An inspiring story about the power of relationship: What happened when a local pastor invited a gang leader to her house for dinner.
Before Karl was a gang leader, he wanted to be an astronaut. He was a bright, voracious reader earmarked by his teachers as ‘gifted and talented’ and he achieved top sets. He came from a hard working home on a south London estate. But by his early teens, Karl’s life had taken a different turn. “There was no single turning point, just a gradual realisation that my studious ways did not serve me. I was a tall boy, but timid and from the age of 12, I started getting mugged. They took my bike, my phone, they broke into my mum’s car, they beat me up, and I lived in fear of being robbed the moment I stepped outside our front door.” For Karl, how to avoid being a target of crime became all consuming. “I realised that in order to have immunity, I needed to join a gang, but none would have me, so I formed my own.”
“It took one ambitious summer for me to go from victim to victimising. The gang ran riot, mugging people for phones, selling drugs, stealing cars, joyriding.” But a year later, Karl’s close friend was murdered by a rival gang. “That night I did a lot of crying. It would be the last time I cried for years. It strengthened my resolve to scale up our defences and ensure that we never took another loss. It darkened me. That day I put on the mask of violence and then the mask took over me and I lost my core.”
To Karl, this extreme ratcheting up of violence was just regular life. It was at this point that one of the gang member’s mothers, a local pastor in the community, decided to intervene ,wanting to rescue her son from this life of crime and violence. She realised that she would have to have a conversation with Karl as the gang leader.
“She invited all of us into her home and cooked for us. At first she connected with one of my peers who opened up to her and laid it all bare. She didn’t judge him but tried to help. It gave me license to do the same thing. She reeked of sincerity – she didn’t understand but she understood. After I laid it all bare, I remember seeing in her eyes this blend of fear, anxiety, empathy, and pain. I remember looking at myself through her eyes. Words had never reached me or even scratched the surface, but the look in her eyes made me think, maybe there is something wrong with the way I’m living. At that stage, it was just a ‘maybe.’ She saw potential in us, treated us like we were significant, like we were born to do something great.”
Through the encouragement of Pastor Mimi, Karl was able to leave the gang he had been a part of. And with the help of a local charity, he has recently set up his own social enterprise as an events planner. Karl now has a passion to help other young men leave the gang life behind. “I had grown up believing a lie that had consumed my life and now I feel like the bearer of a great revelation, that being in a gang is not the answer. It has become my burden to tell other young people that.”
(This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in the London Evening Standard on Tuesday, October 8th.)