I caught an interesting piece this past week on the L.A. Homicide Blog on Kenny Mitchell, the founder of a group called Gangsters Anonymous. He has launched this organization based on this belief: “We are recovering gangsters who meet to help each other stay crime-free. We believe the gangster mentality is a disease–a mental disorder. We are sick. We suffer from a criminal mentality. But recovery is our responsibility.”
In the course of the interview, as Mitchell describes his own past, the interviewer shows surprise at some of his accomplishments:
Mitchell: I graduated on the honor roll with a 3.3 GPA and lettered in pole vaulting–
HR: That doesn’t sound like a gang banger.
Mitchell: I’m a gangster, not an idiot! You see the low-bottom gang members a lot in the media. But others are well-spoken and doing well in their lives. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Who would want to follow the low-bottom guys?
I was reminded of an incident early in my ministry in Chicago. A young man who frequented our drop-in center had left a notebook behind one afternoon. One of my leaders brought it to me at my office, and her face told me that this was no ordinary notebook. This young man was known for his gang involvements. While only an eighth grader, his size and maturity made him seem like a junior or senior in high school, and he was imposing on many fronts. A natural leader and smarter than his peers, he was also capable of being very sweet and funny. And as if often the case with the troublemakers, he had deeper relationships with many of the teachers and administrators than a lot of the other kids. That was true with me as well.
As I opened the notebook and started flipping through its pages, I realized what I was holding: a handbook of sorts for one of the local gangs. Included were oaths, pledges, contact lists (addresses and phone numbers), organizational charts, and more. As I read over these pages, I was struck by the sophistication, the structure and the complexity of this group. And I realized that my eighth grader was immersed in something so much more intelligent and organized than most people would believe.
After debating what to do with the notebook that night, and after getting frantic calls from this student the next day, I decided to take him out for dinner the following evening. We sat and talked and I confronted him with my concern for his safety and well-being due to his gang affiliation, and he told me that his only way of escaping things would be to go down to Mexico to live with relatives. We talked about the pros and cons of this, and while it was the option his parents favored, he and I both mourned that this was where things had come to for him.
I gave him back his notebook. I don’t know if he ever made it to Mexico.