by Martin Saunders
August 12, 2011
Most teenagers don’t set fire to cars. Most teenagers don’t loot shops and treat their own communities with reckless, violent abandon. Most teenagers abhor these actions, and many of them believe they can be part of changing the world for the better.
Hope isn’t dead among young people. I know many, from a range of backgrounds, who believe they can make a better future for themselves than the apparent mess that their forefathers have delivered them. So this week my deepest fear as a parent and youth worker is that the actions of a minority of young people could stigmatise a whole generation. Those from a working-class or poor urban background will be denounced as feral, spoiled, bereft of morals. Despite the brave actions of many young people in standing against these crimes, and their wholesale presence on the cleanup frontline, too many of us want to believe that a generation has gone bad. It hasn’t.
The majority of young people are innocent in this. Yet I’d be blind not to acknowledge that there is a portion of this generation so angry, so apparently disaffected, they feel driven or able to commit unjustifiable acts of anarchy and, in most cases, straightforward crime.
So what do we “do” about them? Right now, many involved in statutory youth provision are pointing the finger at austerity-era budget cuts, such as the scything attack on local youth services and the ending of the education maintenance allowance. The removal of money is part of the problem, of course, but I believe there’s another side to that coin – that in this society we look to raise not young citizens, but young consumers. They’ve grown up on dreams fed to them by the marketing men (my three- and five-year-olds are proof that it starts early), yet as credit and funding have dried up, they now don’t have the resources to fund the dreams they’ve been sold.
Faith-based youth work has something special, something inherently different to offer them, because it offers something distinctive: transformation. And we in the faith community must not be ashamed of where that transformation comes from: an engagement with young people’s yearning sense of spirituality – something which promises rewards even greater than financial gain.
One of the greatest youth workers I know (and there are many), the sixtysomething Pip Wilson, has given his whole life to the inner-city teenagers we might term “hardest to reach”. Last week I saw a tweet from him. “You may not like this,” it read. “I love these kids #LondonRiots. I don’t love their behaviour but I LOVE THEM.” It was a wonderful illustration of the difference behind faith-based youth work. Pip sees these young people not as problems in need of a solution, but as people in need of identity, grace, love.
As the negative actions of many young people steal the headlines, I am with my church-based youth group at the Soul Survivor festival in Somerset. Over the course of three weeks, about 30,000 teenagers who are passionate about changing their country for the better will gather. The story never makes the papers, but they gather every year in increasing numbers: to share community, to learn, to pray together. For me they are a remarkable demonstration that we can still place our hope in their generation.
These young people are by nature passionate, they are moral, they have a deep sense of what it means to build and live in community, and they desire a better future.
Martin Saunders, an English Youth Worker, here gives evidence of his own experience of the benefits of a positive outlook towards the youth of his country who, at present, are being questioned about their attitudes towards civic responsibility and the social milieu in which they, through no fault of their own, find themselves.
As Martin says, there can be little doubt that a core of disaffected youth can easily ignite the tensions that are already present in a society where the rich seem to be getting rich while the poor get poorer. With a general downturn in the economy, young people cannot help but compare the benefits that seem to accrue to the opportunist – as compared to the growing inability of the poorer classes to either find, or retain, the jobs that are still available in a world of technological change.
Stable family life seems the obvious answer to delinquency and ‘acting out’, but there is also the inescapable fact that the ability of young people to acquire the tools to make a living is getting more and more difficult with the scarcity of resources for an adequate educational standard, for instance, can lead to a sense of helplessness on the part of even the most motivated youngster.
Any programme that youth can relate to that motivates them into a sense of purpose in life – and the churches ought to be part of all that – that does not zero in on just a capacity to build up material benefits – must be of enormous help, not only to the young people themselves, but also to the broader society in which they live.
Christian formation, such as the churches make available, however, ought help the individual young person to grow in civic responsibility – in accord with what Jesus taught about ‘who is my neighbour’ – so that any sense of exclusivity that might seem to isolate young Christians from their milieu will be replaced by a sense of community that includes everyone, not just the fellowship of Christians.
In Britain, of course, with its multi-racial population, it is most important that people get along with their neighbours – regardless of their ethnic, social, or religious background; so that the efforts on the part of faith communities must be directed towards integration, rather than segregation, of the local community – something that churches and other religious organisations are not always very good at doing.
In Britain there is a tendency on the part of civic authorities now to look to faith communities as a tool for social integration – something that, in the past, has not seemed necessary. However, as economies are squeezed, it becomes ever more important for the Church to be part of the conciliatory factor that helps communities to learn to live together in peace.
Father Ron Smith, presently in the U.K.