Lessons from Brixton


This article by Paul Maxwell-Rose was commissioned by the Student Christian Movement for the Spring 2020 edition of Movement magazine.

Building relationships, building peace 

Strong relationships are core to successful peacemaking. Many believe that we just have to deal with the “issues” and causes of conflict, and then everyone will get along – but that is to overlook that peace is not the same as the absence of conflict. There will always be difference and that difference will sometimes lead to conflict – it is through good relationships that we can learn to build a future together and learn from these conflicts, rather than let them destroy us.

How then can we go about building effective relationships in an area of tension? Our experience of living and working in Brixton for six years has given us some interesting insights.

Being, not doing

When you’re invited to work in any new community, it can be tempting to rush in from a position of power and expertise and try and make your mark. But that’s rarely a sensible approach, especially in peacemaking when there are often deep levels of mistrust within the community. So before launching any activity in Brixton and formally doing anything, I spent a year just being there, listening and learning. I talked to groups of young people hanging out on street corners, wandered into youth clubs, volunteered at an after-school homework group, and got to know local social workers, police and entrepreneurs. And that’s our usual approach at CHIPS, inspired by the example of Jesus who spent 30 years living and listening and being before getting involved in public ministry.

Live like a local

After a little while, I found a flat on one of the estates for myself and our volunteers to live in. Shortly afterwards, my wife and two-year-old son joined me and we made our home in the area at the heart of one of the estates most affected by the conflict.  We joined a local church and a community choir, we attend a local parent and toddler group, and we intentionally use local shops and pubs (even when the beer choices are rubbish!) Now we feel like – and are seen as – neighbours, which has been invaluable for building trust and gaining a holistic view of the community.

Search out the unsung heroes

We usually work through partnerships, and we often have a choice of working with outside ‘professionals’ or local young people and residents who might not have the same “expertise”. This second option usually takes quite a bit more work and is much slower, but we’ve learnt that the added value far outweighs the effort. This approach empowers local people to reach their full potential and raises up voices which may otherwise not be heard.

For example, two amazing local mums are now among our most valuable partners. They’re people who give time and energy to helping a large number of vulnerable local young men and women and have become a support and sounding board to them when nobody else is listening. We thank God for people like them and we greatly value the mutual support that we’ve found as we work together for peace in Brixton.

Swallow your pride

At first, we struggled to attract attendees for our (now very popular) community meal on the estate. So we started to eat outside, in the car park, with a ‘freecycled’ table, an old broken bench and a few chairs from the flat. We looked ridiculous, but it got us noticed and opened up a whole range of possibilities.  From there we built some fantastic relationships – such as one young mum who subsequently came with her kids to eat and play games with us every week for two years throughout a hard time in her life.

Take both sides

In Brixton, young people’s loyalties are often sharply divided between different estates and postcodes, and they also often feel like they’re in conflict with the police and other authorities too. When a local mum we work closely with learnt that a number of young people felt unsafe going to youth offending appointments because of fear of attack outside their own ‘patch’, she suggested we might be able to help. Because we had built good links with both the council and local young people, youth offending workers have now agreed to hold meetings in the safe space of our office.

Blessed are the peacemakers

Peacemaking is the practical work of building the Kingdom of God here on earth. In every place, every situation, and every relationship, we can reflect on the life of Jesus the ultimate peacemaker to learn how to be a peacemaker ourselves. The stories and things we’ve learnt come from the dual act of reading the bible and learning from our community, and that is a practice I’d encourage all of us to take in whatever situation we end up in. Violence is pervasive in our homes, communities, in the systems and structures of our society and in so many parts of our world – so we all have a role to play in being the peacemakers our world so urgently needs. As you step into this role, I want to encourage you with Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Paul Maxwell-Rose, Co-Director for Programmes