The Common Good
March 2014

Taking It to the Streets

by Charita Ford | March 2014

Does our theology have anything to say to African-American gang girls? It should.

AS I ATTENDED seminary in my native Chicago, I heard about one senseless death after another. A six-month-old baby shot multiple times with an assault weapon; a young black girl, with promise and a future, caught in the crossfire—all casualties of gang violence.

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This violence is further evidence to me that our theology is needed on the streets. A theology that can impact the crisis facing the black community must be relevant to the black community. Theology can never be disengaged from the history of black people, the “isms” that have oppressed us, and the struggles that have birthed our progress. “Relevancy,” for theology, means moving beyond the academy and the church and into the streets, where it becomes our thinking faith in action.

Does our theology have anything to say to African-American gang girls? The formation of girl gangs is rooted in the numerous social ills affecting many urban African-American communities. By taking our theology to the streets, we can offer African-American gang girls an alternative hope and future. Four theological frameworks can aid in that task.

First, a practical theology—thinking faith in action—that models Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized can reach these girls with the message of God’s compassion, peace, and hope by offering a positive relational sisterhood that can replace gang life.

Second, a public theology that calls for common-sense gun laws and a ban on assault weapons is a Christian ethical imperative that empowers change in public policy and can save the lives of our youth.

Third, our liberation theology is now also a struggle to free the black community from the oppression of violence, and our faith leads us to the liberating task of acting as “interrupters” to the cycles of violence in our communities.

Fourth, I propose using a womanist eco-theology to begin projects for African-American girls to “tend the turf—earth” by creating community gardens and green spaces on devastated urban land. These garden projects can teach an ethic of respect for self, God, the earth, and the common good.

THE LIFE, MINISTRY, and teachings of Jesus opposed empire-building and imperialism with a practical theology expressed in parables—thinking faith in action that radicalized religious practices.

This practical theology was expressed in his ministry to the marginalized—particularly women. Jesus redefined women’s supposed non-human status in his teachings, actions, and inclusionary practices. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus challenge the inhumane treatment of women. Jesus’ usurpation of the Religious Right of his day began with his practice of healing on the Sabbath and healing a woman. His practice of eating with prostitutes showed that Jesus knew and understood the exploitive and exclusionary practices inflicted on women.

The marginalized women that Jesus encountered were engulfed in poverty, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, and discrimination. Thomas D. Hanks, in The Subversive Gospel, writes that the gospel of Luke “supports women in their struggle for liberation and justice ... Luke frequently manifests a certain justice in favor of women with his literary technique of presenting matched narratives that speak of men, followed by accounts that speak of women.”

As we read the gospels, we encounter Jesus’ ministry among the marginalized. What does this mean as we apply Jesus’ model to work with African-American gang girls today? First, we need to understand why African-American girls join or form gangs.

In U.S. cities, gangs often act as alternative family units. For African-American girl gangs, the “sistahood” functions as a unified body. Their communal relational covenant is not unlike a church body. It is surprising to note that the language, rules, and structures of gangs sound very much like church doctrines. When you join a gang, you are “blessed in,” and you learn the necessity of communal life, loyalty, and “service.”

The ritual of being “blessed in” can mean to take a beating, or for female members joining a gang with male counterparts, it can mean being raped by gang members. While the language of gangs has religious overtones, the rituals and duties are intrinsically violent. To go on a “mission” for the gang can mean performing a violent crime, or doing a “drive by” against a rival gang. The relational model of a gang is that of a “follower,” and even the names of gangs are synonymous to the language of faith. “Disciples” and variations on this name are prominent and historically important gang names.

The need for the alternative family unit offered by gang life grows out of the fact that family life, church, and communal ties have disintegrated amid poverty, sexual exploitation, drugs, and violence. Gang life often fills the void. The alternative communal life these girls have selected becomes another dysfunctional family unit encapsulated by violence.

WHAT DOES PRACTICAL theology look like as it reaches out to African-American gang girls? It can be embodied in service that touches a diverse and complex set of concerns that these girls face. Jürgen Moltmann writes in The Ethics of Hope that “through the way he behaved, Jesus manifested to the victims God’s compassion: God is beside them just as Jesus himself is beside them.”

Many African-American gang girls have a “futureless” ideology. The cycles of violence and abuse have altered their expectations about life. Most of these girls know people who have lost their lives to gang violence. Some gang members have said they do not expect to live to see their 20th birthdays.

Practical theology has the capacity to bring hope to African-American girls caught in the cycles of gang violence. As Marcia Riggs put it in an essay in the book Many Voices, One God, “Because we believe that God in Jesus Christ has come into the world to save it, we have hope.”

Safety and protection are important issues for African-American girls in any community. Churches can begin by initiating and partnering with groups to create and maintain safe zones/houses for African-American girls. It’s imperative to address the domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and abuse these girls face within the community. As a church, we can stand alongside these girls to protect and defend their rights. Economic community development programs, educational programs, tutoring and mentor/scholarship programs with African-American sororities can be formed by local churches.

Churches can play a critical role in forming positive alternative communal fellowships for African-American gang girls. This empowers African-American girls to have options outside of gang life. Practical theology gets the church involved in not only thinking about the issues of those who are marginalized but also about taking creative action to meet their needs. As practical theology takes root in action, it teaches us and engages us in creative reflection that transforms the life of the church and the community.

THREE ADDITIONAL FRAMEWORKS—public theology, liberation theology, and womanist eco-theology—are also vital to church outreach to African-American gang girls. African-American public theology began with a struggle for civil rights legislation. Today, the unprecedented use of guns by black youth demands that our community’s public theology call for common-sense gun legislation. This ethical-moral imperative should impel every public discourse on guns, since we are watching what appears to be a systematic and institutionalized form of self-genocide by black youth in gangs.

For African-American gang girls, a public theology that pushes for common-sense gun legislation models a respect for their humanity, intrinsic worth, safety, and future. Our public theology represents the reality of God’s divine initiative and God’s unending care. It is a reminder that God’s compassion and love extends to the lives of African-American girls. Will Coleman writes in Many Voices, One God that “such compassion is directed by an epistemology or knowledge of God as the source and sustainer of life and conqueror of the forces of death, including the immanent representations such as the gun.”

The liberation theology I commend is a theology that liberates African-American gang girls from the oppression of violence and the cycles of violence. Peter J. Paris, in his article “The Theologies of Black Folk in North America,” asserts that black theology must move away from liberation models based solely on race. Liberation from the oppression of violence is a central concept for working with African-American gang girls.

Community people, church folks, ex-gang members, and civic leaders have stood in the gaps to interrupt gang violence. They have stood to speak, to call to account, to counsel, to support, and most of all to interrupt the hate that so quickly turns to tragedy. They interrupt the fight that can become a fatality. They offer hope where hate resides. Their acts to interrupt violence represent the liberation theology greatly needed in the black community today.

In Alice Walker’s seminal work In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she uses the garden as a metaphorical construct of African-American women’s history, struggle, and hope. To find and to cultivate one’s mother’s garden is to find strength in a history rooted in oppression but alive with hope. A womanist eco-theology espouses an ecclesiology that models an earth ethic of anti-domination. To “tend the turf” means to respect the earth, to enhance its biodiversity, and to let it be free from human oppression, exploitation, and violence.

This theology parallels the human dignity and hope we want to instill in the lives of African-American girls. It is a theology that is committed to freeing the earth and African-American girls from violence, oppression, and exploitation. Gang ideology has a domination view of the earth, or what gangs call their “turf.” A womanist eco-theology seeks to transform violence over turf to an ethic for the common good.

As we take our theology to the streets, each of these theological frameworks can help transform the lives of African-American girls. As we model Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized, we create an ecclesiology of compassion, love, justice, hope, and nonviolence—a theology that can bring freedom, hope, and dignity to the lives of African-American girls. 

Charita Ford, a member of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, has taught in the community college system and at historically black colleges and universities.

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