With the proliferation of gangs and crews in recent years, from the streets of our inner cities to our suburban and rural areas, the amount of reliable information about them has also grown. Gone are the days when gangs were thought about in the quaintly romantic images of West Side Story's Jets and Sharks. And though the story of Nicky Cruz's conversion in David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade
can still strike a powerful chord in the evangelical heart, most people now realize that the gang issue is much more complex and that conversion is only the start of the healing required in many young people involved in gang banging.
The young people involved in gang activity today face a myriad of problems that were unknown to their parents or often even their older siblings. For those whose identities are tied up in crews, cliques, or posses, death strikes more often and more suddenly than it should in anybody's life. And the peace they need will not come from a single source, but requires the active engagement of all of our society's institutions. Families, schools, churches, law enforcement, and the business community must work together with gang-related youth to create ways out of what these young people call "the madness."
Crews: Gang Members Talk to Maria Hinojosa
is a collection of poignant and often painful interviews begun by National Public Radio correspondent Maria Hinojosa while covering the story of a tourist who was stabbed and killed in New York City by a member of the crew FTS (Flushing's Top Society) for money to go dancing. Her attempts to understand why some urban youth turn to violence for reasons that appear to be so trite developed into a deep and lasting relationship with the young people of the crews.
Hinojosa's interviews, with the street photography of multimedia artist German Perez, show that these small, informal, and decentralized groups of young people are much more prevalent in many parts of the United States than are more structured gangs. Crews or posses like FTS can exist for any number of reasons, from dancing to drugs, but at their core they are simply young people who have cultivated a bond out of their shared experience.
Many of these crews see it as their responsibility to defend the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Coki, a member of FTS, told Hinojosa, "Would you like somebody coming into your house, taking what's yours, laying back in your couch like it's theirs or whatever? OK, this is the same thing. I don't like no one coming into my neighborhood doing whatever they want 'cause they give my neighborhood a bad name."
Many of these young people carry so much frustration and pain in their hearts that it is difficult for them to control their emotions and it often erupts in violence. Shank, another member of FTS, told Hinojosa about his struggles to control his violent outbursts. "It's like I can't give it up. It's a combination of peer pressure and like having to release something, and this is how you release it. By doing this. There's no other way for me to relieve the frustration. Or no other way suitable for me."
Often it is those caught in the cycle of violence who have the most direct theological interpretation of it, and the young people interviewed in Crews
are no exception. In a discussion with a crew of young women who are deeply religious and thoroughly streetwise at the same time, crew member Smooth B asked a question that all people of faith ask at one time or another: "Why is God putting us through the pain we got now?"
"I feel a lot of anger towards God," she said. "I pray to him every night, but I don't like him. If he is so much God like everybody says and he could forgive and all of that, why does he put kids on this world at the age of 15, 12, or 10, just to die?"
"It's not the sense of him being wrong," answered Chris, another crew member. "He put us on this earth and he just left us on our own," she said. "It's not his fault just because he rules us. I'm still living and I'm not going to blame him. We made ourselves like that....I don't think I have the tears no more. Now I cry in the inside. For me, there is like a question mark on my heart. Who is next?"
FATHER GREG AND The Homeboys: The Extraordinary Journey of Father Greg Boyle and His Work With the Latino Gangs of East L.A., by Celeste Fremon, deals much more directly with the role of God and the church in the lives of gang youth.
For most people in East LA, Jesuit Greg Boyle's (or G-Dog, as he is known in the barrio) ministry with the youth in LA's poorest parish has made him a hero. The Jobs for a Future program that he started creates work for young people at the church or in the local community, with the ministry-if local businesses are unable-footing the bill for their salaries. But for some who prefer to see gang-related youth decimated rather than saved, including some within the LA Police Department, Boyle became an enemy for encouraging citizens to give street kids a chance. So when the Jesuits sent Boyle away in 1992 for the order's required period of reflection, some rejoiced. For youth at risk and their families, Boyle's departure was a huge tragedy-but instead of mourning they went to work confronting the city and the Jesuits to make sure he came back.
At first it seemed strange to me that LA journalist Celeste Fremon would choose the period of Boyle's absence from Delores Mission Church to feature in her book. Yet it becomes clear as one reads Father Greg and the Homeboys
that it is only in Boyle's absence that the community that he ministered to so faithfully steps forward and takes full responsibility for the situation in their neighborhood. Fremon's description of the events makes it clear that Boyle's departure shook awake the people of the barrio-especially the mothers-and underscores the impact that the priest has had among them. Finally, it was the overwhelming support of the people of the community that persuaded the Jesuits to recall Boyle to Delores Mission.
As well as conveying Boyle's profound dedication to the youth of the Pico/Aliso housing projects, Father Greg and the Homeboys
also offers great profiles of the young people themselves. Like Crews, this book really helps us understand the complexity of the struggle many urban youth face today.
A VERY IMPORTANT aspect to both of these books lies in their subplots. Authors Celeste Fremon and, to a lesser extent, Maria Hinojosa struggle throughout their books to come to peace with their proximity and growing relationships to people who can sometimes be very dangerous. Both of these writers take the risk of leaving the professional environs, where ideas and issues are talked and written about, to enter the chaotic world of street life, where the same ideas and issues can literally be a matter of life or death. With one of the main concerns in both books being the alienation of urban youth from wider society, we can hope that the courageous examples of Fremon and Hinojosa will inspire readers to reach out across the boundaries of their lives in similar ways.
It is likely that the majority of those who read Crews
and Father Greg and the Homeboys
will be adults, yet with the juvenile crime rate projected to double by 2010, it is important for young people to learn more about what is taking place on America's streets and how to deal with it. Though most adults only occasionally come into contact with gang members, their children-no matter where they live-may encounter gangs every school day. The Fast Lane Bible Studies series has produced a very accessible study guide to help equip junior high youth for this challenge.
Understanding Gangs, by Carol Duerksen, is a four-session Bible study curriculum that takes a non-patronizing and truthful look at gangs and the questions that young people have about them. This well-organized resource uses realistic and contemporary role plays and exercises to help young people understand what gangs are, who's involved, and why.
But perhaps even more important, Understanding Gangs
leads teens to take a closer look at themselves and address the issues of violence that they face in their own lives. The resource also includes a "Parent Take-Home Piece" to educate parents. (Copies of Understanding Gangs
are available for $9.95 each from Faith and Life Press, P.O. Box 347, Newton, KS 67114-0347, or by phone at 1-800-743-2484.)