Leaving the 99

Rudy Carrasco, our neighbor to the north, wrote a great piece in the Pasadena Star-News in response to the recent wave of gang violence in his community. He writes this about the need for intervention as well as the more common prevention initiatives:

But doing gang intervention is not as easy as it sounds. In an area youth workers meeting following last December’s shooting across from King’s Villages that started Pasadena’s present wave of violence, one youth worker pointed out that past initiatives to stem youth violence have the curious quality of helping everyone except the very gang-involved young people who are most unreachable and most likely to commit crime…

The reasons for the deficit include the difficulty in finding and funding people who are not only effective, but also credible to both gangs and the community at large. I’ve also heard, at community meetings, an underlying tone that suggests, “You can’t win them all,” and therefore we are somehow justified in writing off the gang-involved…

But these cannot be the principles on which we approach the situation. As a Christian, I claim to follow a savior who left 99 sheep so that he could find one sheep that was lost. Common sense says that if you reached 99 out of a 100, you did a good job, and by the way “you can’t win them all.” But I profess beliefs that don’t let me off the hook that easy. In my own life, I believe I have benefited at the hands of people who shared the mentality of leaving the 99 to go after the one.

When I lived in Chicago, I worked in the area of prevention: providing after-school programs for urban youth that gave kids the opportunity to sing in a gospel choir or dissect frogs or shoot pool in a drop-in center after school instead of lingering on unsafe streets or in unhealthy homes. We gave kids mentors through our big sister/big brother program; we went roller skating and to the zoo; we taught the Bible and shared and prayed with the kids in small groups. We were effective in giving kids an alternative to the gangs that ran their streets, and not a day went by where I did not see how vital and necessary that work was in the lives of our kids.

But I have other memories as well: memories of the kids already connected and committed to the nations and families of the streets. Kids who stole cars, carried and used baseball bats, and brought guns to school: kids in the seventh grade.

I learned early on that most of the gang members would either leave me alone or watch out for me on the street. And while it sounds like that predictable scene from the movie about the ghetto, older gang members were often grateful to see other kids have alternatives and options that they did not, and they would encourage their siblings or cousins to stick with me and stay out of trouble.

There were others, however, that I feared: four to be exact. They were the red-haired twins and the F. brothers, interestingly all Anglo, and they genuinely scared me. The brothers trashed my car with metal folding chairs one night. My sin? Driving to their home each morning to pick up J, an eighth grader who stayed with them because his mom had left him and his dad was in jail. I would leave early for work and drive the twenty minutes to their house, pick J up, often having to wait for him to get ready, and drive back to our neighborhood to drop him off at the junior high next to our campus. The brothers had other plans for J, and my intrusion was not welcome.

As poverty moves to the suburbs, I wonder how the landscape of gang activity will change. I imagine that people who have long been able to ignore and dismiss the tragedies of this urban reality will suddenly find themselves confronted by it, and I wonder what the response will be? Schools can install metal detectors, but what will churches do? How will those apprenticed to Jesus respond to these kids?

When I look back on the kids in gangs that I did invest in, the thing that stands out is so absurdly simple: I engaged them in a relationship. I called them on the phone, I talked with their teachers, I visited their homes, I took them places, and I was direct and honest about their situation and the options and alternatives that could give them an out. But for all the labor and prayers, we were rarely successful, and that is the shadow and sorrow cast over my years in Chicago.

But even I was selective in which gang members I chose to love, and I gave up on some. When I think about the Twins and the F. Brothers, and the hundreds of kids we did successfully serve, I would never have left the hundreds to save those four. Not a chance. But Rudy is right. We are called to both, and someone, many someones, need to step out and do exactly that: waste their every energy and talent and hope on those lost causes.

I have quoted this before here, but it seems fitting to do so again. Doug wrote the following after a killing on our corner a few years ago, and it is an appropriate and sober conclusion to my thoughts today:

There is nothing about the tragedy of what happened that night that does not disturb me. But the thing that haunts me the most is something our neighbor shared with us the next day. He told us that when the LAPD arrived on the scene they asked everyone to back away and cordoned off the intersection. They asked everyone to back away – even those who were engaged in CPR. I was recently recertified in Medic First Aid Basic response. You keep up CPR until help arrives and removes you to take your place. The neighbors engaged in CPR stopped and moved as they were told; but the police just stood there and did nothing. And Carlos died.

Chances are he would have died anyway. He was shot twice in the head and three times in the chest. He was probably drowning in his own blood. Even chest compressions won’t help if the body is denied air, and his airway was disturbed by blood. Because no one had barriers and he was bleeding a lot, mouth to mouth was not being administered.

Perhaps the police thought he was a lost cause because of his bleeding, his massive wounds, his deteriorating state. Perhaps the officers simply made a mistake or did not know the appropriate protocol. Or perhaps they felt he was lost long ago; signs of his losing etched all over his body in the form of gang tattoos.

And so, alone and unattended, Carlos laid in our street and he died.

May God show mercy.

1 comment

  1. A one for two on your last two posts.

    A generous helping of Tavis Smiley (an anti-oxidant :^) would do good among evangelicals who follow the broader cultural give and take.

    Jan and I lived in Rudy’s hood for years and engaged with the gangs there. Our kids got their educations in those Pasadena public schools and my daughter went on to Stanford from John Muir High, which is about to be taken over by the state of California partly because of the increase in gang activity that Rudy mentions in his article. Jan taught for years in the Pasadena School District.

    I’m all in re interventions and preventions or any other ventions.

    Evangelicals have a genius for focusing on individuals, especially when we’re trying to save them :^)

    But I think dealing with gangs will take changing whole educational systems and how they get funded. And also prophetically challenging entrenched class prejudices that play themselves out in current national and local politics.

    Following the money and the lack of money won’t explain everything, but it explains a lot.

    As long as conservative Christians keep embracing social and economic Darwinism—while ironically rejecting biological Darwinism–we won’t have anything practical and useful to contribute to the fight against gangs in the US or poverty overseas beyond the witness of some courageous individuals.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *