Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Chapter 10:
The Faith Community

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. (National Youth 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, however, 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 [for 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. (Trulear, 2000, page)

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. (Knox, 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 Coordination

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 members.

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 follows:

bulletThe 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.

bulletFaith communities should consider providing parenting classes. Prosecutors and Court Service Units should be informed by faith communities of the existence of these classes.

bulletFaith communities should strongly encourage their members to become mentors.

bulletFaith communities should initiate efforts to prevent gang and youth violence.

bulletFaith 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)


Additional Resources: You can explore the website of the Lords Gym, a faith-based program for high-risk youth.

Learn more about gangs and faith-based initiatives, read a summary of Task Force recommendations from the Virginia Attorney General’s Task Force on Gangs and Youth Violence, or read a summary of the U.S. Department of Education's August, 2001, newsletter concerning faith-based and community organizations.

You can read about a faith-based effort to reduce gang activity (search on the page for the word "gang" by holding down your keyboard's CTRL key then hitting the "F" key - type the word "gang" in the box that appears on your monitor).

The White House describes a weed and seed program faith-based initiative. Gang Outreach is a faith-based anti-gang initiative in Illinois.

© 2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.