The woman whose faith helps to give young gang members a fresh start

A pastor who led young people away from gangs a decade ago is still offering an alternative to crime, but she says church-based groups are starved of resources.

astor Mimi Asher made a name for herself bringing gang members into her home and steering them away from a life of violence on the Myatts Field South estate in Brixton, south London, in the late 2000s. Standing now in front of a nicely manicured expanse of daffodil-trimmed green space, she points down the road. Just there, she says, is where her son’s best friend was shot. On the Thursday, he had been in her flat nearby; on the Friday, he was dead. She recounts endless days spent trying to stop dozens of teenagers who had been attacked from retaliating, and nights spent waiting to provide a safe haven as they were chased down with knives or guns, then tending to their wounds when blades or bullets found their target. Three of the teenagers ended up living with her. As they chatted, watched TV and ate home-cooked apple crumble together, she learned about their world. And, slowly, she persuaded them to come into hers, introducing them to the evangelical church she founded, the Word of Grace Ministries, “in the most fun way”, she points out. No one expected them to stay, but they did.

Amid the surge in violent crime in the capital, which has claimed more than 50 lives so far this year, Asher believes faith groups are being under-utilised. “It’s not about the church and God per se,” she says. “It’s about helping to give young men identity, value and something to believe in. Believing in something brings accountability.”

The home secretary Amber Rudd unveiled a serious violence strategy last week, which includes an £11m early intervention youth fund for community projects. “We need to engage with our young people early to provide the incentives and a credible alternative that will prevent them from being drawn into crime,” she said. “This is the best long-term solution.”

But Asher believes that church-run projects don’t get enough support, and says funding for their youth work is often hard to come by. “There’s a negative feeling about faith groups,” she says. “But we’re effective, and, just like youth clubs, we should be supported to do what we do best, and not be stereotyped and pushed aside. We play a very important role in people’s lives.”

It’s the unconditional love offered by the church that draws in young people, Asher says. “The easiest way is to just punish them, put them away. But it wouldn’t solve our problems. It’s about opening our doors and letting young people come in.”

That includes those who decide faith is not for them. The Word of Grace Ministries, now based in nearby Kennington, has 300 members aged 15 to 25, but plenty of young people who don’t worship there still come to talk to her. “I strongly believe that religion should never segregate,” she says. “I tell my young people that if people don’t believe in God you can’t force them. You should care for them and their needs irrespective of what they believe.”

The ministry focuses mainly on troubled boys, and Asher says that many of her current congregation were previously mixed up in gangs. The church runs activities, including help with CV writing and career choices, and girls-only and boys-only discussions about issues they face. “It’s not just about faith, it’s about developing a young person,” she says.

Lambeth council is currently trying to help the church find a bigger building for its youth work, to use free of charge. But it gets no funding for its work which is delivered purely by volunteers.

Asher describes the capital’s knife crime problem as “just madness,” and adds: “I’m upset that the government allowed it to reach this scale. It should have been tackled 15 years ago when it all started.”

The situation is worse now than ever, she thinks, because the children involved are getting younger and younger. “You have kids being groomed from the age of 10.”

Cuts to youth services have had a big impact. “There have to be more resources put into prevention, and help finding ways to get these young people out of this situation,” she says. More funding is needed to try to work out the problems a child may be having; for instance undiagnosed special educational needs that lead them to struggle in school.

Gwenton Sloley, a former gang member from Hackney in east London, who now works to counter gang violence, also believes faith groups have a crucial role to play. But he says many need better education on the issues involved if they are to be useful. Last year the organisation he co-directs, Crying Son’s training consultancy, was commissioned by the Home Office to bring together leaders of different faith groups for training on gangs, serious youth violence and exploitation.

Former gang member Gwenton Sloley Photograph credit: Martin Godwin

“Most of the killings are of young black boys,” he says. “A lot of them have grown up in a Christian-based faith. If we could do some sort of intervention and prevention with them from a [younger] age it would stop them straying off the path and ending up in gangs by the time they are teenagers.”

Sloley links rising gun violence to so-called “county lines drug dealing”, where teenagers are groomed to travel to rural and seaside towns to sell drugs. Young people may have had access to guns before, he says, but ammunition was scarce; now, earning thousands of pounds a week, they can afford to buy the bullets.

Yet when delivering training to faith groups he has found the issue to be little understood, and says leaders need to get out on the street at a grassroots level.

“The pastors and imams should be going out and patrolling the areas where they know these young boys who are pretending to be gangsters,” says Sloley. “You can’t just pray about everything – that’s what’s happened for far too long. Prayer is good but having zeal without knowledge is useless.”

Asher left Myatts Field seven years ago. Her old house was bulldozed when the estate was redeveloped; the living room that became a youth club would have been somewhere on that sanitised green space. But the issues she dealt with back then, and the fear of being caught in the crossfire, remain.

“It’s not easy for young people,” she says. “We don’t want them to grow up always being on their guard, not being free. It feels like they’re out here, but they are in their own prison.”

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First Published 17.04.18: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/apr/17/faith-groups-crucial-role-tackling-knife-crime

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