1. What led you to start an intentional community ministering to gang members? Gangs have a really strong sense of community: They fight and die for their homies and they support each other. Other programs offer job skills or anger management, but don’t offer community. We offer a community like the community they have. After many years working with them, we realized that was attractive to them—they feel at home.
2. Why is local leadership so important in your work? From the beginning we said that if we really want this ministry to continue, it has to be local, because local leaders have three different qualities. a) They don’t move easily. b) Other people trust them; it takes time, but people believe them. And c) they’re used to handling big challenges—poor or marginalized people have been trained by life to confront really huge challenges.
3. What does it mean to minister “incarnationally”? If someone foreign wants to do some kind of ministry in this community, that person has to become like a baby and learn. Transformation is mutual: At the same time it’s helping others, the biggest transformation is happening in their own life. That is not easy. To submerge incarnationally and empower others sometimes is to fail. But if you look through the eyes of the kingdom of God, well, that is all about love, love, love—until they ask you why you love so much.
4. How have you seen scripture reflected in the communities where you’ve lived? In El Salvador, Luke 4:18-19—Jesus’ commission to free the oppressed—helped me to see my poor community with a different perspective. Our neighborhood was so poor: no electricity, no streets, no water. We thought this was our destiny. But through the gospel we find that, no, God has beautiful promises and we can do it together. Sometimes poor people are so divided, just trying to survive themselves, that we don’t realize that together we can transform the whole community.
5. You recently began a new Inner- CHANGE community in Oakland. What does that look like? We have not defined a ministry yet; in the first phase we just live in the neighborhood. My team leader is going and playing soccer, because soccer gathers young people. We are going to different churches, trying to sense the spirituality of the city. We’re volunteering with programs that are serving the poor to understand what they do, how they do it, and the spirituality behind that. And we are trying to sense how power works in this city—city power: police, judges, juvenile justice. We are not in a hurry. We are trying to understand it but, beyond that, feel it. What do we feel God is doing here?
6. What gives you hope in the work that you do? God’s promises of the eternal life. But until then, God is working in this city. I believe that God is working in these young people, and if I believe in God’s promises, automatically, without saying anything, they will understand that they can do it too. These young people don’t always listen to your words, but they really learn through influence. So that is my hope: These young people are changing, little by little.
Betsy Shirley, a former Sojourners editorial assistant, teaches English to refugees at Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia.