Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Panel discusses "Faith and Gangs"

“Your gang won’t be there if you go to jail,” one of the panelist said after being asked why youth decide to join a gang. “Your family will be there, but they don’t care about you.”

125 people packed the education room at the Holton Resource Center to discuss “Gangs and Faith”. A panel of youth sit on one side of the room while those representing the faith community were positioned on the other. Solomon Burnette, the organizer of the event, moderated. There were plenty of questions coming from those in the crowd. The pieces of paper with those questions kept coming as Burnette did the best he could to facilitate a conversation related to a subject that is on the minds of so many. What is the faith community doing to reach youth?

Most of the exchange centered on the need for faith communities to be more loving of youth. All of the youth on the panel attend church. They talked about why they go, and what has inspired them to stay. All of the youth knew of people who have joined gangs. One of the panelist admitted that he joined a gang.

“I decided to change my life when I was in jail,” he says. “The thing that got me was when I read the book of Revelation.” He went on to say that he left the gang. He’s now a member of God’s gang.

John Fitzpatrick, the young man’s pastor, reached over and whispered in my ear as the young man talked about being in Jesus’ gang. “He’s called to ministry,” Fitzpatrick muttered. I wasn’t surprised.

Listening to the young people talk took me back to the time just before I entered ministry at the age of 19. It happened after a battle with drugs and engaging in acts to support my habit. Listening to them reminded me of why I decided to change my life, and how faith helped pave the way. The truth is things aren’t so different. Times have changed, but the struggles I endured to come to myself mirrored most of the young people on the panel.

I listened to the religious leaders on the panel in wait for them to say what was on my mind. They lifted the need to offer places for young people to thrive. One talked about the importance of living the faith in a way that offers a positive model for youth.

“Young people are tired of watching people get slain in the Spirit on Sunday and living in a way that contradicts what they claim the rest of the week,” he suggested.

I listened as the youth on panel discussed why their peers join gangs. One said it is for protection. Another said it is because of money. In all the talking back and forth between the youth on panel and the religious leaders on the other side, there seemed to be a broken bridge. There was a gap between the sentiments of the youth and the agenda of the faith community.

As I continued to wait for someone to say what was in my spirit, my mind wondered even further into memories from my youth. It was like a prayer – what changed me? More than that, what is it that I have in common with the youth on the panel?

The answer is connected to what I was waiting to hear. I needed faith because I was in crisis. The role of faith is to be present for youth as they struggle to find meaning within a context of crisis.

It’s part of what comes with growing up. There are so many questions that need to be answered, and faith helps solve the riddle in a way that brings special meaning. Faith helps people get past feeling lost and empty due to the guilt they carry. It teaches us that God loves us despite our mistakes.

Youth, just like older folks, blunder when they endure deep crisis. It happened to me due to a series of deaths. I simply couldn’t find my way after my sister’s death. I felt abandoned by God, and unloved when the people positioned to love me were too busy with their own pain to see my need. I felt rejected by the community of believers who came with an answer that hurt me more – this is God’s will. I hated thinking that God’s decision was to rob a 13 year-old of life for the sake of some higher purpose.

Could it be that the bridge between faith and gangs is rooted in being present when crisis hits? Maybe, just maybe, it has more to do with understanding our true purpose more so than a particular teaching or system of being. It’s not what we say. It’s being present to love when things are falling apart and no one seems to know the reason why.

I left the discussion encouraged by the people in the room. I appreciate the different voices gathered to solve a problem that impacts us all. Each comes with a unique perspective. My truth is for the work I’ve been given. It is deeply rooted in the life I have overcome and lived. Overcoming is a message of hope. Thank God for that message.

I’ll continue to be present for those in crisis. What will you do?

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