Efforts to engage with young people as a way of tackling crime are centred on using their own language, picking up on their particular culture and aspirations. Somehow, the involvement of religion in this context doesn’t quite work. On the face of it, nothing would seem further removed from the interests and ideals of most young people than the practices of faith groups.
But the work of churches, mosques and other religious centres is increasingly recognised as having the potential for supporting local authority services, with efforts to tackle youth crime being one area where faith groups can have an impact.
Faith groups have been a focus of attention from government since the 1990s, as a sometimes mysterious part of UK society, a potential force of mobilisation (whether for good or ill), and as a target for consultation and a “way in” to engage with minority groups. And since 9/11 and the London bombings of 2005, this interest has inevitably grown in intensity.
But rather than just trying to understand and repair relationships through faith groups, the potential is there for the state to take a more positive approach.
Government and local authorities need to recognise the contribution faith groups are already making to communities, and need to encourage them to take a more formal role in society. In other words, churches, mosques and other faith groups should be helped to play a role in supporting frontline council services.
The issue of involving religious groups in civic affairs can be fraught with controversy. Critics have argued that faith groups are unrepresentative and promote their own interests first that many religious traditions are reactionary and should not be openly encouraged and ultimately that religion is essentially just a matter for the private sphere. These types of concerns inevitably throw up questions about whether these kinds of groups should have influence over young minds, particularly of those who may be in vulnerable situations.
However, recent research in Lewisham, London, by the Applied Research Centre in Sustainable Regeneration, highlights how faith groups are important to people. For example, they provide networks of mutual aid and support between members and with others on the fringe of their communities.
The significance of what has been termed the “inner life of communities” should not be underestimated. This is support through life’s ups and downs, often based on family and friendship, reinforced by ties of faith and belief. As part of the Lewisham study I spoke with group leaders, many of whom talked about how they were willingly supporting the council’s social care budget by helping people who were struggling in their lives and who, for whatever reason, were going to them first.
These kinds of relationships can be key to dealing with the problems that lead to youth crime: family breakdown, poverty and social isolation. Essentially, faith groups are networks of people the stronger these networks are the greater the sense of responsibility and the awareness of the behaviour of individuals in their communities.
Coming from “outside” to deal with trouble, more official interventions – no matter how well-meaning or constructed – are instantly perceived as being a threat. By already being on the “inside” and part of everyday life in their communities, faith groups have a ready-made advantage.
For many groups, getting organised to meet their own needs is the first step to wider service provision. It may well start with activities for children and older people – playgroups and luncheon clubs are typical. Initially the focus might be on members, but this often spreads to a wider set of “customers” in the neighbourhood. Many of these activities are self-funded or paid for through small charges. Some make use of funds from businesses, charities and the public sector.
And this provision of welfare services can lead to a broadening of concerns for local communities. Local people start to ask what can be done about employment issues, training and education locally what response should there be to poverty and drug dependency?
These questions are often answered by the use of “community development” solutions: community centres are created training activity or ICT facilities are provided using a range of funding sources credit unions may be established with provision for young people, for example.
Through a number of initiatives, including the Home Office’s Faith Communities Unit’s recommendations for government and faith group engagement in 2004 and the emphasis on the role of faith groups from the Community Cohesion Panel, relationships have been initiated and developed by local authorities. Some councils, such as Lewisham, have appointed faith and social action officers with a more ongoing and active remit to develop community projects (see box above).
Now it is up to each local government function to step up a gear, and begin developing plans for working more closely alongside faith groups in the future.
Richard Farnell is a professor at the Applied Research Centre in Sustainable Regeneration (Surge) at Coventry University.
This article appeared in the 29 November issue under the headline “Come all ye faithful”