Church Army Sept 06
At 9.30 at night, there’s a knock on the door followed by a voice through our letterbox: "Nick! Open the door. We've got John with us and he's been attacked!"
There on the walkway outside our flat was John, congealing blood obscuring one eye and spattered over his face, hands and coat. He was flanked by two teenagers. "We found him on the staircase. Someone attacked him."
He staggered in, leaving a blood stain on the wall as he steadied himself. His eyelid was in shreds. He said that he had been set upon while having a beer on one of the communal staircases, and alleged that another youth we knew had been among his attackers.
My wife Helen sat him down, grabbed a towel and got him to press it over his eye. We called an ambulance and the police and then went with him to hospital. It took about an hour to clean it and stitch him up. We arrived back home at about 3.45 am to the sound of outrageously loud music from a nearby flat, not for the first time.
The following morning a woman arrived distraught at our front door. Her 12-year-old son had been arrested and spent the night at the police station. I took her there only to find that the police had taken Tony back to the estate. John had withdrawn his police statement. Meanwhile, Tony had arrived at our flat where Helen gave him toast and tea. He was holding back tears, clearly shaken up by the late night arrest and detention.
We became convinced that John had made a mistake identifying him on a dark staircase with a large amount of alcohol inside him. Other youths mentioned Geoff, another teenager we knew as a small time drug dealer, as the assailant. Perhaps John had owed him money.
Geoff had been a member of a youth club that met in our flat, but had got into a lot of trouble and had problems at home. He’s been in and out of care and secure units. On one occasion, he knocked on our door at 7am. When we opened it, bleary-eyed (it was our day off), he announced that he had run away from a care home with £90, which he proposed to spend on drugs. He had previously stayed in the home of a dealer, and we feared he would return there and put himself in danger.
Helen phoned the police, but they didn't come until three hours later, by which time Geoff had sensed something was up and left. He went to live in a squat, but there was no heating and nothing to cook on. Three days later Helen bumped into him, and he came back to our flat with Tony for something to eat.
While Helen prepared some food, I negotiated between Geoff, Social Services and the police to get him to agree to go back into care. The upshot was temporary care accommodation in Woolwich.
Geoff is typical of why many young people engage in anti-social behaviour on the Ferrier Estate. He is a victim of a cycle of family dysfunction, involving abuse, neglect, rejection, parents who are addicts, and a poor home life, which causes him to look up to his peer group rather than his family.
Caught in this cycle, he is likely to become an unstable parent, passing on a damaging emotional legacy in the way he relates to and treats his own children. Uniquely, the church is in a position to tackle the root causes, and in particular, the low self-esteem and break this cycle of despair and hopelessness.
A strong focus of our mission on the Ferrier Estate is youth work because most of the crime and vandalism on the estate is caused by young people – almost exclusively young males. In helping to reduce this problem, the quality of life of many is improved.
For this reason, Helen and I work hard with young people, both on our own account and with Greenwich Youth For Christ, who have a major project on the estate. Tough kids have the opportunity to meet with us, dropping a hard mask and becoming for a short while normal twelve-year-olds, enjoying games and harmless fun.
The mission team's practical expressions of love to him and many others who have scarcely any experience of adult affirmation and attention, are the best way to convey that they are precious children of God.
The help given to John by the two teenagers was in itself a miracle of transformation. Kyle, the first, had been involved three years before in pushing lighted newspaper through our letterbox. Earlier in the year the second, Pete, had tried to mug two volunteers from the visiting Soul in the City mission, punching them in the face, as well as being involved in numerous other crimes. We have learned that, by the patient love of God channelled through the mission team, damaged and violent young people can be changed.
Superkidz is a children's club we run attracting an average of 60 children every week to an event with games, drama, wacky worship songs, and ethical teaching from the Bible. Three times a year, parents are specifically invited to events which attract 200-300 people. About 300 homes are visited each week. It has become a huge sign, alongside the mission's drop-ins, youth work and family outings, of the love of God and his practical involvement in bringing some joy into difficult lives.
Teenagers are provided for through a Rock Solid club and special skills clubs. Links have been developed with an outdoor centre that helps provide netball coaching on the estate. Some mums from the estate have become enthusiastic volunteers, and this is proving to be an excellent means of encouraging the development of positive relationships between young people and adults on the estate.
Many of the people we know have had little experience of feeling loved. Christian mission is perhaps better placed than any other approach to help this deprived community, because of a unique emphasis on love and the preciousness to God of each individual, and the need to love and value one another.
Mission is not about simply proclaiming the love of God but expressing it in action, and giving people that experience. A number of Christian organisations and churches work together on the Ferrier, and through all of this work the Church is beginning to be seen as relevant to a community that a few years ago felt alienated from it. It is long-term work, based on building trust, confidence and good relationships.
I am in my seventh year on the Ferrier and it is not getting easier, especially with a newborn baby girl to care for, but the mission team is giving people a truer picture of a God who cares and acts in their situation. We share our experience of the power of our Healer God, and his relevance to, and interest, in the major problems in people's lives.
• Nick Russell is a Church Army Evangelist based at the Holy Spirit Church on the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, South Greenwich. He and his wife Helen live as part of the Ferrier community and work in an ecumenical mission team on the estate.To support the work of evangelists like Nick Russell please call Church Army on 020 8309 3519 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is adapted from Nick Russell, 'A Different Kind of Soldier: The Church Army Evangelist' in Malcolm Torry (ed), Diverse Gifts: Varieties of Lay and Ordained Ministries in the Church and Community, Canterbury Press Norwich 2006, ISBN 1 85311 696 3. Available from www.scmcanterburypress.co.uk or tel 01603 612914.
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