Gang Recovery: A Faith-Based Approach

Lobs_Not_Jails

 

If more young men in America are to reach maturity intact and spiritually healthy, they will require not only gainful employment but significant relationships.  Karim Camara, the new Director of the NYS Office of Faith-Based Community Development, summed up the crisis:    

We have a generation of sixteen to twenty-four year olds who are not in school and not working.  Of course, they need jobs, but there have to be relationships.  We need to encourage coalitions of faith leaders to engage disconnected youth, so we can get them into a GED program, so we can get them into a community college or a four-year college.  But we have to start somewhere, and what better way to start than the faith-based community?[1]

 Gang recovery programs like Victory Outreach and Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles can offer a model for relationship building with disconnected young adults.   Though focused primarily on recovery, not prevention, these two programs focus on relationship building, an approach which could be applied preventatively to keep at-risk young men from lapsing into drug use, violent behavior, or gang activity. 

Without doubt, relationship building is a more positive and hopeful approach to gang activity than the “suppression” techniques practiced by many police forces.  Based on the assumption gang members cannot be rehabilitated, the suppression approach—surveillance, intimidation and mass arrest—tends to harden gang members and escalate violence, as sociologist Edward Flores notes.[2]  Though hardly restricted to this city, Los Angeles is at the heart of American gang activity, with an estimated 152,000 gang members reported by the Department of Justice in the year 2000. 

Victory Outreach and Homebody Industries, both located in East Los Angeles, embody a relationship building approach.  The two programs could not be more different in style, yet they are achieving similar results by their focus on the redemption of people’s lives.

Victory Outreach: “Segregated Redemption”

Edward Flores, the sociologist, uses the term “segregated redemption” to describe the church’s purpose, which is to call young men away from the hostile world to a sheltered environment of faithful belonging.[3] 

 Features

  1. Sidewalk evangelism.  Gang members are invited to its storefront church, where Sunday worship attendance averages one hundred.
  2. Pentecostal-style worship service.  Members participate in ecstatic displays of singing, shouting and clapping. 
  3. Rejection of “worldly” concerns.  The church offers alternative holiday celebrations to help members avoid drug and alcohol use.
  4. Oratory as a communication mode.  The church offers sermons (with the congregation adopting a call-and-response mode) public testimonials, and small group Bible study groups. 

 Homeboy Industries:  “Integrated Redemption”

Founded by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Gregory Boyle, in 1992, Homeboy Industries seeks from the start of its contact with gang members to integrate them into society.

Features

  1. Employment.  Homebody Industry’s motto is “Jobs, Not Jail.” Up to 500 gang members are employed at any one time in a bakery, café, silk-screening and landscaping business. 
  2. “Spiritual ecumenism.”  Right living is emphasized more than adherence to a specific set of doctrines, and beliefs are eclectic.   Yoga and meditation are the favorite spiritual practices.
  3. “Therapeutic approach” to recovery.  Legal services, tattoo removal and self-help workshops are offered, and participants often use therapeutic language to describe their spiritual journey.
  4. Conversation as a communication mode.  At the beginning of every workday, Father Boyle, or a surrogate, offers a story for spiritual reflection and inspiration.  Homeboy Industry’s classes are modeled on twelve-step programs (like AA) and offer a “check-in” time at the beginning for people to share about their spiritual lives. 

 What They Have in Common

  1. Positive role models.  Examples include Father Boyle, the Homeboy staff, the Victory Outreach pastors, Bible study leaders or other former gang members.
  2. “Moral one-upmanship.”  “They [Victory Outreach leaders] shamed recovering gang members by casting marginalized, drug-addicted, drug-using men as inferior and subordinate to church-going, family-oriented breadwinners.”  Homeboy Industries, by contrast, sometimes exhibit a morally superior stance toward unjust or imperialist structures in society.[4]
  3. Changed physical appearance (from “shaved to saved”).  The journey is from gang tattoos, drug addiction, emaciated weight, oversized clothes, shaved head and aggressive body language toward tattoo removal, drug abstinence, abundant eating, dress clothes, longer hairstyle and affectionate body language.

 The upshot:  Though different in style, Homeboy Industries and Victory Outreach demonstrate that faith can play a powerful role in moving young adults from gang membership to responsible fatherhood.  If applied earlier in life, this intervention model, or something like it, could be useful in keeping disconnected young adults out of the “school to prison pipeline.”

 


[1] “Senators (sic) James Sanders Interviews Karim Camara,” June 15, 2015.  Video found at http://www.nysenate.gov/senator/james-sanders-jr.

[2] Edward Orozco Flores, God’s Gangs: Barrio Ministry, Masculinity, and Gang Recovery (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 2, 12.

[3] Flores, God’s Gangs, 93-95, 152.

[4] Flores, God’s Gangs, 153, 100.

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