From street gangster to social justice warrior

One man’s radical approach to attacking gun and knife crime

When David Shosanya was a child, he overheard a false prophet tell his mother: “David will never be a Christian.”

Born into a poor Nigerian family in East London, he decided then and there that if his end was not with God, he might as well make the most of it.

“I decided that if I was going to go to hell I was going to arrive in fanfare. I wasn’t just going to slip in, inconspicuous – it wasn’t my style,” he tells Eternity during a recent visit to Melbourne.

“I decided that if I was going to go to hell I was going to arrive in fanfare.” – David Shosanya

So at age 13, Shosanya joined a violent street gang and quickly rose through the ranks.

“And then one day we actually physically assaulted someone quite badly,” he confesses.

“I had to get taken home in a friend’s car with the police and all sorts of things, and I just said to myself, ‘This is silly – I’m going to church every week, I know what this life is supposed to be like, I come from a jolly good home – it might be poor, but it’s a good home. And I’m not happy in what I’m doing.’ And I just began to question everything.”

“It was the first time I heard the gospel in my tongue, by a man from the streets.” – David Shosanya

One Sunday in church he was touched by the testimony of a man who knew his violent world.

“He was a Rastafarian, he was about to kill his father, and he met a Christian outside the shop that was closed where he was going to buy the machete. And this man told him about Christ. That was during the week and in Sunday he was in church. And I heard his testimony.”

But Shosanya did not respond to the gospel until he heard this man, as a pastor, preaching at a baptism service at his church.

“The Bible says in Acts ‘each one heard them speak in their own tongue,’ and it was the first time I heard the gospel in my tongue, by a man from the streets, and that night I gave my life to Christ, 3rd of October 1983.”

That night Shosanya cried for all the poverty, embarrassment and shame he had experienced growing up, but within weeks of this life-transforming experience the former gangster was sharing the gospel in prisons.

Inspired by Eugene Rivers’ Ten-Point Coalition in the US, which was a response to gun and knife crime on the streets, Shosanya and his friend, Les Isaac, teamed up with the London Metropolitan Police to train a team of Street Pastors to “do something about the increasing number of gun and knife crimes” blamed on the crack cocaine epidemic.

Shosanya and Isaac toured through Manchester, Birmingham and London, talking in churches about guns on the street and encouraging them to become more aware of the “impending problem of gun and knife crime.”

“What we find is that a lot of young people who are in gangs still go to church.” – David Shosanya.

One of the locations they gave their talk was the church attended by Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare, two teenage girls who were killed in a gang-related drive-by shooting in Birmingham as they were leaving a New Year party in 2003.

“It was almost a kind of prophetic act, and since then we’ve been involved in advising the police, been involved with the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister, various agencies and encouraging them to reconfigure policing tactics and think about interventions around gun and knife crime but involve the community, particularly the church because what we find is that a lot of young people who are in gangs still go to church,” he says.

Shosanya, a regional minister for the London Baptist Association, recalls that when he was speaking to a congregation of 3000 young people, God told him to ask young men who were “recruiting gang members to come forward for an altar call so we could pray for them.”

Sixteen young men came forward. One of them was in the worship band.

“Most of the work that is undertaken now is with young people in club scenarios.” – David Shosanya

“There’s almost like a syncretistic belief that, on the one hand, you can be in church; on the other hand, you got to do what you got to do to survive, so we’re just trying to wrestle with that and encourage people to come to church and realise we have an antidote to some of the challenges young people are facing.”

Patrolling the streets between 10pm and 4am, Street Pastors are “just people in the pews who want to offer care and concern” who have been thoroughly trained in issues such as drug awareness, how to get to know your community, mental health, young people and statutory agencies.

“It’s interesting because of the 15,000 street pastors we have in the UK, 500 are black. Most of them are white, and most of the work that is undertaken now is with young people in club scenarios, and in university spaces. We have a few specialist areas, who are involved in gun and knife intervention strategies, and also partnerships with organisations, but the greatest users of our service are white British university students and then you have this hard core of African, Caribbean, Latin American, Asian communities where streets pastors are involved.

“What I missed out on as a youngster continues to motivate me.” – David Shosanya

“We have intervention for people who are in altercations because they’re drunk. If women have drunk too much and they can’t walk in their heels we give them flip-flops; people get an opportunity to have a drink of water; some people have lost parts of their clothes so we wrap them in a blanket to keep them warm. Some people call their parents to come and pick them up so that they can carry them home because they are completely out of their head. There have been incidences of where women are about to be raped and street pastors have turned up.”

David believes the initiative has grown so much – having spread to California, Jamaica, Antigua, Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, as well as Australia – because people in church want to demonstrate Christ’s love and give something back to the nation. It has also had a knock-on ecumenical effect by allowing churches in an area to work together without being concerned about doctrinal or liturgical differences.

“I think what I missed out on as a youngster continues to motivate me. So, for example, if I go to a meeting with the Prime Minister or with the Home Secretary, I go there seeking to represent me – because I realise that I wasn’t represented in the space that I was in.”

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