Patrick Regan OBE is the founder and CEO of the well known and highly respected Christian urban youth work charity XLP. I’ve been following the work of Patrick and XLP for a while now and finally was able to meet him last month. Patrick has some incredible stories of hope and I asked him if he would be willing to answer some questions for me, which he kindly agreed to do. In case you’re not familiar with Patrick and the work of XLP, here’s a bit of background information for starters:
Patrick founded XLP in 1996 in response to a stabbing in a local school playground. It now works with over 1000 children and young people on a 1-2-1 and small group basis per week. XLP is working to create positive futures for young people and make a serious and sustainable impact on poverty and educational failure. Patrick has travelled to over thirty countries working with and on behalf of the poorest communities and is a regular contributor on radio and TV on issues of poverty and justice. He received the Mayor of London Peace Award in 2010 for his valuable contribution towards peace and justice. In 2012 he was awarded the OBE for services to young people. Patrick is a passionate communicator and equally at home on the main stage at a major UK political party conference, engaging in robust debate in the media, connecting with business and community leaders, speaking to inmates in a maximum security prison or gang leaders in Jamaica. . He is also on the advisory board of The Centre for Social Justice and is a UK ambassador for Compassion. Patrick lives in South East London with his wife Diane and their four children.
On to the interview….
How much did your Christian faith impact your decision to become a youth worker?
When I was 16 I went to cardboard city under Waterloo Bridge where I saw hundreds of homeless people. I remember sitting in a circle with a couple of guys and seeing one man pass around his hamburger to the others, each taking a bite as it went by. Then it was handed to me. I remember looking up on the walls of cardboard city and seeing the words ‘welcome to reality’ written in big red pen. I couldn’t get my head around these homeless men wanting to share the very little they had with me, even though I had so much. I went back to where I was staying that night and prayed a prayer that changed my life – ‘God, I want to see the world the way you see it.’ I wanted to grasp God’s heart for people and not just live in a Christian subculture but dedicate my life to working with the marginalised and the broken. James 2:17 says ‘Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead’ so I am always trying to put my faith into action. I was inspired by this quote from Bono:
“God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected a child with a virus that will end both of their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives. And God is with us if we are with them.”
What do you feel have been the most important achievements of XLP?
For me, it is always about individual lives. Sarah (not her real name) is a young girl whose brother died of Meningitis. Her mum had all sorts of mental health issues and her dad had left the year before her brother died. Sarah started drinking a lot and her self-esteem and confidence was very low. One of the key XLP workers came alongside Sarah and started on a rollercoaster journey with her. One thing Sarah needed was a job and so the XLP worker told her about an apprenticeship at Barclays, that we have made possible for many young people. After training and working through root issues around her self-esteem, her perception of her community and the way she felt she had never been spoken to with respect by an adult, Sarah got the apprenticeship and has since been cashier of the month for two months in a row! The government took away her mum’s disability allowance and they would have been homeless if it wasn’t for this apprenticeship. She said ‘I always wanted to be a model so that the world would tell me I’m beautiful. I no longer need to be a model because work with XLP has helped me see the beauty in myself.’
That’s just one of many, many stories that I could say around lives that have been touched and, for me, that’s why we continue doing what we do at XLP. It’s not always about the big and the spectacular, it’s about trying to see people’s lives improve. It’s about creating opportunities and saying ‘there is hope, there is a future’. It’s helping people dream again and realise they are made in the image of God and as a result their lives have so much worth.
What do you consider to be the reasons for XLP’s success?
I guess the main thing is being committed for the long haul. We have been working in some estates and schools now for over 15 years and in some ways it’s hard graft being there week in week out, not being willing to give up. I saw the phrase ‘good things come to those who wait’ and someone had crossed out the word ‘wait’ and written ‘good things come to those who work their ass off and don’t give up’, and sometimes it is hard work! Another thing is that a lot of the XLP workers live in the community they serve and have a unique understanding of the community – when the community hurts they hurt. One of things we try to emphasize at XLP is that we want to find solutions by working with that community, not by doing things for them or to them. If we want to be a blessing to young people, the last thing we want to do is make assumptions about their lives and patronize them by thinking we already have all the answers. We can have great intentions and mean well, but if we don’t get involved and really understand their lives (for good and bad) we’re unlikely to bring any long-term solutions.
How do you manage to maintain and explain the Christian nature of XLP when working with a diverse range of young people?
We have always tried to be very clear that XLP is a faith-based project. We are faith-based but not faith biased. We work with those of different faiths and those of none and, actually, people really appreciate us being upfront and honest. We work with many from the Muslim community, Bangladeshi community and African Caribbean community, who all have very different faith but we have managed to build relationship. I think a lot of it shows if you are in it for the long haul, people will really start to respect you
Through your work, you’ve got to know a number of politicians. Do you find working with them to be a positive experience?
I think Christians need to be involved in working with politicians and those who are involved in forming policy. Jim Wallis says ‘Transform the debate, recast the discussion, alter the context in which political decisions are made, and you will change the outcomes. Move the conversation around a crucial issue to a whole new place, and you will open up possibilities for change never dreamed of before.’ The best way to do this is through relationships. In my book No Ceiling to Hope, I write about how easy it is for us to stereotype MPs. Only 50 Members of Parliament were found guilty of the parliamentary expenses scandal out of over 600 MPs, yet the common view is that all MPs are corrupt and we tend to stereotype them. Some of the MPs I work with are actually really, really hard working and very passionate about their community. Sometimes I’ve had meetings late at night because that’s the only time they are available, other times they have come into work after only two or three hours sleep. There are many hard jobs in society but I think that building relationship is always key. I always find political systems work far slower than anyone wants them to, but again, I think it is about being committed to relationship and organisations such as XLP bring 15, 16 years’ experience into the debate. Having the academics and the practitioners coming together means we can grapple with the issue to come up with something that is long-term and sustainable that will bring change. I truly believe we need Christians to be engaging with the political scene, whether at a local or national level. How else can we truly be advocates for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginalized? But if we do engage, then we must listen to God’s voice, his plans, agenda and timing and not be tempted to artificially create an opportunity to launch Christian rhetoric at the world.
I get asked this question a lot, and for me, there isn’t one stand-out issue, there is always a combination. For example, a young person gets kicked out of school, they are living on a tough estate, they are seeing their mum work multiple jobs trying to make ends meet. Young boys then feel the need to help their mum with income and become the man of the house. A bloke with cars and respect and girls then comes along and offers money to take an envelope from one estate to another. And so this quickly becomes a lifestyle. There are huge issues wrapped up here – issues around family, unemployment, educational failure and poverty. These are issues that both the church and the state need to get involved in and tackle. We need to look at how we work together. I don’t think the church should be grabbing power but is called to be in its community and to understand it, not to be a place to attend but a community to be a part of. We are in every community across this country and so we need to make sure we are a community focused so that people can have that sense of belonging and ability to cope with life.
You’ve recently launched the XLM mentoring scheme to encourage churches and organisations to engage with young people on the fringes of their communities. What was the thinking behind it and how has it gone so far?
Three or four years ago in XLP we really wanted to work out how we go deeper with some of the young people we were working with in terms of relationships and being more committed to them and their family. So we approached a local school and asked for 20 kids on the verge of exclusion and recruited 20 volunteers from the local church and community. We provide training and support and match them up asking them to give two hours a week for 12 months. Through this process we deal with the school and get to know the family but it’s all about helping the young people stay in education and helping them to realise there is an opportunity to succeed in life. It’s been absolutely incredible the changes we have seen and the stories we have from these young people’s lives. We really wanted to give that away and so this April we launched XLM National. Our suggestion is that churches come to us for a two day training course, or if there are a lot of churches far away we can come to them, and we will give away everything that we have learnt from doing this over the last four years. We suggest to each church that they start with five young people, who are on the margins of society, who may fall out of school for any reason; bereavement, bullying, dyslexia, but let’s get to those young people and provide them with a role model. Let’s see things turn around. So far there has been an amazing amount of interest right across the UK. The key to change comes when a young person believes they have a place in this world and that there is a purpose and a meaning to their lives. It is this that the mentor helps them to find, and when they do, unbelievable changes can take place.
To find out more about the work of Patrick, XLP and XLM please take a look at the www.xlp.org.uk and www.xlm.org.uk websites. Patrick is also the author of three books, the most recent being No Ceiling to Hope: Stories of Grace From the World’s Most Dangerous Places. These books can be purchased from Amazon and other good booksellers.