Could faith groups in Hackney save kids from life of crime?

Gwenton Sloley.

Gwenton Sloley. - Credit: Archant

Faith groups hold the key to tackling the youth violence epidemic, according to one outreach worker who helps rescue youngsters from a life of crime.

Junior Spence.

Junior Spence. - Credit: Archant

Gwenton Sloley, who grew up on the streets of Dalston, is a government advisor who also trains councils and faith leaders on how to spot at risk children before it’s too late.

As London became gripped by murder after murder earlier this year, Sadiq Khan announced a £45million fund to help young people at risk of being caught up in crime.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd followed suit by unveiling a serious violence strategy in April, which included an £11m early intervention youth fund for community projects.

And Gwenton believes the people best placed to successfully carry out that intervention are the churches, mosques and synagogues the youngsters visit as children. Earlier this year Gwenton’s company Crying Sons was given Home Office funding for a pilot training programme in which he trained faith leaders in Haringey. And he now wants more support to be given to similar schemes across the capital.

David Elwin from Victory Outreach Greater London Church (centre) who led followers on a praer walk a

David Elwin from Victory Outreach Greater London Church (centre) who led followers on a praer walk around Hackney. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

“A lot of the people caught up serious youth violence come from faith backgrounds,” he told the Gazette. “They will go and pray somewhere once a week.

“At the trial we worked with churches and different mosques and by the end of it we had people travelling from Lewisham for the training.

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“We’ve now put it out to leaders of faith groups and it’s being rolled out in both those boroughs.”

Gwenton reckons the youngsters place more trust in faith leaders than they would through charities or social workers but believes intervening early on is key.

Rabbi Herschel Gluck, who has been made an OBE for his services to interfaith understanding.

Rabbi Herschel Gluck, who has been made an OBE for his services to interfaith understanding. - Credit: Archant

And he said it takes more than knife crime marches and grandstanding.

“Some faith leaders are starting to see they could be getting into the papers and are doing all these gun and knife events. But who are they talking to? Faith groups are where the answer is but we need to talk to the young people.

“You need to get them when they are vulnerable. These kids are crying out for help and you need to get to them before they are, say 13, when they can tell their parents they don’t want to go church no more.”

One faith leader who has been working with youngsters in the borough for more than 20 years is Junior Spence, pastor of Faith City, which meets at the Bridge Academy every Sunday.

Before that Junior ran the youth club on the Pembury Estate and has helped hundreds of kids referred to him by Hackney and other councils for years.

“I’ve done a lot of projects to drive young people off the streets,” he told the Gazette. “And engaged with a lot of young people caught up in gangs and that kind of lifestyle.

“Some of them are trying to get out of gangs and I’ll just speak to them about life. It’s just about being there for them.

“We know we have a responsibility because a lot of these young people come to church. And obviously we know what’s going on in the community. We have the advantage of being able to understand some of the social issues like poverty, being fatherless, not having opportunities.

“A lot don’t have father figures in their lives and you can be speaking to a hardened person caught up in gang culture and that is what gets them. They can become very emotional and it causes a lot of anger.”

Junior says he has known cases of older teens turning their lives around, but agrees early intervention is better.

“In our church there is a strong youth group and we will work with them from a young age,” he continued. “That’s not to say when they are over 15 they aren’t able to be pulled back, because they can.”

Rabbi Herschel Gluck OBE has also been an instrumental figure in the fight against crime in Hackney.

He agrees faith groups play a very important role and believes it is vital that the engagement is thoughtful and caring.

“We need to try and understand the difficulties young people face in our times,” he said. “With austerity and difficult family situations, or social pressures with materialism.

“Young people place great trust in faith groups and I’ve been very impressed when meeting with various figures from different faiths in trying to make people in power more concerned. Our young people need more support and more encouragement. They are not a burden, they are our future.”