Among the Wounded: Thoughts on Gangs

I was thinking back to my teenage years today, recalling a few faces and places.  In high school I had two best friends. With one friend I remember bopping to youth group, meeting for breakfast at Braums, and in my mind she is wearing long striped socks and a Supertones t-shirt. In the background of that memory, the Supertones blare from the speakers of her little (or not so little) BMW. With my other dear friend, I remember lazy hours laying on the hammock, jean shopping at the mall, sipping Dr. Pepper's at happy hour.  We liked to listen to the old rock station and watch old movies and lament that there were no John Wayne's left in the world. There are a few other faces that come to my mind, family members, sports teams, productions, church trips, people who played a part in the story of me.

Do you have people that define the memories of your teenage years? Think back for a moment over your high school ramblings, think of the people that lived life with you during that tumultuous time. 

I think of this because my friend, D, grew up with a group of guys.  They looked out for each other, made all kinds of trouble, but ultimately stuck together.  And now he finds that, at 20, many have already died. In fact, two were shot on Sunday night in North Omaha. 

You see my friend, D, was a gang member in his early to mid teens. I met him during our time as house parents with Release Ministries in their transitional living home for teens.  During our six years at the home, we had 23 young men live with us. A few stayed a few days. Most stayed about six months.  A handful stayed over a year, and D was one of those. 

Think back to your group of high school friends and imagine that most of them had died already. Kind of a sobering thought.

"Well, he chose to be in a gang..." may be your response, as if that "choice" was signing himself up for a future of watching friends die.  It is difficult for outsiders to understand gangs, to comprehend what it is like to live in a neighborhood where the most difficult situation is not being in a gang- it is being without a gang. In a gang you are an enemy of some, without a gang you are an enemy of all. 

I think before I lived in the home, before I watched our teens wrestle with the waves of violence that devastate their families and friends, I thought that gangs were simply magnets that pulled in violence-prone adolescents. I believed it was a bunch of birds of a feather flocking together. Since then I've come to understand that gangs are not a social club, though they fill a need for love and acceptance that I found at my youth group and show choir.  They are not just a family, though the majority of teens in them do not know their own dads. Gangs provide purpose, mentoring, and even community, but beyond all that they offer a  hope for survival. 

Most of us (in "us" I am referring the the suburban crowd I run with who did not grow up in gang-filled neighborhoods) have no idea what it is like to be contemplating survival as a pre-adolescent. For me, self-preservation was a matter of fashion choices or social networking, not protecting younger siblings or navigating dangerous streets.

The most common response to the problem of gangs in America is to ignore the truth- a response that is both cowardly and hopeless.  I'm not saying we can just troop out on the streets and break them up.  I know we can't make laws to make being a gang member illegal (little good that would do).  But there is something that we can do, something powerful, something profound.

We could engage.  We could think about it in a kingdom mindset: that gang members are not juvenile delinquents but wandering souls that have chosen a dead end. What does Christ have to say to these young men (and increasingly women) who are territorial, deal drugs to make money, use money to buy weapons, and need weapons to protect their territory? 

To their fear of death, He promises, "I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies."

To their hunger for love, He says "I have loved you with an everlasting love."

To their hardness, the natural reaction of a heart that has endured and seen so much evil, He speaks, "I will take your  heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."

And to the guilt, the acts of violence that they have committed and witnessed, acts that haunt them at night and in the quiet of their hearts, my Savior Christ says, "I will forgive your past and remember your sins no more."

I believe that the hope for gang members is the same hope Christ offers for drug dealers and liars and stay-at-home moms: the resurrection power of Christ to lead us from death to life through our belief in Him. 

Dear friends, let us not underestimate the compassion of God to transcend another's experience or the love of God to redeem and renew a wandering soul. May we not strive to reform society or to hide from violence; instead may we labor to be a redemptive part of His redemptive plan.


Isaac (7 months) with one of his big brothers

This is the first in a series of posts (titled "Among the Wounded") that I am hoping to write in reflection of our years living with teens,  My goal is that in writing about this unique time in our lives it would challenge readers to understand the complexities of our culture and engage with Christ-like courage and grace. I also hope that it will help me to remember and rejoice in the goodness of God during those years. Thanks for reading-


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight into what life as a teen is like for others, and also for reminding me that God's solution (as simple yet complex as it is) is the same for all people and problems. Mom

Lucy said...