Part 4 in a series on the Missiological Implications of Working with Gang Members by Melody Rossi, Executive Director of Cloud and Fire Ministries, a work with at-risk, gang, and incarcerated youth.
Societal Implications of Gangs
Gang members typically feel as though society at large neither understands nor values them. They feel judged by and ostracized from the mainstream, and tend to use feelings of exclusion to justify their outrage towards members of the middle class, the wealthy, or those from other ethnic groups. Gang members also excuse their behavior by attributing gang values to those outside of the gang. For instance, they view politicians as white-collar gang members, and military conflict between countries as no more than gang rivalry on a larger scale.
Gangs have an elaborate code of ethics. Christians must understand this code in order to effectively work with gang members. For instance, gang members see themselves as the guardians of the community. They consider themselves honorable and dedicated foot soldiers who will lay down their lives for others. Those who are shot down are martyrs. Being “down for the hood,” is to them a most lofty value, even if it means carrying out ruthless and lethal revenge on those who inflict insult or injury to their compatriots.
Mobilizing Missionaries to Work with Gangs
The culture of the Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles is best described as a tribal culture. This unique group has a very structured set of values and a code of ethics that is in many ways similar to the code of honor in a military society. Gang members would literally take a bullet for one another, and will willingly serve prison sentences for one another. Often, the youngest member of a gang or crew takes the “fall” for someone older who has more “strikes” on his record.
Relative to what Ralph D. Winter and Bruce A. Koch refer to as the E-Scale, or the cultural distance that Christians need to travel in order to communicate the gospel, gang culture is E-3, or the greatest distance possible, from the majority of affluent, Caucasian, middle-class Christians who reside in Southern California. Language may be different, whether it is because gnag members communicate in Spanish, or whether they simply use gang slang in English. Most different are the values and street codes, the need for revenge, and the glorification of “robbing from the rich to give to the poor.” The typical American Christian will not be accustomed to these values.
The most effective efforts at evangelization of gang members will be a multi-faceted approach. Christian workers will only earn status as credible and trustworthy by living and interacting in the community on a long-term basis, and by providing high quality services that are desired by the gang members. This could include the human services previously mentioned (education, legal assistance, etc.) or businesses that provide services and products that cannot be obtained elsewhere.
Closing the Gap
In order to close the gap and see spiritual fruit in the gang culture, Christians will have to go to the gangs rather than wait for the gangs to come to them. Also, it will be necessary to begin to understand the underlying causes for gangs. Issues such as fatherlessness, experiencing violence at an early age, post-traumatic stress disorder, abandonment, homelessness, perpetual fear, failure in school, and substance abuse are often factors that contribute to banding together with others in an attempt to seek power and carry out “justice.” Without understanding these issues, missionaries are likely to address symptoms rather than causes, and attempts at evangelization will prove fruitless. Beneath the hardened exterior of almost every gang member, there is a soft-hearted, broken child who is crying out for a place of belonging and safety. Who better to provide this than God’s people?
A spiritual movement within the gang community must start with individuals who are discipled and then serve as cultural bridges to other gang members. This process will be lengthy and painstaking, due to fact that gang culture is completely different from the culture of most American Christians. A few outstanding ministries such as Victory Outreach, Victory Life, and the Apostolic Worship Center are working closely with gang members in Southern California and helping them break free from violence, anger, drug addictions, and other destructive behaviors. Typically, the key in these ministries is that ex-gang members become role models for those breaking free from gangs. Another feature of many ministries that work with gang members is that the ministry maintains a very structured style and provides clear boundaries for its constituents. This is very suitable to gang members, who typically have learned to follow a distinctive hierarchy within the gang.
To a large degree, gangs have been ignored by Christians. We are typically afraid of them, and think of them as hardened against the gospel. And yet, in my work with gang members, I have found them to be people that are loyal and willing to fight to the death to protect friends and community. Many of their values are warped, of course, and often enemies are objectified so much that they will ruthlessly kill just to protect turf. However, there is also a deep hunger for belonging and for justice.
In our generation, it is possible that Christ could break the power of gangs. All it would take is for a committed group of Christians to move out into the gangs and communicate the love and forgiveness that is available in Jesus Christ. It is only through His power and redemption that gang members can find a better way to live and we can all see our communities healed.