Part 3 in a Series of articles by Melody Rossi, Executive Director of Cloud and Fire Ministries, an outreach to gang members, incarcerated youth, and at-risk youth. Melody Rossi is also known as “the Mother of the Hood.”
Understanding Gang Culture
Los Angles is the official gang capitol of the world. Although gangs are now present in every culture and every level of society, the majority of gang members are either Hispanic or African American. Although Cloud and Fire Ministries works incarcerated gang members from all ethnic groups, our primary population is Latino youth. Latino gangs can be found throughout the greater Los Angeles area, though historic concentrations have been primarily in East Los Angeles, the Pico Union Area, and the Northeast San Fernando Valley. However, with the rise of the Latino population, Hispanic gangs are now present almost anywhere—including areas that formerly were populated primarily by other ethnicities. Hispanic gangs may now be found in Inglewood, South Central Los Angeles, and the West San Fernando Valley (formerly comprised of African American and Caucasian residents, respectively).
The number of Hispanic gang members in Los Angeles is increasing, not diminishing. The rising problem of gangs is so worrisome that in 2008, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa formed a Gang Reduction and Youth Development Office and appointed a Gang Czar to deal with this issue. The gang population is also increasing throughout California and the United States, as well as in state and federal penal facilities.
A common theme among gang members is that they are frequently arrested and face legal proceedings and/or incarceration. Therefore, Christians truly desirous of sharing the gospel with gang members may do well to find access points through involvement in the legal or penal system. It is also possible that Christian attorneys specializing in gang issues and criminal defense could be a viable source of evangelism. Likewise, prison workers, social workers, psychologists, police, probation and parole officers who are Christians will all likely have ways to interact with gang members. Christian agencies, whether they provide secular or faith activities, will be able to connect with incarcerated gang members and greatly influence their lives. Bible studies, chaplaincy services, literacy, GED completion, or lifeskills training are all viable sources of interaction.
In addition to connection via the juvenile and adult penal systems, Christians may also find connection points to gang members within communities where gang members live. However, because gangs are typically secretive and closed groups with tremendous suspicions towards outsiders, Christians seeking to gain access will be able to do so only by providing services that address felt needs. These may include re-entry programs that help parolees returning to the community. Legal clinics that provide assistance with criminal and/or immigration issues could also provide a window of opportunity.
Another way to connect with gang members would be to provide services for their children. The Hispanic culture celebrates children, and Hispanic gang members are no exception. Providing day care, pre-schools, extracurricular activities, sports leagues, performing arts, and tutoring to youth in gang communities may prove to be a viable method for connecting with gang members while at the same time preventing a younger generation from becoming involved in gang activities.