Last night I was privileged to have one of the most special conversations I've had in quite some time, and it happened to be with 2 gang members. I was meeting Mandy downtown to have dinner but I arrived early, so I walked across the street to wait for her in a park. I sat down next to a few guys and within seconds I was fully engaged with them in conversation. Within minutes they had proudly announced to me that they are in a gang. What ensued was an amazing experience with 2 intelligent, nice, loyal men.
Being from the Midwest I am naturally ignorant to gang culture, so I bombarded them with a barrage of questions as to the nature of being in a gang. They said that they were a part of the Southsiders, which is the biggest gang in America. There are Southsiders in every state and there are 13 times as many members as any other gang. They said that there are Southsiders from every profession, including police, politicians, judges, and pastors. They said that there is a ministry in Southern California that is totally run by the Mexican Mafia, so when it eventually came up in conversation that I am in school to become a pastor, they thought that was great. My new friend (not that we are having coffee anytime soon though), Keo, said that he tries to live by the Golden Rule. I think he has some really messed up theology, but it was interesting to hear a gang member speak so highly of faith. He also talked about how Southsiders see themselves not as criminals, but as outlaws. He said that they don't take from those who have little, but instead, they steal from the rich and give to the poor. He never said that he and his friend have personally killed people (although I think they probably have), but he was clear that the gang takes justice into its own hands when necessary, their own form of vigilante justice.
These guys spoke a lot about the community of gang life. There is pretty intense initiation into the Southsiders, and once you are a member there is much expected of you, including paying 10% of what you make to the gang (too bad we can't get church members to give in this way), attending regular meetings, and regular participation in gang activities. They talked of it as being a family, a tight-knit group that constantly supports each other, looks out for the best interest of their brothers and sisters, and has a well established system of mentoring new members toward fuller participation in the life of the gang.
Keo went on to ask me if I knew what the biggest gang in the world was. He said that it was the Catholic Church. He spoke about the fact that everyone is in a gang. He noticed my wedding ring and commented that I'm in a gang with my wife. He talked about politics, families, and religion all being forms of gangs, of cliques. I think I agree with him. What would the church look like if we based our fellowship on the model of our brothers and sisters in gangs, or all of our community pastors were former gang members? How would the way we care for each other look different? How would our fellowship change? How would our giving increase?
Now I know that some Christians out there would criticize me for not taking the time to share the 'gospel' with these men. I feel, though, that I was able to be present to them in some way and I just pray that my non-judgmental, non-condescending language gave them some picture of the gospel of grace and mercy our God has to offer. I count my blessings that I live in a place where I can engage the hurting and broken of this world, recognize my own brokenness in those situations, and seek to bring healing to us all through the life, death, and resurrection of our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Grace and peace to you all.