Religious leaders agree that family, faith and funding for church programs can prevent youth involvement in gangs
As a kid, I loved the feeling of security that came from listening to my father make his nightly rounds: locking each door in the house, checking the burners, turning out all the lights. Even after I came to the inevitable realization that my dad wasn’t Superman, I still derived comfort from knowing that he was holding down the proverbial fort.
However, in the words of Reverend Ted Firch, “As much as parents can try, parents cannot provide safety for kids.” Never is this more apparent than when kids become involved with gangs.
“These voices of power from a gang say, ‘I can provide you with security and purpose and friends—with guns—to be at your back,’” Firch went on. “And boy-child says, ‘Dad can’t do that.’”
If the father is absent from the home, the question of authority becomes even more pronounced, often leading youth to seek protection from a potentially hostile world through more drastic means. Our Higher Ground guests agreed that, faced with the harsh reality of a child’s gang involvement, a parent must be willing to both talk and listen to their at-risk youth.
I have reason to believe my son is involved in a gang. He wears certain colors and refuses to wear others. He gets calls in the middle of the night and always seems to have money well over what his fast-food restaurant job pays him. Most recently, while cleaning up the living room, I moved some bags belonging to his friend who was over visiting—I saw a gun inside! I’m terrified of what my son may be getting into, and I fear it may be too late to get him out. What can I do?
The first thing Gloria Clemons-White would do, as pastor of Kyles Temple African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and mother of a 17-year-old son, “is scream.”
For Clemons-White, gang violence hits close to home. Kyles Temple AME Zion Church sits smack-dab in the middle of Oak Park, “in a black community that’s slowly changing from black to Hispanic and Asian, and there’s a lot of gang violence there,” she explained. In the four years that she has served as pastor, she has seen numerous young men choose gangs over Sunday school.
“I think as parents, we have to be very active in our children’s lives,” she added, noting that intervention should have occurred way before the friend came over with the gun.
Ted Firch, reverend at East Sacramento’s historic First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), acknowledged that “a lot of parents want to believe the best, and they’re terrified by the worst. And so they will let little signs go and hope that they’re only coincidences or misconceptions—until they see the gun.” At which point, he went on, “there’s probably some serious distance and problems between the child and the parent, for the child to go with that extreme of a lifestyle at that age.”
Speaking as a pastor, he advised the parent to “immediately take charge of the situation. For the first step, I think I’d like to have both parents and the boy come to see me, and we’d have ‘Come to Jesus’ time.”
If communication can’t be achieved so peaceably, “there may need to be a much tougher intervention, whether it’s to get that young person involved in some kind of camp experience, where that person is doing some lifestyle retraining, or whatever it takes.”
Cindy Fowler, clerk for the Sacramento Friends Meeting, drew on personal experience of a period when her own children, while in their teens, were engaged in activities she considered to be dangerous.
“Looking back now, I really believe that what was happening to them was indicative of problems that were in the family, and that it was their way of coping,” she said. “And my solution at that point was to fix them, that there was something wrong with them, and not being willing to look at the whole family dynamic.”
Through open conversations with her daughter, who now lives in Davis, Fowler has come to see the larger picture, including her daughter’s feeling that “she was made the designated ‘sick person’ in the family, and that if we could only fix her, then everything would be okay.” Fowler also came to understand her daughter’s relief when “we finally got it that it was a family problem that we were facing and got help, both through our church and through counseling.”
Healing family wounds takes time, but Fowler is adamant about the necessity for communication rather than denial.
“It’s like the heat goes up slowly, and the behaviors become a little more out there and dangerous so gradually that, as parents, we want to believe the best about our children. We tend to say, ‘It’ll be okay,’ we try to rationalize it away, or disengage, which is what I did. I just went, ‘I can’t handle this, I’m just not gonna deal with it; maybe it will go away.’ And it doesn’t. So we have to be willing to talk, and we have to be willing to listen.”
Having witnessed firsthand the succumbing of Oak Park’s youth to gang violence, Clemons-White was forced to question the responsibility of the church in reaching young people.
“These kids come to church with their parents or grandparents and you don’t know anything is wrong—until you get a call from somebody saying that their son is in jail or juvenile hall and they want the pastor to come intervene,” she said. “When the church is in the middle of a community that is faced with a lot of social problems, you need ministries that reach these kids. … And our church, because it is not a large church [150 to 200 people on a Sunday], it hasn’t been able to intervene in bringing a lot of changes in children’s and families’ lives. You have all these programs at church, you do all these cute little things, and yet sometimes these kids who attend Sunday school or act in the youth programs or the choir, they still become members of gangs. I know what we could do, if we had enough funding to take kids out and provide after-school programs and find ways to get them actively involved … but short of that, what do you do?”
Firch nodded somberly. “Ideally for this issue, you hope to have the opportunity to push young lives in good directions prior to something like this happening,” he said. “But then the problem is, even though they might be there on Sunday morning, the rest of society has them for six days. And the rest of society might have a lot of threatening kinds of people in their lives. The rest of society may be telling them that there’s not much economic opportunity available to them unless they go this road. And it is very difficult, because you’re pushing against a huge weight trying to get young people to see God’s way in the world.”