The most promising gang
initiatives are those which strategically engage the talents of the full
spectrum of community including youth and adult residents, educators, social
workers, mental health practitioners, youth workers, business leaders, and
the faith community in concert with the more traditional juvenile justice
components of police, courts, and corrections.
Gang Center, 2000, page)
It has become apparent to me that, since my initial study of
gangs from 1998 to 2004, more and more faith institutions are getting involved
in prison ministries, provide counseling for families in distress, reach out to
the poor and, in some cases, help support members who are experiencing other
difficulties in life. All of these efforts are positive - they contribute to
helping those in trouble change their lives for the better.The faith community's role in dealing with local gangs,
eluded me while conducting my research on gangs.
Although there are individual congregations and
faith leaders who have an avid interest in helping gang members, I did not find
a congregation or faith organization in the research cities which had a program dedicated to
at-risk youth, let alone gang members. There were, on the other hand, many programs designed to keep good kids good. Keeping good kids
good is, or should be, a paramount concern among people interested in reducing gang activity
and youth violence.
Many times, targeting a community’s youth
help] without specifying a strategy that addresses the identification
and recruitment of high-risk youth leads to a program that works with the good
kids in a bad neighborhood. Such work is necessary and noble.
Since conducting my original field work I
received an email (2 November 2005) from Phillip M.
Meadows, originator of The Joshua Group. He wrote:
I happened upon your website and your book, Into The
Abyss. I would like to offer you an update for information purposes.
I set up outreach centers around the country in partnership with
churches that have a heart reach out to “at risk kids” and the gang
culture. My organization is called Lords Gym.
We now have 11 gyms (10 in the USA and 1 in Mexico). We
serve approximately 20,000 kids on a weekly basis, the majority of who
are at risk. I am presently working with City, County and School
District officials in Los Angeles to expand from the two gyms I now have
locally. My heart is to reach deeper into the gang infested areas with
“safe havens” that offer young people opportunities to build up
their...mind, body and soul. I use ex-professional athletes and ex-gang
members that we nickname “muscle missionaries” as part of our outreach.
You can learn more about the Lords Gym program by clicking on
its website address at the bottom of this page. The following observations on the faith community are an
expression of what I saw as I visited the research cities. I make no claim as to
what faith communities in other cities are doing about gang the gang situation.
Focusing On At-Risk Youth
While there are ministers who do street work with gangs (like
Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works in Los Angeles' gang-infested Boyle
Heights), most leaders in the faith
community reach out to the broader category of at-risk youth. In this
regard, I found many congregations offered faith-based outreach programs,
ministries, and special events for at-risk youth.
Knox has also found "A number of churches and
religious groups are ... becoming involved in outreach to the gangs. Some of these are
... new, others have as a part of their outreach to
confined adults and juveniles" a component that deals with gang members.
1994, p. 432)
Keeping Good Kids Good
When it comes to youth, faith institutions seem most
involved in trying to help good kids stay good. There is, perhaps,
nothing more important than doing that. Prevention is less expensive
and more certain than trying to turn around the life of a youth who has
already become involved with a gang.
A Lack of Cooperation and
What I observed in the research cities was a lack of cooperation
and coordination between faith institutions of similar faiths and between institutions
of different faiths regarding the issue of at-risk youth. Cooperation and coordination
would enhance efforts at preventing youth
involvement in delinquency, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, truancy and
dropping out, and gangs. Perhaps one of the most valuable resources the
faith community could create is a directory of the services each institution
or congregation offers their members and, perhaps, to some who are not even
In one of the research communities I attended a meeting called
by the Director of the local Council of Churches during which a call for such a
directory was made. After all the congregations gather and submit the list and
description of the programs they each provide, the goal is to create a
city/county-wide directory. This should prove to be a valuable resource for
those who avail themselves of it.
A Faith-Based Future?
As this book was being written, United States President George Bush
was attempting to establish a federally-funded, faith-based initiative which
would lend support to faith institutions endeavoring to provide
services for at-risk youth. If, like other federally-funded initiatives,
coordination of services is encouraged, perhaps there will be an improvement
in the faith community offerings.
This has obviously been a very brief look at the role of the
faith community in dealing with gangs. While this aspect of the gang
situation is important to know about, it was not one of the focus areas of the research I
conducted. The section of this book entitled Solutions takes a
closer look at what the faith community - its leaders and congregations -
could do to address the gang situation in a given neighborhood.
Why Involvement of the Faith
Community is Important
I believe the faith community has a great deal to offer at-risk youths. In
addition to companionship, it offers a value system. In most instances, the
values reflect the importance of recognizing one's own self worth and the
worthiness of others. This is critical given the link between low self-esteem,
delinquency, gang formation, and joining a gang.
The faith community is also a place - usually an institution like a Mosque,
Temple, or Church. It offers youths a place to be, a place with which they can
identify, perhaps a youth leader and other youths with whom they can participate
in activities that keep them from getting involved in gang activity.
Faith communities offer hope, even in times of great personal turmoil and
pain. The children with whom we are concerned as relates to gangs are those who
often come from turmoil and pain - at home, in school, in their relationships,
and inside themselves.
Examples of the ways in which faith communities can contribute to reducing
gang activity were noted on 2001 by Virginia Attorney General Randolph A. Beales as
|The Attorney General should convene Faith
Community Summits, comprised of Virginia’s religious leaders, to
showcase, explore, and encourage prevention,
intervention, and character-building efforts of faith communities
and their families.|
|Faith communities should consider providing parenting
classes. Prosecutors and Court Service Units should be
informed by faith communities of the existence of these classes.|
|Faith communities should strongly encourage
their members to become mentors.|
|Faith communities should initiate
efforts to prevent gang and youth violence.|
|Faith communities should consider using
their facilities in locally-based efforts to
provide for after-school activities, such as tutoring,
mentoring, and recreation. (Office of the
Virginia Attorney General, site
(now retired), color added for emphasis)|