the big top on the same day. This wasn’t planned but I think this is a good model for the future. The fact that Joel plugged our seminar meant we were not seen as an additional extra but part of the DNA of Newday. It was a good look.
This quote from the Newday news letter meant a lot to myself and the team:
“The Rhythm Factory has always been a popular venue, particularly with young people from urban contexts. The team are going all out this year to ensure that the teaching meets their needs as much as the entertainment does. From what we’ve seen, they’re doing a great job of engaging minds as well as hearts”
I met some incredible people this week. Young people are truly great. From ‘Man Like Malcom’ to the girls from the Plumstead church who were ever present, there were some fantastic youth who I will be forever inspired by. The motto in the Rhythm Factory was that God Transforms Minds, to Transform Lives so you can Transform Cities #TTT. This is my prayer that the people who were at Newday go back equipped, filled with the Holy Spirit and have an increased love and understand for the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, applying it to their day to day lives.
My last point, is really a plea to the bosses of Newday, not to give up on thinking about the diverse demographic at this event. This isn’t just a black and white thing. It was great that we had Darrell Tunningley on the Wednesday evening and Tope Koleoso on Friday evening but I challenge Newday to keep looking outside the box when it comes to speakers and with regards to the format of Newday. Presentation is everything and I do feel for some of the more marginalised young people, when they look up on the main stage they are put off. They do not see anyone they can relate to. It goes deeper than just having a black man in a cap on stage singing with Simon Brading. Who has authority on stage?, who hosts the meeting?, who is invited up to pray or lead a response? It’s a bit like when you first meet a girl who you might be interested in. You are first attracted by how they look. The rest comes later. For many children the same applies when they are in the big top. I’m not calling for the sacking of Stu Gibbs, Simon Brading et al but I am calling for a deliberate consideration for the changing face of the delegates coming to Newday. I would personally like this reflected on stage and throughout marketing of Newday.
Finally I would like to thank some people. Phil Gray and Owen Hylton for their continued support and dedication to myself, the vision of Rhythm Factory and Newday in general. The fantastic Rhythm Factory team for their dedication, hard work, laughter, joy and professionalism throughout the week. Guvna B for just being a decent and humble chap who continues to serve year on year. All the seminar speakers who poured out their hearts and souls to make this stream work. Special shout out to Charlie Rumsby for believing the vision and helping me to construct something fresh and new (all those meetings paid off mate). To Claire Bulman and Laura Price who allowed me to focus fully on the seminars while you took control of running the RF during the day and evening.
Thanks for a great week.
See you in 2014
Video testimonies shown in The Rhythm Factory 2013:
Back in February 2012, I had the privilege of speaking at Tate’s Seeing Through – On Art, Resilience and Young People Conference. This conference stemed from Tate’s experience of leading a three-year collaborative art project in partnership with three local authorities in London. Supported by the John Lyon’s Charity, the Seeing Through project enabled young people in care and leaving care to work collaboratively with artists. The groups worked to demystify cultural space, historic, modern and contemporary art. While engaging with methods of multilayered artist practices, these investigations produced a series of distinct displays, connection and responses to arts works in the Tate collection.
Having worked with with Tate over the last 4 years connecting young people from a serious youth violence, gang or disadvantaged background to the Arts, I was asked to speak on What are the motivations and rationale of funders, social and cultural policy makers, museums and galleries, for working with young people in care and leaving care? It was a great day, where I met many passionate and dedicated professionals who are committed to breaking the many barriers young people face in participating within the Arts. A special thanks goes to Mark Miller and his team at Tate Learning, who are always pushing boundaries and promoting the ideas of young people.
Below is a clip of my talk, enjoy!
Cord Jefferson writes a fascinating piece on Jay Z and Kanye West‘s album Watch the Throne. Jefferson questions the impact of materialism and consumerism this album promotes as well as the obvious juxtaposition Jay Z and Kanye face in promoting the pursuit of wealth and positioning themselves as black revolutionaries. An excellent read. Click here for article.