Yesterday morning I got to enjoy one of my most beautiful moments of the year. I shared communion with 200 young people as part of their journey of leaving high school. We took moments to own and reflect on our regrets, to commit ourselves to living as reconciled people, to ask God to feed us in bread and wine, or grant us his blessing or protection. I am sure you can imagine that among such a group of teenagers there is a variety of responses.
Having done this for five years now, what I noticed this morning was the sense of connection. More young people than ever made eye contact, smiled, and revealed, in the light of their eyes, their earnest desire for God's blessing. I confess that it was incredibly moving and humbling for me.
It was made more so as, on my journey to the service, I had been listening to commentary on the wave of knife crime that is besetting the UK. I am sure that across the country many of us are heartbroken at the numbers of young lives that have been cut short. Our communities too often feature those wayside shrines to those who have had their lives ended early in what feels like an unstoppable cycle of violence.
Many will have their theories on how to stop the wave. Politicians posture, casting blame at any who will listen. Police and voluntary groups suggest that money will help, the press say whatever reassures their readers. And in the midst one can't help but feel that young people are once again left to their own devices.
The only model we have for how God might envisage a society is teased out of the Old Testament. Communities that resolve dispute through judges who were known in their land. Communities where the possibility of generational poverty was removed in cycles of Sabbath and Jubilee. Communities that (in context) frown on behaviours that will not advance the strength of the community as a whole. Perhaps most poignantly, communities where there was special provision to make sure that the widow, the alien and the child were particularly mentioned and provided for. In short, people would look out for the most vulnerable in society and would make sure that someone had their backs.
I am not sure that our young people in 21st century Britain enjoy that privilege. In the last 10 years it seems to me that twin pressures have left young people isolated and alone, with no sense that anyone has got their back. Supportive services have been drastically reduced in austerity: EMA (the Education Maintenance Allowance that provided support for young people continuing in education) was one of the first benefits to be cancelled. Stretched police services have little capacity to convey a message of support for young people as police are left simply chasing offenders rather than protecting potential victims.
In turning a blind eye to abuse for a generation, many of our traditional institutions have lost any credibility in protection they might once have had. Young people are portrayed as threatening, while simultaneously receiving messages that they must do more, achieve more, be more. Aggressive educational drive, social media, parental anxiety – it all adds to pressure that most law makers and church goers never had.
I'm not sure that some young people feel that anyone has got their backs.
We all know that if we don't feel anyone else will protect us, we will try to look after ourselves. That is a normal reaction and for significant numbers of young people, that means carrying a knife.
I do not have a quick fix for knife crime. However, I do believe that we can begin to work for a society where young people know that there is a community that has got their back and will protect them. That is a high ideal, but I wonder of it starts with the simplest of things.
A smile? Asking if a young person is OK? Refusing to being intimated into crossing the road when you see a group of teenagers (they are probably not trying to be intimidating)? Stopping buying that paper that insists it's all their fault? Supporting your church youth worker? There are many tiny things you can do to start letting young people know that you have their back.
Yesterday morning I didn't use that ancient Ash Wednesday reminder, 'Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.' The young people who looked into my eyes know that all too well. This Lent let us pray, and let us act in such a way that when we do return to dust, as we all shall, it will be after a full and safe life for all of us.
Rev Jude Smith is the team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds. Follow her on Twitter @gingervicar