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Faith, Space and Selfhood in East London ‘Youth Gang’ Culture

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posted on 2023-08-30, 14:30 authored by Gary Amstrong, James Rosbrook-Thompson
Be it the stake in conformity religious observance usually brings to an individual or concomitant fear of the wrath of God, ‘religion’ has been held to keep believers on the societal straight and narrow. In recent decades approaches to combating deviance originating in the US and Latin America have aimed at “setting gang members free” via the scriptures and practices of Pentecostalism. With its focus on the experiential dimension of faith, especially around worship, Pentecostalism has offered a path to redemption to various ‘gang associates’ punctuated by expressive, energetic and interactive church services. A number of schemes inspired by this denomination of Protestantism also utilise ‘reintegrative shaming’, a strategy characterised by the forging of bonds between ‘recovering’ gang members and a sympathetic church congregation. At a deeper level such interventions work on the subjectivity of young people – both gang members and prospective gang members – and re-inscribe the boundaries of public and private, and sacred and profane. The attempts at refashioning a young person’s sense of selfhood – also assisted by the sanctuary provided by certain spaces (both real and imagined) – underline the ‘salvific’ power of Pentecostalism. In what follows analysis focuses on the work of Pentecostal Christian charity, Teaching Against Gangs (TAG). The authors use the findings of ethnographic fieldwork to examine how TAG’s founder, Sheldon Thomas (ST), seeks to combat Serious Youth Violence (SYV). More specifically, we document ST’s efforts to connect with young people involved in SYV/gangs by challenging their understandings of selfhood and appealing to notions of space and divisions between spheres. The paper begins by briefly surveying the extant literature on religion and gang-related crime, before considering the methods employed in the research and the settings in which TAG interventions were staged. The strategies and realities of the interventions themselves are then detailed. A consideration of the utility of religious values and rituals in the work of TAG and its attempts to prevent SYV/gang violence follows.



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Urbanities - Journal of Urban Ethnography




Il Denaro Group

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  • Accepted version


  • eng

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ARCHIVED Faculty of Arts, Law & Social Sciences (until September 2018)


The final, definitive version of this article has been published in Urbanities, 6 (2), 2016 and is available at All rights reserved © Urbanities 2016

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