Streetwise Samaritans

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Prostitution and poverty are among the gritty themes confronted in a new resource which updates the Christian message. Katherine Miller reports.

People who take religion seriously tend to take other people's religion seriously." So says Gaynor Pollard, RE adviser to the diocese of Chester, whose Anglican bishop, the Rt Revd Dr Peter Forster, has commissioned a series of video shorts on faith in action, aimed at schoolchildren of all faiths and none.

Designed to fit the curriculum for key stage 2 and 3 pupils, 2YKplus, as the video is known, shows what the Bishop calls "the relevance and vitality of Christian faith as we stand on the brink of a new millennium". Homelessness, single-parent families, prostitution and poverty are among the gritty subjects covered, with contributions from Sir Bernard Lovell (founder of Jodrell Bank), the actor Tom Conti playing Jesus's dad, the poet Ben Okri and the Christian all-girl band Shine. Already, says Gaynor Pollard, who wrote the teacher's booklet which accompanies the video, the shorts "have got children of all faiths talking". They have got them writing too; one exercise in the Conti short for KS2 pupils is to produce a class newspaper, with Jesus' birth as the lead story.

"RE lessons don't have to be dire," says Ms Pollard. "We set out to show that Christianity is not just something that happened 2,000 years ago, but something that still drives people's lives to extraordinary and exciting initiatives." One man who knows only too well what it is like to lead an extraordinary life is Paul Apsley, whose work with prostitutes is profiled in the 2YKplus video short aimed at KS3 pupils, under the title "Resurrection". Thirty-one-year old Mr Apsley from Walsall is a former roofer who got kicked out of school when he was 15. Now married with three young children, he runs the Street Team, a charitably funded scheme which helps women and girls to leave prostitution. With his eight-strong Team - "all people who've been through something in our teens" - Paul Apsley spends several evenings a week touring Walsall's red light district in an unmarked mini-bus, fitted out with comfy chairs and a kettle. The girls they meet begin by coming to the van for a cuppa between "jobs", with many eventually finding the courage to ask for help.

Recently one 10-year-old turned up saying: "I've been beaten, raped, abused and tortured, I want out." Another 14-year-old said she had "lost count" of how many times she had been raped by clients. Once a woman seeks elp, the Team steps in. Where possible, a teenage prostitute will be encouraged to return to her parents; when girls or women are at risk from violent pimps, they can be to any one of several safe houses across Britain.

The Team helps them find jobs, fill in college applications, accompanies them to court hearings or to medical appointments and offers practical assistance with accommodation or their children. Only if a woman expresses interest will the Team talk to her about its faith, which Mr Apsley says is based on the way Christ reached out to people, "with no strings attached".

"Lucy" who features in the video, was 14 when she started offering sex for money during her lunch hour, still in her school uniform. It began when her apparently doting boyfriend begged her to sleep with "a friend, just once" for money he "desperately needed". Threats were made and Lucy was too scared to refuse.

According to Paul Apsley, Lucy's story is typical of the way a girl can be manipulated into prostitution by a seemingly attractive lad. Teachers using the video are encouraged to impress on their pupils how easy it is for a girl to get trapped.

"Pimps are normally eight or nine years older and can spot a vulnerable girl," explains Mr Apsley. "They will prey on a loner, wine and dine her and treat her like a grown-up, so she feels good about herself. While he is grooming her, he breaks down all her family ties and won't allow her to see her friends." By crushing her spirit or by inducing drug dependency in her, the pimp ensures a girl's compliance.

For Paul Apsley, the turn-around in his own life is echoed in what he witnesses on the Team. Having spent his own adolescent years dabbling in drugs, fights and petty crime - "nothing was exciting enough for me so I found illegal things to do" - he recalls how he reformed when he met Liz, the daughter of a church pastor at 19. "Liz's parents actually respected me, even though I was a bit of a yobbo. I was honoured that adults were paying me unconditional love and attention."

"The whole thing about Christ's resurrection is that everyone gets another chance," he says. "We can offer a girl an exit strategy from prostitution, because the bottom line is about making people feel valued and important."

2YKplus video tel: 01244 620444 The video and teacher's packs are distributed free of charge to schools in Merseyside, Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Telford. Schools elsewhere in the UK are asked to make a donation

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