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Leadership Journal

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Weeping With Gang Members

Weeping With Gang Members

How God used my vulnerability to soften the toughest.

Eight years ago, when I became a full-time pastor, I could never have imagined how many tears I would shed over people—or how God would use those tears.

A good friend who has pastored for almost three decades in one of the most violent neighborhoods in our country introduced me to what he calls "Jesus' ministry of tears." "Coach," as everyone knows him, is one of the most vulnerable pastors I know. "A week does not go by in which I do not weep aloud with people at their brokenness," he told me.

Our church is in Little Village on Chicago's west side. It is the largest Mexican community in the Midwest. We also have the youngest demographic in the city. Unfortunately, many of our young neighbors end up involved in gangs and victims of the violence that comes with it.

Touching lepers

One afternoon I was invited to lead a prayer vigil for a young man who had been gunned down by the rival gang. As I made my way to the house where I would join the family who had lost their son, I noticed a large group of young people—many apparently gang members—were walking that way as well. Feelings of fear and doubt started creeping up my spine. "Where are they going?" I wondered. "Was something dangerous happening around the corner?" Turning the corner I realized they too were headed to the vigil. They were joining with me to honor and mourn their fallen friend.

Matthew tells us that when Jesus sent the 12 on their preaching assignment, he told them, "As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near'" (10:7). In the very next sentence, he prescribes the actions that should accompany their preaching: "heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons." It's difficult to cleanse lepers without touching them. For healing, proximity is required. Preaching alone does not fully demonstrate the kingdom—it must be accompanied by immersion in people's lives, by touching them, like Jesus did.

No one in our neighborhood fits the "leper" profile better than gang-involved youth. People literally cross the street to avoid them.

No one in our neighborhood fits the "leper" profile better than gang-involved youth. People literally cross the street to avoid any contact with these young people. It takes a deep change of heart for most people to realize that these kids are not only loved by God, but that they are also our kids.

A large crowd of young people had already gathered around the sidewalk where I would be praying. I made a beeline to one of the few people I recognized. Matt was one of the organizers of the prayer vigil. "What should I do? What should I say?" I asked him.

I felt fearful and inadequate. What could I say to these young people whose lives were so radically different from anything I had ever experienced? What if they rejected me? "You don't know what it's like to be in our shoes," they might say. "Just say your prayer and shut up."

Yet they had gathered for this prayer vigil. I had to believe that somehow, in this moment, heaven would meet earth.

Amid my fears, I prayed silently, "Jesus, what do you want me to do here?"

As I looked out over the crowd, I realized most of these scary-looking gang members were just kids, mostly in their mid or late teens, with some in their twenties. I was old enough to be their father. They had surely been told repeatedly by authority figures how wrong their actions were and how foolish gang activity was. But as I looked at these hurting teenagers, I wondered, What would the king say to these young people? I felt a burning deep within my soul to give them grace.

As the words poured from my lips, I could not control myself.I began to weep. I wept bitterly.

After introducing myself and stating the purpose for our gathering, I asked permission to speak from my heart. "Since most of you are half my age, I am the age of your fathers. Would you allow me to address you on behalf of your fathers?" All eyes focused intently on me. There was no stopping then. "I know you have heard plenty of times that this back and forth violence in our neighborhood is complete nonsense. You have heard it at school, at home, and by the many people with authority over you. You've been told how destructive gang behavior is."

Then I stared into their eyes and said some of the most frightening words I have ever spoken on the streets of our community.

"But today, on behalf of your dads, I want to say to you what should have been said a long time ago. My son, my daughter, would you forgive me for not being there for you when you were little? Will you forgive me for not being there when you took your first steps, said your first words? Will you forgive me for not being there to throw the ball around when you when were young? Will you forgive me for leaving you when you most needed me? Will you forgive me?"

As the words poured from my lips, I could not control myself. I began to weep. I wept bitterly. Tears ran freely down my cheeks. I had not planned to cry. I was making a fool of myself, completely exposed and emotionally naked in front of this hardened crowd of gang members. But to my surprise many of them responded in kind. They too began to weep.

Something special happened in that moment. A fearful pastor was becoming the conduit of heaven's tears. It was sacred. Jesus was there.

A similar event happened many years earlier when Jesus was overwhelmed with compassion for another city. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem," he cried. "How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings … " (Matt. 23:37). Longing to reach his lost children, it's natural for a father to weep.

There are many who weep in my city, but that day I realized that we pastors have been given the special privilege to weep for our cities. We are called to weep on heaven's behalf. We are called to become fools for the sake of the king, to share in Jesus' ministry of tears, and to mourn with those who mourn.

Fruitful tears

My vulnerability that day was completely unplanned, but God had a purpose behind it. My uncontrollable tears, and the crying it provoked among the young people at the vigil, opened a door that I never could have opened through my own cleverness.

Following the gathering I was able to develop a deeper connection with many of the gang members. They opened up to me. They trusted me even though I had no credibility in their world. I had not shared their gang background or lived through the same experiences. But my vulnerability at the vigil had given me credibility in the neighborhood. I hadn't shared their life, but I had shared their pain. As a result my preconceived ideas about them changed. God gave me a love for these young men I had not experienced before, and God gave them a pastor.

Many of us want a closer connection with the people we minister to. We want them to trust us, to seek us for help or guidance, and to be honest about their struggles and pain. But we should not expect others to be open if we are not open first. As pastors we must model for our communities the vulnerability and transparency we desire from them. I discovered that doing this took more courage than I possess. It took a courage that comes only from Jesus being with me.

Jesus' most frequent command to the disciples was, "Be not afraid," and it was closely linked to his most important promise, "I will always be with you." I feared looking like a fool in front of those tough, dangerous gang members. I was worried about my image and my reputation. I imagine it is a fear shared by many others in church leadership even when they're not surrounded by a street gang. I found the courage to overcome my fear only when I was overwhelmed by the presence of Jesus and his love for these hurting, broken young people.

Since then I've been on a journey of self-forgetfulness. I'm learning to accept that being a pastor means being a fool. I'm learning to trust Jesus more and abandon my desire to be seen by others in a certain way. And I'm learning that the best ministry doesn't happen because I've devised a great plan or calculated an outcome. The best ministry happens when in my fear I pray, "Jesus, what do you want me to do here?"

Paco Amador is a pastor at New Life Little Village in Chicago, Illinois.