The Salmon Youth Centre has been reaching out to young people in inner-city London for more than 100 years. We caught up with the centre’s director, Sam Adofo
Premier Youth and Children’s Work: Tell us a bit about the Salmon Youth Centre journey.
Sam Adofo: Salmon Youth Centre began in 1906. Revd Pa Salmon was vicar of a church in Croydon and he walked past Bermondsey on the way to church. He couldn’t believe the level of poverty he saw and it moved him to want to do something about it. He had good links with Christians in Cambridge, so he convinced medical students to come down and give free medical care. He started off buying a house for this medical care to run from. That’s why it was originally called Cambridge University Mission. When the NHS started, this wasn’t needed any more. That was when he noticed a lot of young people hanging out on the street. So the work evolved into youth work. It wasn’t until 1995 that the name changed to the Salmon Youth Centre.
YCW: How would you sum up what the centre does now?
SA:The vision is exactly the same as the one Revd Salmon had. He would ask businesses to employ lads in the area, or give them a hat and collar. We’re doing similar small-scale work now. On a good day, we’re working with 450 to 500 young people a week. These numbers are increasing because there are always new opportunities coming up.
YCW: How do you balance doing this practical work to tackle austerity with wanting to share your faith?
SA: I would say youth work is a Christian thing, so in effect we’re not trying to balance it. We are not resource-bound but heavenly bound. If someone needs your help, you find something for them to do. One thing we do a lot of is pray for them. I had one parent who I offered to pray for. When we finished, she said: “I didn’t know that was what prayer is like.” Another time, I prayed for a 20-something mother. She was so happy that somebody could pronounce such positive things over the life of her child.
We have a clear structure to our groups. I picture it as a pyramid. At the base are the broad aspects of our work. In the middle are our taster sessions. At the top are our specialised sessions. We run a group called Chatterbox for our six to nine-year-olds, then there is a prayer shack for 10-18s. With the oldest ones, it’s more one-to-one stuff. Then we do Sermon Sunday; a youth church with games, a message, worship and prayers. And in our gym work, Bible study is standard.
God’s love isn’t abstract. It has a destination that ends with young people.
YCW: What do you think has made the centre stand the test of time?
SA: I think it’s about sticking with your roots, which means not going where the money is. A lot of project work has been introduced, especially during Tony Blair’s government. This means you have no relationship on a long-term basis. The relationship is key for us. That’s where all our work starts. We stick with people because they are people.
YCW: Bermondsey has, to a certain extent, been gentrified, with new houses springing up. What is the dynamic like working in that context?
SA: We really see the gap. It makes it real. On the north side of the borough are those who have just moved into the area, with wonderful breweries and cakes and cheese factories. The south side is where the locals congregate. It means the community is not united. This is why Salmon needs to be there. We are actually one of the few constant things.
It has its positives and its negatives. We can actually show people what things could look like. However, affluent people use a lot of recreational drugs. So drug dealing has become a huge issue for young people here.
YCW: Do you think sometimes the facilities we provide for young people have a ‘that’ll do’ approach?
SA: That is it exactly. Our trustees make sure that we get the best out of our building for the young people, but they’re even more serious about the workers. I think that is our ethos: that young people deserve the best.
I think the whole issue of mission is a challenge for the Church: it has been for as long as I can remember. The Church often only pays lip service to children’s and young people’s work. If they think about what they want to do with young people in 50 years, as we did in the past, we would have a very different Church.
YCW: Salmon has been significant in other projects like Frontier Youth Trust and CYM. What is it about this place that has made it such a good breeding ground for those projects?
SA: I think Salmon is always looking at what is best for Christian youth work, hence why we have been quite influential in the different aspects. We’re not just happy or content with what we do. I think we are eager to make sure that whatever we do or have, it needs to have a wider reach. And I think that’s what has made the difference.
YCW: Can you tell us about some of the changes among young people you have seen over the years?
SA: I’ve been here for just over ten years. I don’t think young people have changed, just the way we look at them. They face the same problems adults do, but we tend to narrow the needs of young people. The most important thing you want is for a young person to know the Lord. How is that different to an adult out there? The processes are different, but I think the needs are the same. These centres were set up 100 years ago because people thought the poor were getting a raw deal. I think we’re in a similar period now and it’s time for the Church to rise up and stand out.
I think the big thing over the last ten years is that is we’ve moved away from isolating parents. In the past, youth work was just about working with the young people. At the moment, we’re working a lot more in partnership with the young people and their families. Also, we recognise that group work is important, but individual development is key, so mentoring is becoming an important aspect of our work as well. Giving young people an opportunity to have someone to talk to and working with their family is working very well for us.
A mother I prayed for was so happy that somebody could pronounce such positive things over the life of her child
YCW: How do you reframe the message of Jesus to the young people of Bermondsey?
SA: I think it’s as simple as God is love. Jesus’ love has got a destination and that destination ends with you. His love isn’t abstract. That’s one of the things that motivates me. We have to make sure we show young people the love of God.
YCW: What do you think is next for Salmon?
SA: More of being salt and light, not just to our community but to the Christian world.