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Challenges of ministering to gangs mounting from various societal ills

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The perception of youth gangs in the last few decades has been characterized through horrendous escapades of violence that have destroyed human lives and property through total disregard of the laws of the land. A thorough knowledge of how gangs operate can make the church more effective in infiltrating this subculture with the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ.
As we approach the birth of a new millennium, youth gangs will be even more violent because of their ability to acquire high-tech weapons, the profitability of drug sales, dysfunctional families, negative role models and unhealthy environments.
Thus, the war against gangs continues, and school officials, law enforcement, community agencies, government officials and religious organizations are mobilizing their forces to combat gang violence and its influence on our youth culture. We need all of them and more to become partners working together to redeem our youth from gang violence.
A gang is basically a group of individuals with the same identifiable characteristics who participate in illegal or criminal activity.
While gang graffiti is usually the first and even the easiest recognized indication of gang presence in a community, other indicators show that gangs have a name; claim territory; flash hand signs; wear affiliated apparel; have tattoos, nicknames or monikers; wear excessively a dominant color; and have defiant leadership. Many gang members have families, attend church and hang around in favorite spots. Other times they strategize to participate in robberies, drive-by shootings, rape, drug sales, extortion, murder, assault, battery, arson, intimidation, kidnapping and car-jacking.
Gangs and gang-related problems are not limited to poor, minority communities; in fact, through the glamorization of gangs in movies, videos, TV and other media, this disease has infected all levels of society and is not confined to certain geographical locations. They exist in large and small-populated cities — even in rural areas. The danger is to do nothing or deny the existence of gangs.
Basically, youth gangs can be categorized as black gangs, Hispanic gangs, white gangs, immigrant gangs, Asian gangs, hybrid gangs and also two groups of youth vandals called Taggers and Housers.
More specifically:
— Black gangs have existed in the United States since the early 1920s. Several decades following, their existence became more profound and varied; their names, derived from Southern California, included Slausons, Farmers, Pueblos, Businessmen, Outlaws and ’20s. Today most black gangs consist of neighborhood groups who are involved in drug trafficking, assaults against rivals, drive-by shootings, fights, vandalism and a multiplicity of different kinds of street crimes.
Because of polarization, feuds emerged, and in 1969-70 black gangs emerged first as “Crips” and then “Bloods,” who engaged in warfare against each other.
Crips are known to one another as Cuzz (meaning relative or having a common bond), and their color is blue. An estimated 350 Crip gangs exist in the United States. They are very aggressive when gathered together with members from their neighborhood and will fight or kill Blood gang members.
Bloods wear an excessive amount of red and are known to one another as Pirus, Bounty Hunters, Swans, Bloodstone Villains, Bishops, Limehoods and Lueders Park, to name a few. There are estimated to be 250 Blood gangs in the United States. Initiation into both gangs includes drive-by shootings for proof of loyalty, selling drugs and fighting members of the same gang to establish a reputation.
— Hispanic gangs usually name their gangs after the area where they live (their “turf”). They view themselves as protector of their neighborhoods from all aggressors, including governmental agencies. Hispanic gang members are known to one another as Pee Wees or Lil Winos when males range from age 10 to 13 years. Older males, ages 14 to 22, are the hard-core members who are involved in gang-related crimes. They become a Veterano (veteran) if they live past 22 years.
Their dress consists of sparkling-white T-shirts, thick belts, khaki pants with split cuffs, black or blue knit caps (beanies) or bandanas as a moco rag. Hispanic gang members will fight or kill members of rival gangs. Some of the most notable Hispanic gangs are Tiny Locos, Winos, 18th Street, Maravilla, Florencia, Loma Hills, Clanton, Little Watts and Primera Flats.
— White gangs are increasing and forming into gangs that profess white supremacist beliefs and commit gang-related crimes. Their graffiti often identifies powerful white supremacist beliefs, consisting of swastikas or lightning bolts, which represent Nazi or neo-Nazi identification. Some names include Northwest Knights of KKK, Aryan Nations, Aryan Youth Movement, Skinheads, East Side White Pride, National Socialist Youth Corps, White Aryan Resistance, New Order Legion and National Socialist Vanguard. They usually wear black armbands with swastikas; steel-toed boots; new-wave haircuts, partly shaved, hair dyed in multiple colors; and a skull emblem or tattoo.
— Stoners is a term used over the past 30 years nationwide for adolescent substance abusers who are regularly stoned or loaded as a result of drug and alcohol consumption. Recently, the term stoners has been applied in a limited sense, specifically referring to those youth who are involved not only in chronic substance abuse but who also identify strongly with heavy metal rock music and satanic activities.
— Asian gangs are more concerned with protecting profits gained from illegal activity rather than protecting territories. Some of the most prominent Asian gangs include Chinese gangs who formed in the late 1800s with the inflow of great numbers of Chinese immigrants into the United States. Tongs were benevolent groups who organized to provide financial assistance to Chinese families establishing businesses. Some of the Tongs became involved in extortion, gambling and prostitution. The adult Tongs used “look see” boys or Wah Ching as look-outs. Wah Ching and the Joe Boys make up today’s Chinese youth gangs, found predominantly in San Francisco where they operate as independent entities with no single leader for each. Chinese youth gangs may join together to fight a common enemy. They have no standard recognizable dress, although some members wear T-shirts with their gang name printed on them or tattoos displaying their gang name or initials.
Filipino gangs are made up of Filipino criminals who were released from Filipino prisons following World War II. As Filipinos immigrated from their homeland to California, many brought their gang identification with them. They can be identified by tattoos of their gang names; unlike other Asian gangs, the members display their gang name in graffiti. The younger Filipino gang members are used to run weapons and drugs and often commit the most violent criminal acts. Filipino gangs are spread throughout California cities.
Southeast Asian gangs include the Viet Crips, Vietnamese Trouble Makers, Teaser Mohawk Boys, Local Motion and Asian Invasion. These gangs are active on the West and Northwest coast, especially in Southern California. Most Southeast Asian gangs don’t like to call attention to themselves, but some have begun to model themselves after the more flamboyant Bloods and Crips. They are well-armed and operate drug houses. A growing concern is that young women are joining their male-dominated gangs.
— “Taggers” are youth vandals who use graffiti to advertise themselves into gang membership. They generally become gang members and are classified as level-one gang members (fantasy). They carry firearms and other weapons for protection as well as to emulate the gang lifestyle. Taggers are no longer harmless vandals.
“Housers,” like Taggers, are also level-one gang members. They consider themselves dancers who band together because of their interest in “house” music. Housers and gang members share similarities in their dress modes and hair styles.
Many factors are prevalent that cause youth to join gangs, including:
— Failure to receive a fulfilling relationship at home. Young people of all ethnic backgrounds want real love and want to have a sense of belonging. When parents do not practice fundamental developmental nurturing truths, young people can become drawn to gangs.
— The economic factor. In many cases a single parent or, in a dual-parent family, both parents have to work, and youth are trusted to supervise themselves. On the other hand, some parents who are not economically deprived simply fail to practice complete supervision of their children 24 hours a day.
— Breakdown of family life. The high divorce rate of 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce subverts the health of families. A healthy family is crucial for the development of character and personal traits that determine one’s self-esteem, ambition, hope, self-control, direction, competence, commitment, acceptance and sense of belonging.
— Absence of a positive male role model. Many single families or even dual-parent families often do not have the active presence of a positive male role model in the home. The father may not be there because of work, substance abuse, incarceration, or he may never have been there for the family. Many girls also suffer the same as males and grasp the same emotions of anger and hopelessness. They often are attracted to male gangs where they are used for sex and assistance in crimes.
The challenge of winning the war against gangs is even greater today than just four years ago. According to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s statistics, there are more than 1,000 gangs and nearly 200,000 gang members in Los Angeles County. When you count the number of gangs and gang members in over 50 cities across the country, the sum is too many.
Gang-related homicides in 1994 reached 2,500 and have presently doubled. Drive-by shootings in 1994 were 250 and also have doubled. Gangs are now modifying their semi-automatic weapons to fire more rounds than designed, providing them with more loaded ammunition and giving them tremendous confidence and an invulnerable attitude.
Considering these statistics and information, what are some of strategies we can employ to win the war against gangs?
— Anti-gang injunctions. As a suppression strategy to rid communities of crime, these injunctions bar gang members from hanging together; some gangs cannot be seen with pagers, cell phones, beer cans or even climbing a tree. Injunctions suppress hard-core gang members but seem to be only a temporary solution.
— Awareness, which can happen by inviting those who work with and have knowledge of gangs to share it with others. Thousands of youth are considered to be at risk or to fantasize the gang lifestyle. These are potential gang members who can be diverted from gangs.
One effective method is for the church to sponsor conferences to bridge relationships between the church and the community. Law enforcement and community service agencies can be invited to educate at-risk youth in the community about the dark side of gang culture, and the church is also there to present the positive of alternative of a life committed to Jesus Christ.
–Prevention, including such strategies as midnight basketball to keep males ages 17-25 off the streets and build relationships with them to help them be productive citizens; involving them in a paint-out program to rid the neighborhood of gang graffiti; organizing gang awareness conferences; organizing field trips which promote the negativity of gangs and other trips that show positive environments and opportunities; and linking youth with positive mentors in the community.
Be creative and discover positive alternatives that deliver youth from being vulnerable to gangs. Children and youth can be influenced before they’ve gotten involved in the gang culture or in the earlier stages of involvement, making them more open to the gospel. We’ve got to out-recruit the gangs.
— Intervention, by reaching out to young people who are involved in gangs but are not yet hard-core. Concerned advocates are developing and implementing community youth centers which provide a place for youth to experience positive encouragement and educational and job skills opportunities. Recreation and counseling also are offered. Some churches are offering recreation activities and snacks at housing projects and conducting creative Bible studies for young people. We must involve the whole community to win the war against gangs.
— Build healthy relationships. One of the keys to transforming the lives of young people who may be thinking about or are already involved in gang activity is to build healthy one-on-one relationships. As a church reaches out through a variety of ministries, relationships are built which provide opportunities for effective witness.
Show them you care by listening to them, and show them that they belong by spending quality time with them. Do not make promises you can’t keep. Always minister with genuine compassion and integrity. Know who you are and what you are about.
If a young person is involved in a gang, always know something about the gang. Know what the person values. I have listened to the aspirations of a gang member. He said to me profoundly that he wanted what every person in America desires: a home, a nice car and a job that pays enough to have these things and take care of his family.
We first need to see every gang member or at-risk youth as one who has worth and who God loves. Through true concern, love, nurturing and the power of God working through you, Christian leaders who minister with youth can transform lives for the kingdom of God.

Dean is a North American Missionary Board church and community ministries consultant in Los Angeles, considered to be the highest gang-populated city in the United States. He previously worked as a community coordinator & crisis intervention worker with Community Youth Gang Services. Adapted from Youth Ministry Update, a monthly publication of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. Information on ordering the monthly update is available by phoning 1-800-458-2772.

    About the Author

  • Ken Dean