Catholics Answer The Gang Problem

LOS ANGELES — After a brief lull during the 1990s, street gangs are back with a vengeance.

Calling his city the “national epicenter” of gang violence, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has sought millions of dollars in federal grants to target gang crime. But when asked precisely which anti-gang efforts work best, many experts admit they don’t know.

Some Catholics who have lived with gangs say they do know the answers.

“I’d like to sit here and tell you all the great success everybody’s had working with gangs, but we haven’t really had that much success,” said retired L.A. Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association.

Jailing gang members has “done little to disrupt their activities” and “in some ways has increased gang leaders’ power in prison,” concludes a 2005 report by the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations. Many inmates not previously exposed to gangs are recruited in prison, then ally with the gang when they get out.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 760,000 kids now belong to 24,000 youth gangs across the country, and gangs have spread from the inner city to small towns and farmlands.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this,” McBride said. “Law enforcement only reacts to crime.” Prevention, he added, requires communities working together.

But precisely which community efforts are we talking about? Despite the $82 million Los Angeles spends each year to stop gangs, a recent report by prominent L.A. civil rights attorney Connie Rice concluded the 23 anti-gang programs spread through her city’s departments have failed.

Theories abound as to why. But according to “gang priest” Father Gregory Boyle, it’s because many people fail to see the real root of the problem. Having lived and worked with gangs in L.A.’s tough Boyle Heights neighborhood for more than 20 years, Father Boyle said the real source of gang violence is “a lethal absence of hope.”

Longer jail sentences and other stiff penalties may keep kids off the streets for a while. But they don’t address the unspoken reason kids join gangs in the first place. “You can’t terrify a kid into being hopeful, you know,” Father Boyle said.

To address gang violence effectively, he explains, we need to “give kids a reason to get up in the morning.”

At Jobs for a Future (JFF), founded in 1988, Father Boyle attempts to do exactly that. Here, ex-gang members who want to transform their lives are given jobs coaching, removing tattoos, and lessons in how to dress for work. The affiliated Homeboy Industries, which includes such businesses as a catering service, bakery, café and silkscreen factory, is staffed by former gang members and offers on-the-job training. Over the years, thousands of ex-gang members have turned their lives around here.

Moreno, a 24-year-old Catholic, is one of them. Having joined the tough Primera Flats gang when he was 13, Moreno (who requested that his anonymity be protected by using only his first name) has been in and out of jail for gang crimes ranging from skipping parole to peddling crack cocaine. Even when his brother, riding in the same car with him, died from a gunshot wound to the head, Moreno didn’t give up “the life.”

Then one day in prison, Moreno went to a Mass celebrated by Father Boyle. After Mass, Father Boyle handed Moreno his card. “When you get out of jail, son,” the priest said, “I want you to take off your tattoos, and I’ll hook you up with a job.”

Moreno never forgot the priest’s promise. After his release, he got up his nerve and dialed the phone number on the card. Moreno soon had the tattoos removed from his arms and his ears. He now works diligently for Homeboys Industries as a receptionist.

Curbing gang violence, of course, requires more than giving kids jobs. Another essential element in anti-gang efforts must be “getting to a place where we see that we belong to each other,” Father Boyle said.

Americans, particularly Catholics, need to see these kids as ours, not as “outsiders.”

“If the Church is hermetically sealed, if it keeps the bad people out, then you’re not going to be very warmly receiving of gang members,” Father Boyle said. “But if you recall that Jesus hunkered down with the leper, the public sinner and the tax collector, then you begin to see what your church property ought to look like in terms of hospitality.”

Oscar Contreras of Catholic Charities in Chicago agreed. An ex-gang banger who left the gang at age 32, Contreras is in his car this particular May evening talking to a reporter on his cell phone as he cruises Chicago’s tough Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood. Gang violence here, behind the old stockyards, is terrifyingly common. Last month on one of these seedy streets, a man was shot several times in the chest and head in a gang-related murder.

Although some people have labeled the gang kids here “cockroaches,” Contreras sees them as human beings.

“These are God’s children, no matter who they are, what they’ve done,” he said. “These are our kids. We need to teach them that God loves them as much as he loves anybody else.”

Contreras’ top priority is to reconnect these kids to the Church so they can experience God’s love. To do that, he said, “You’ve got to get out here and form a relationship with them.”

Example: Earlier this evening he saw a group of guys loitering on a street corner. “I asked them, ‘Hey, are you hungry?’ Kids are always hungry. So we went to McDonald’s, ate burgers and talked about their lives. All of a sudden, when there’s a function at the church, I’m going to bring these kids to it.”

At least 14 Catholic Charities agencies across the United States now do some kind of anti-gang outreach or intervention.

“As Catholics, we need to open up our churches to these kids,” Contreras said. “Kids need sacraments.”

If young people don’t have authentic sacraments, they may find twisted substitutes.

“The tattoos, the body piercings, the haircuts — these are all visible signs. You could call them the other team’s sacramentals,” said Father Paul Weinberger, pastor of St. William Church in Greenville, Texas.

Opening churches is a high priority for Father Weinberger. He has found that simply having the church open during the day and into the evening and having someone in the church to ask “Can I help you?” can work small miracles in a graffiti-filled neighborhood.

“Do you know how many people pull on the handles of a church during the day and find the doors locked?” Father Weinberger said.

Daily confession, especially in the evenings, along with evening prayers, Mass, and Benediction are also essential. “If confessions are regularly scheduled, say for the evenings, then when people go by the church and it’s open, it’s like a funnel to the right thing,” he said. In the end, Father Boyle concluded, sensibly addressing gang problems isn’t about picking the right stand on this issue. It’s about standing in the right place: with the poor, the easily despised and the readily left out. In other words, exactly where Jesus stood.

“It’s a mandate of our faith to stand with folks on the margins until the margins disappear,” he said. “You stand with the disposables until we arrive at the moment when we stop throwing people away.”

Sue Ellin Browder is based

in Willits, California.