On the evening of the 5th February David Britten, our Parish Manager, and I
attended the home of Lejean Richards, a 19 years old man, stabbed to death
outside his home. We were able to do very little for the family other than simply
be with them in their grief, which was so fresh and raw.
I can’t speak for David, but I faced a series of different emotions that night. First,
a temptation to do something, to find ways to be more active with my help. Then I
recognised another familiar feeling settling in, that of powerlessness. What could I
do, what could we do, against the intractable, persistent complex of problems
around knife crime? In my despair I turned to prayer, silently asking God to come
into this darkest of moments; and as I prayed I thought again of the desolation of
the cross on which Jesus died, and remembered that God has been there, he
knows the darkness of murder, grief and loss. I remembered again that God was,
and is, present with us, grieving with us, and holding us through the pain, willing
us to persist until the dawn, and the new light of resurrection breaks through.
I think many of us go through a similar series of emotions, with fear, and
uncertainty about how to act, preventing us from taking action. But is it always
the case that “action” is what is needed?
Sam Wells’ book Living Without Enemies is about his experience of ministering in
Durham, North Carolina, alongside others wrestling with the horrendous reality of
gun crime in that city. He identifies four distinct types of social engagement, from
working for people effected by gun crime through pressuring government for
changes in gun laws, to working with those people to alleviate their problems – an
example of which is the community organising work we do at St Mary’s and through
Battersea Community Organising Group. Then there is being for, a style of engaging
in which you are for someone or something from a distance, but have no real
engagement – many of us will have things we are for but have little opportunity,
time or energy, to do more to support – the war in Syria, for example. The final
type of engagement, however, is being with, which is a type of engagement that
recognises that “doing something” is not always appropriate. For many of us this is
something we often under value, and only consider doing when all other options
are removed, for example, we’ll sit with someone on their death bed because
there is absolutely nothing else we can do for them.
However, the experience of the Durham group is that simply being with someone is
not only beautiful, but powerful, particularly when that person is facing
bereavement through violence. One wants to do something powerful and effective
to help, but the opposite of
violence is love. The group discovered that so much of what they did to support
people in such need seemed to come from a place of love, but actually involved
living with enemies, whether those enemies were the perpetrators of the violence,
or the government who failed to change the gun laws appropriately.
As Christians we are called to love others as God loves them, and we know through
the life, death and resurrection of Christ, that God’s love seeks the reconciliation
of all things in himself. It is a love that includes the holiest soul, and the lowliest
sinner, and everyone in between, because God does not live with enemies.
The Durham group also learned that simply being with people in their problems
and pain is important, because it put at the heart of their work not the attempt to
provide an immediate solution which would make them feel better, but the love
that builds community. After many different forms of action, they came to
acknowledge that it is not always possible, or appropriate, to take action. And any
action that is taken without first addressing the lack of community, the absence of
love, is built on a shaky foundation.
As we as a church consider our response to the knife crime, and other forms of
violence, on our streets, we will no doubt feel powerless, overwhelmed by the
scale of the problem, and at a loss as to what to do; but let us be inspired by God’s
example, who sent his Son to be one of us, and to suffer with us. Through his
death, he has restored our life. We are not alone, and the most powerful thing we
can do for our broken and suffering world is get alongside folk and simply be with
them, extending the all-embracing love of God to them. That is the firm
foundation on which all our work can be built.
If you are interested in being part of a prayer vigil network, which will gather at
the site of violent crimes to pray silently with candles held aloft as a symbol of our
love, please talk to Aaron.