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27 June 2012

A year since the riots

A year since the riots

The Games may be here, but nearly a year ago, the nation was reeling from the shock of the riots which rocked our cities. Riyaza Rodriguez looks at the Church’s continued response to the devastating scenes of anarchy and looting…

Last year’s August riots were some of the worst scenes of lawlessness this country has ever witnessed. Many London boroughs, and towns and cities across England, experienced widespread arson, looting and violence that saw many people burnt out of their homes, and shops and businesses looted and destroyed. It is estimated that there was around £200 million worth of damage to public property. Many of those involved were repeat offenders, many were in gangs, and pretty much all identified as being ‘at the bottom of society’, struggling socially and economically. 

As we look back at the Church’s involvement in the year that’s gone by since the riots, an inspiring picture emerges of an institution at the heart of its community, one that is far from irrelevant to today’s society, as many would have us believe. What also emerges is a challenge to the Church that harks back to the very reason we are here.

A visible presence

In the immediate wake of the riots, as local police and public authorities were stretched to capacity trying to cope, the Church quickly mobilised. Prayer meetings were held up and down the country. St Paul’s in Salford – an area which was badly hit by the riots, held an evening prayer meeting together with a number of evangelical churches in the town. The Birmingham Christian Centre coordinated prayers for the city alongside the Bishop of Birmingham and other evangelical leaders, while in Wolverhampton, as well as giving hands-on practical support in their riot-affected areas, churches joined together to hold prayer meetings. Steve Uppal from the All Nations Christian Centre in Wolverhampton, which regularly holds prayer meetings for the town, said: “We had a greater response than usual and a very strong sense of solidarity amongst the churches.” 

XLP busPastoral care spilled onto the streets too. Literally. A report published by the Faith to Engage project that looked at the Church’s response to the riots found that clergy from a range of churches took to the streets offering ‘a listening ear’ for those in shock or troubled by the violence. The report, published in January this year, said: “Many people on the streets in the Tottenham area were keen to let someone know how they felt and just talk to a sympathetic, listening ear. The presence of the Church on the streets provided an alternative uniformed presence to that of the police.” It goes on to say: “The visibility of clergy on the street appears to have been picked up by the local councils and acknowledged with thanks by local traders. One local person commented ‘You were here when no-one else was’.” 

Elsewhere in London, another local council also identified the Church’s effectiveness.

Paul Barratt, leader of Jubilee Church in Croydon, and this year’s chair of the Croydon Churches Forum, told us: “During the riots, Croydon Council came to the Church because they saw us as mediators with the community. 

“On the night after the riots broke out, I was asked to chair a meeting between the borough police and fire services, local councillors, the local press and residents and shop keepers whose homes and properties had been burnt down. 

“The Borough Commander of the Met police told residents that night ‘if you want to know what’s going on, go to the church pastors’. Senior church leaders were being emailed with updates of local incidents as they happened. Within minutes we were being notified of facts and were able to quickly dispel rumours. 

“The police saw that they could speak to residents through the network of churches. They saw that we have a relationship with the local people, that they trust us.”  

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Moving forward: 

relationship and trust

In the months following the riots, as the government and local authorities started to ask why the riots happened and what should be done to prevent them ever happening again, it became clear that long-term relationships and trust were at the heart of the debate.

XLP, a Christian youth charity, have worked with young people and their families over the last 15 years. CEO Patrick Regan told idea: “Many of the young people that rioted were angry, isolated, and on the edge of society. They don’t trust the police, the education system or social services; some of them don’t even trust their own parents. 

“One of the first steps in our mentoring scheme is to show them that we are members of their own community – many of our mentors live and work right alongside them. Every week we work with around 1,000 young people. We work to support them and help them make the right lifestyle choices.” 

He goes onto say: “You have to be committed to the long-haul. MPs will come and go, but the Church is part of the fabric of every community – and we are not going anywhere.”

Paul Barratt echoes this by saying: “As churches, we work at the ground level of the community: we have relationships, we have buildings and facilities, and we have a local workforce. We are in a unique position to serve the community.” 

No quick-fixes

While many in the government and local authorities are looking to the official recommendations made and named projects as evidence of action, both Jubilee Church and XLP leaders believe that there are no quick-fix solutions to the problems that the August riots identified. “We cannot parachute in solutions,” said Patrick. “What our communities need are tailor-made solutions that are borne out of relationship.” 

“Local people need to know you are in for the long haul,” Paul said. The riots resulted in many reports written and suggestions made as to why they happened and how to stop them ever happening again, and rightly so. But instead of ‘shoe-horning’ in new government initiatives that are only a sticking-plaster of a solution, perhaps the Church should be going to the government and the local authorities and showing them our credentials: relationships, facilities, a local workforce and a heart to serve. As many of those convicted of offences during the riots are about to finish prison sentences, a new challenge emerges. How do we help them to integrate into society with a sense that they have a stake in it? How do we help answer that sense of hopelessness that led them to violence in the first place? As a Church, it is clear that we are uniquely positioned to help answer some of these questions.

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