The phone rang back in 1996. My vicar called to tell me that there had been a stabbing in the playground at a local school, and that he had told them that I’d go in and see what I could do. I’d been in London a relatively short period of time having grown up in Chelmsford in Essex. I’d visited London as a school kid, and couldn’t get the tragedy of poverty and exclusion out of my head as the class caught sight of cardboard city – people living in boxes under Waterloo Bridge – some barely out of their teens, while others wore the scars of long-term homelessness. I fairly much decided then and there, I needed to do something.
I came back a few years later as a gap-year student with Oasis, and after getting married to Diane, we moved into a small flat on an estate in Lambeth and I took up the post of youth worker in a local church. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, my heart was beginning to change and my life would never be the same. I was learning that God loves them all – even people like this – and that for me to be a blessing to them I needed to become a part of their lives, a member of their communities. I was reimagining how to ‘Love God’ and ‘Love People’ in the midst of the inner city.
When the call came through, Diane and I thought long and hard about what to do for that first lesson in the school. Hard wired into our DNA for most of us is the longing for someone in our lives to look up to, for a role model. The kids on the estate were no different, and with so many dads no longer part of their single-parent homes, a big problem was who the young boys were reaching out to to be the alternative role model in their lives. Inevitably it would end up being the bloke who was a few years older than them who was earning hundreds of pounds each week through drugs and other crime and had earned the respect and fear of those around him. If your role model tells you there’s no point going to school since you can earn more money illegally now, then you follow them down the hole that leads to gangs, drugs, criminality, prison and death.
My first lesson in the school would look at heroes and role models, and so began regular lessons, assemblies and lunch clubs, in schools. Even if a few kids could name a famous ‘hero’, I discovered they barely knew more than the name and not what they stood for, their values, how they conducted themselves or what they said and did. The kids would volunteer their heroes and each week we would learn something more about them. I taught on more than 200 heroes. We’ve seen time and time again that wrong choices lead to more wrong choices which eventually lead to people being defined by those choices – choose violence and murder and you will be defined as a violent murderer. What we wanted the kids to see is that right choices give them a freedom to choose their own path through life, to explore opportunities and relationships, and to aspire to be like their heroes.
And so began the work of XLP – Diane came up with the name. It’s a play on words. We wanted the kids to eXceL and it was a project: the eXceL Project. I learned that if I worked with the kids in their schools, and on their estates (their ‘turf’), and with their families, then so much more could be accomplished and what was accomplished seemed to last. This became the model for XLP – projects working in schools, on estates and with families. Our school’s projects include mentoring, literacy and numeracy support, arts and special lessons. On estates, we’ve got community double-decker buses that visit around 26 estate communities each week with fun, games, homework support, cooking sessions, topic sessions and a listening ear. We’ve got football projects on eight estates and bring together groups of young people who often at first ‘hate’ each other with a passion, but discover lasting friendships and common bonds. We have a mobile recording studio (in an old police riot van) that does sessions on estates with older young people who are often most at-risk to the influence of gangs and criminality. We have a mentoring project that works with the young people and their families, and we have excursions, trips and summer camps for kids who would otherwise never leave their estate or borough.
All the activities help build trust. I realised early on that a trusted relationship is the very first thing that is needed to help a young person. If they don’t trust you, they won’t work with you, so we spend a good deal of time and energy building strong trusted relationships. Secondly, many of the young people believe that things can’t ever change for them – they feel they are “born on this estate, will grow up on this estate and will die on this estate”. “My grandad didn’t have a job, my dad never worked, and I don’t need a job.” Breaking this cycle requires broadening their horizons and so many of XLP’s trips and activities are focused on breaking them free from the captivity of their own perceptions, and getting them to dream of the possibility that life could be different and better. And once they trust you, and once they believe that life could be better for them, then the third bit, the hard bit, comes in – they need to change and we promise to stick with them long-term to help them work hard to change and achieve something better. Trust, believe, change – that’s how I learned to do it, right from the beginning of XLP, and that’s how we do it to today.
We have made loads of mistakes and learned many lessons the hard way. We have prayed for and cried out for kids, struggled with bad things that have happened, and rejoiced when there is a breakthrough. Some of our young people each year are killed – whatever statistics come out, knife crime is still a huge problem in the inner city – and others go on to become wonderful role models for the next generation despite all their challenges. We keep praying, hoping and working with them; we don’t give up.
Steven had arrived from a troubled and violent life in Nigeria with his mum and two younger siblings. He bore the scars of his experiences and now at the age of 14 found himself the ‘man’ of the family. His mum worked 16-plus hours a day, six to seven days a week to try to make ends meet. Then, government cuts meant that she lost her job and they found themselves living night-to-night either on the street or sneaking into hotels through the back door to find shelter for the night. Steven was always hungry. He was angry. He smelled, given the lack of regularly available bathing facilities. When he stole, he stole food for himself and his family. He has been stabbed many times. Steven was fast, and gangs liked to use him when they mugged someone – they would grab something like a laptop from a commuter on their way home and Steven would leg it so fast no one stood a chance of catching up with him. If the other guys were caught they had nothing on them and were in the clear. One night Steven witnessed the gang beating up a guy they were stealing from. They punched the victim repeatedly in the face, even as he fell to the floor. This was too much and Steven wanted out.
Steven heard about a TV project XLP were doing with MTV and EMI, and auditioned for the show. We needed people who were prepared to talk about youth violence in London. He was chosen to take part. One of the opening scenes of the programme called “Pimp My Ride” was to be the police riot van, before it had been ‘pimped’ (transformed), coming around a corner on an estate to meet the four young people, including Steven. To make sure they captured the ‘surprise’ of the young people, they didn’t tell them what was going to happen. When the police van came around the corner, all four young people fled the scene out of instinct. Later, when we’d got them back, they began to record the show which transformed a police riot van into the mobile recording studio XLP still uses today, and gave the young people a platform from which to talk about the struggles and fears of living with violence in their communities. Steven gradually became more and more involved with XLP, trying to help other young people caught up in the life he knew so well to find a different way. He became an intern with the charity, and then a full-time employee and he now heads up XL-Sport – a project within XLP that helps young people through sports and fitness training. When William and Kate came to XLP, Steven talked with them (and even invited them to his wedding). Even with his XLP T-shirt on, though, Steven will still find himself regularly going through the ignominy of being stopped and searched on the high streets of south London where he works. Such is life for young people in the inner city however reformed or changed they are.
For Steven and so many young people, relationship was the key to change. Relationship nurtures the belief that change is possible. What is needed is a trusted relationship that does not condone wrong choices and behaviours, but encourages and supports a young person to choose courageously to stay in or go back to school and succeed, to stay out of or get out of involvement with gangs, crime and anti-social behaviour, and to set goals for the future and commit to working hard to achieve them.
And all this takes time. For Steven, it has taken him nearly ten years of incredibly hard work to achieve the change that has happened, and for me and others in XLP to travel his journey in relationship with him. Steven got married last year to a wonderful young lady. Steven is godfather to my children. He is a close friend of the entire family and my kids see him as a role model – a hero. He is a trusted colleague and one of the best youth workers I’ve ever seen. Day in day out, he is reaching out to young people, looking for the opportunity to make a difference in their lives. Steven has had some tough decisions to make along the way and his heart has been changed with the sacrifices he has made; his life will never be the same. He has learned that God loves them all – even people like him – and that for him to be a blessing to other young people he needs to be a part of their lives and their communities. Every day he is reimagining how to ‘Love God’ and ‘Love People’ in the midst of the inner city.
I lost my heart to the young people in the inner city more than 21 years ago, and the overwhelming emotion that rises when I see others humbly losing theirs is a constant inspiration and encouragement for which I am grateful. One church leader pointed out to me many years ago, that vision and frustration are the same thing – when you have a vision for something that is yet to come into being, you are constantly frustrated that it has not yet arrived or isn’t coming quickly enough. I dreamed 21 years ago of excluded and broken young people finding positive and accepting relationships in an inclusive community that cares for them, nurtures them, and encourages them to become all that God wants them to be. That church leader was right, but I think I want to add that what has sustained me most when the frustration has been at its most intense, is the company I have kept – the journeying together with people like Steven and so many others, who have lost their hearts to the same vision, and who are willing to sacrifice everything to see it happen. Let me put it another way, it is about seeing God’s kingdom come through the dedication and sacrificial lives of followers of Jesus.
Patrick Regan OBE Founder of XLP
For more info www.xlp.org.uk