Hope in the sadness

Ian Brooks reports from Croxteth and reflects on nearly three decades of ministry next to the community that saw the as yet unsolved murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones (26 September 1995-22 August 2007)

The shooting by an (as yet) unidentified teenager of 11-year-old Rhys Jones dominated the news for a fortnight at the end of the school summer holidays. Television, wireless and newspaper reporters descended in dozens to engage public attention. Through them, the nation marvelled at the courage of Rhys's parents as they allowed the great waves of Tiverpool's natural heartfelt sympathy and emotion to embrace them.

Few of us could even begin to imagine the inner turmoil of emerging from intense shock and private grief to stand in a packed football stadium and lead the crowd in thunderous applause - at once a celebration of a young life, so full of promise, cruelly ended, and a gesture of defiance in the face of the armed gangs whose senseless feuding had cost the life of an innocent child.

The media showed too what we witnessed at street level: the swift and massive police response, as extra resources were drafted in from other authorities and the search for the murderer and the weapon intensified. And then there was the focus on the vigil of prayer in the local school and park, and coverage of the funeral service in the cathedral with the local clergy, and the Bishop of Liverpool delivering a calm, dignified and moving address.

There were, however, aspects of the reporting that presented a distorted and grossly unfair picture of the area. The electoral ward of Croxteth, about six miles from the city centre, comprises two distinct communities separated by woods and a park with a fine house, once the residence of the Earls of Sefton. On one side is the Council estate begun in the 1950s St Pauls parish (called 'Old Croxteth' by some papers), and on the other side the much larger private housing estate begun in the 1980s, (often called in the developers' literature the Country Park estate), which forms the separate parish of St Cuthbert.

It was there, in the car park of the pub just in front of the church, that the shooting took place. The reporters quickly gathered that the shooting was probably connected with the highly publicized feud between gangs of armed youths in 'old' Croxteth and Norris Green (the next large estate on the bus route into the centre of Liverpool) and turned their attention here.

Televised interviews were staged not in the centre of the estate but on a derelict section on the edge, which is being prepared for demolition and redevelopment, giving the false impression of general decay and neglect. No one would deny that Croxteth has had a troubled history; but it does not deserve the media depiction of a community composed mainly of armed hoodies, drug addicts, vandals, and families with anti-social behaviour orders inhabiting needle-strewn menacing streets.

Built as part of the great post-war development to re-house people from inner-city bomb-damaged and slum clearance areas, Croxteth seemed like paradise to those who came from cramped inner-city terraces. Here, on the edge of the city, bordered by woods and fields, were new houses with up to five bedrooms, inside toilets and bathrooms, and gardens back and front; 3-storey flats with plenty of green space for children's play; schools, shops and a library.

There was no shortage of work, for here, too, were huge electrical engineering factories employing over 20,000 people, and offering apprenticeships; and a frequent tram service conveyed those who worked in the thriving docks. The City Council and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese both provided primary and secondary schools; a new RC parish church was built, and St Paul's dual-purpose church/hall was opened in 1958. Residents from those early days remember a series of weekend street fights between youths from the estate and gangs from nearby Kirkby, but relate how gradually the new estate developed its own identity and became a settled community.

The collapse of the traditional shipping trade had a disastrous effect on Croxteth. Jobs were lost not only by those who were employed directly on the ships and on the docks, but by those who worked in the industries that supplied goods and services. Fr Cooper, second priest at St Paul's, recorded the loss in 1970 of 5,000 jobs at the English Electric factory in the parish. Many capable workers moved elsewhere.

As unemployment figures soared over the next decade the City Council used Croxteth (as they later publicly admitted) as a sink estate. 'If they've got problems, offer them Croxteth' seemed to be the rule. When it came to maintenance of the housing stock or the school buildings, Croxteth was bottom of the list.

By 1980, when David Sheppard wrote to ask me to 'come over and help us', he described it as among the most deprived of all the parishes in his diocese, with over 80% of residents on some kind of benefit and nearly 60% unemployment. The Sunday Mass congregation was six on a good day. I was about the twelfth priest approached with the plea to 'build up the congregation and serve the local community' After much thought and prayer my wife and I accepted the call and began the work in which, twenty-seven years later, we are still engaged.

Three years after our arrival the decline of Croxteth reached its lowest point when drug dealing seemed to spring up from nowhere. There had been a few reports of local youngsters experimenting with 'magic mushrooms', and some evidence of glue sniffing, which had been more common in London; but suddenly there were gangs of 50 lads on the street corners at certain times of the day waiting for cars to arrive for the flagrant buying and selling of drugs.

The police were caught completely off guard, and the community was bewildered and apprehensive. The press descended in droves and gave Croxteth the title 'Smack City'. The usual sensationalist nonsense appeared in the worst of the Sunday papers, claiming that the tower blocks were full of wealthy drug-peddling pensioners, and publishing pictures of teenagers smoking or injecting drugs for which they had paid youngsters to pose. The damage was both immediate, as many decent families sought to leave the estate, and long-term, as a bad reputation is almost impossible to erase from public memory.

The community, however, has been purposeful and resilient. A strong Community Federation, committed local councillors, school heads and governors, and the churches, have led the struggle over two decades to recover the stability and the reputation of Croxteth. Funding has been obtained for employment and training initiatives, for the development of out of school work and leisure activities with children, for the formation of a Credit Union, for the care of people with learning disabilities and the social support of elderly and housebound people.

The City Council has handed over its local housing stock to a housing association, which has begun to reverse years of neglect, working closely with tenants and residents, for the regeneration of the area. All this has taken an enormous amount of effort, which has been fully rewarded in the positive difference it continues to make to people of all ages; but the recent tragedy shows that there is a small and dangerous group of amoral young thugs who are completely untouched by the accepted standards of civilised society.

Over the past three years there have been several incidents involving guns and local youths. We were horrified when we learned of the Croxteth Park shooting, but we had said for some time that it would not be long before some innocent bystander became a victim. The life of a young child has been taken, the life of a family destroyed, the life of a community deeply unsettled. One of my congregation said how frightening it was to stand at the bus stop and watch a hooded teenager cycle by knowing that it could be the one who killed Rhys Jones. The yobs must not be allowed to undermine the rule of law and destabilise society. There is a clear need for a greater police presence on the streets, and for the Government to release the funds to make this possible.

The Roman Catholic Church has visibly retreated from Croxteth, closing the building that had served the estate for nearly half a century when its congregation dropped to around 200 at the Sunday Mass. We are still here, but for how long with a congregation of two dozen, unable to pay what the diocese demands in quota? Is our continuing presence here necessary, desirable, or (to use the word that sounds the death knell for valuable services that no one is prepared to fund) viable?

In times of frustration and despair it is tempting to think that our being in places like this is a waste of time and money. Set against the heroic stories of the Giants in the Land which I put into Forward! plus, life in Croxteth seems hopeless. Fr A moves into the slums of Victorian heathendom and, against all opposition from protestant bishops, scheming Kensitites and rioting mobs, establishes the Catholic faith, has 50 people at the daily Mass and 500 on Sunday, baptizes hundreds every year, runs guilds and clubs for every age range, raises thousands of pounds to run schools and beautify the church, and dies revered by all, the streets lined with half the population of the city.

Contrast with Fr B who goes to Croxteth, works for 27 years to achieve 25 people at the Sunday Mass, weekday masses subject to cancellation because only one person comes if you are lucky, a wedding every three years or so. Get rid of him? Close it down? One of my predecessors, Fr Michael Cooper, felt keenly the loss of half his congregation as a result of people moving after redundancy in 1970. In ill health, he resigned after eleven years here in 1973. A note in the margin at the end of December 1972 reads, 'Up Calvary to Christmass, down Calvary to Easter and along Kidron to the next Passiontide.' I mentioned this to a dear friend who had been my churchwarden in London. He was brought up at St Columba's, Hag-gerston, where his father had served for the legendary Fr LeCouteur and been churchwarden in Fr Ravens time. He reminded me that those priests did not work alone. There were three or four in the clergy house, there were often parish Sisters, and teams of ladies came from other parishes to undertake visiting. Finally, he said, there were compelling social and economic reasons for the poor to belong to the various guilds and organizations where they were fed or clothed, educated or entertained, given medical care or assured of a decent funeral. 'Your task today is harder,' he concluded.

Even so, there is a sadness in places like Croxteth: often a sadness in ministry because of the pressure to be 'successful' measured in terms of numbers. But lack of numbers does not always indicate clerical sloth, indolence or incompetence; sometimes it is simply that the seed falls on ground as hard as rock.

There is a sadness in the heart of the community that longs for things to be better. A group of year 3 children (aged 7 & 8) at Croxteth Primary School produced this touching poem a few weeks before the shooting:

MAKE A CHANGE

Gangs do not care
Their bullets everywhere
We feel so scared at night
The guns give us a fright.

Illegal fighting dogs scare us
Gangsters throw bricks at our bus
Needles of death in our street
Dropped by pale selfish people we meet.

If we had the power
We would grow the biggest flower
We could make a change
And rearrange the bad for the good.

Kind people in new parks
Friendly dogs with
quiet barks
Having fun in the sun
If we try... all this can be done!

The church must be there to respond and empower with Christ's passionate love. Only a church that is active in community affairs, that weeps with those who weep, can through perseverance and diligent faithfulness bring the message of the Cross into the daily lives of that community, and give cause for hope. Only such a church, which witnesses to the reality of the incarnation and the power of the Cross, may then rejoice with those who rejoice, knowing that by the grace of God their labour has not been in vain.

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