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Gangs no longer urban problem; churches urged to get involved

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (BP)–Once considered a dilemma for urban and crime-filled cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, the growth of youth street gangs has become an increasing problem throughout the country.
In recent years, the epidemic has crept into cities, towns, communities and suburbs, bringing with it violent crimes and scattering fear among residents and businesses. Many churches have discovered that they, too, are not immune to the strife and unrest often accompanying street gangs.
“Youth street gang activity is a problem that faces everyone in every race, gender and socio-economic background,” said Broward County (Fla.) sheriff’s investigator Brad Ostroff.
To respond to the problem, “We need to bond as a community to first understand the problem and then partnership together to get the job done,” Ostroff said.
“We no longer can say that it’s not my problem or it’s not in my neighborhood,” he noted. “If it’s not in your neighborhood, it’s probably only 20 blocks away.”
To help churches begin addressing the gang problem, the Florida Baptist Convention’s church and community ministries department sponsored a “Church Responds … Ministry to Gangs Conference,” which included presentations by Ostroff and several Broward Multi-Agency Gang Task Force detectives. More than 50 Baptist pastors, church staff and concerned laity attended the sessions held at Lake Forest Baptist Church, Hollywood, in March.
Brenda Forlines, state convention director of church and community ministries, described the conference as a “first step” for Baptists to “learn to recognize the need and be willing to become educated in the culture of gangs.”
“More than 80 percent of youth in gangs are there because of the need for love and a place to belong,” Forlines said. “The church can provide the nurture, guidance and activities that these children and young people lack.” As Christians, she said, “we can stand by parents and law enforcement officers and other community organizations to reclaim the young people attracted by gangs.”
During the conference, detective Dave Nickerson provided a profile of gangs, gang activity and the underlying culture and mind-set of gangs. He shared several historical illustrations of gangs in the United States, dating back to a 1791 gang in Philadelphia.
Noting gangs can be a “formal or informal organization and association,” Nickerson defined a gang as a group of three or more people who have a common identity and engage in criminal or delinquent activity. They often have a common name, sign or color to identify themselves and they may or may not claim control over a certain territory in the community.
According to recent studies, Nickerson said, many factors and circumstances often attract youth to join gangs, including social status, recognition, family background, fellowship, brotherhood, protection, self-esteem, financial reasons and intimidation. Gangs consist of both male and females who often range from eight-year-olds to young adults.
“Most all kids first join gangs for social reasons, not to commit crimes. That type of involvement often comes later,” Nickerson said. “They are just looking for anything to meet some type of need.”
Parental denial and the need for media attention are the two greatest opponents faced by law enforcement officials, said detective Patrick Bowden.
“Our enemies are not the gang members but those who fail to see the problem and face it,” Bowden said. “Society has changed and we have to in some ways change with it. Kids today are dealing with different social forces. They are not dumb and ignorant; they just need guidance.”
According to the Broward County gang task force, several signs and identification marks are often unique to gangs and gang activity. These include: pitchforks and crown signs, unique languages, graffiti, odd clothing and hair styles, beaded jewelry, tattoos, black crosses and unusual hand signs.
Beyond abusing alcohol or other drugs and carrying guns, knives or other weapons, other signs of a youth’s involvement in a gang can include: showing a change in personality or behavior; hanging out with a new group of friends; withdrawing from family members or friends; having trouble at school with grades or discipline; frequently being bruised or injured; using unusual nicknames or street language; writing strange symbols on notebooks or folders; and obtaining money or valuables without his or her parents’ knowledge.
Speaking at the meeting, Charles Radice, president of the civilian steering committee of the task force, told conference participants the “key to reducing the involvement of kids in gangs is to keep them out of it in the first place.”
“There is a fine line between the gangster and our own kids. It’s often just the faddish thing to do,” Radice said. “We are going to have to come up with innovative approaches to combat the problem.”
Several conference participants noted the local church can play a vital role in educating and preventing gang involvement.
“For many years, churches have isolated themselves and missed out on what is going on around them,” said Rick Braswell, chaplain for the Broward sheriffs’ office. “As the church, it is our responsibility to be the role model for our kids. We need to remind our families of the roles they play in their kid’s lives.”
“It all comes back to a one-on-one relationship with these kids,” said Ron Leggett, pastor of Wilton Manors Baptist Church near Fort Lauderdale. “It comes down to a person with a call and a burden to see and meet the need.”
David Garrett, director of church and community ministries for the Jacksonville Baptist Association, shared several models for ministry to gangs used by Southern Baptist churches. Garrett received training courses in ministering to gangs from the Home Mission Board and the Jacksonville sheriff’s office.
Following the task force’s presentation, Garrett led the conference participants in an assessment of their communities’ level of gang activity.
“Law enforcement is doing all they can to combat the gang problem,” Garrett said. “As you assess your communities and take steps to minister, you are taking your piece of the pie in helping.
“The police know they are overburdened and can’t do it alone,” Garrett added. It’s time “for churches who have been hiding their heads in the sand” to do their part to help overcome the problem of gangs.

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  • Stella Anderson