The van with the Youth for Christ USA emblem on the door rolls to a stop at a traffic light on the northwest side of Chicago. This is familiar terrain for Joey “Baby Bandito” Vega of the Insane Dragons, who is riding in the front passenger seat and giving directions to the volunteer driver.

For over an hour, as dusk settles into night, the van winds through streets that tourists and suburbanites see only if they are lost. The van stops several times for Joey to run up to a door or into a building, and return with a new companion.

At the same time, three other vehicles crisscrossed the city’s west, south, and southwest sides picking up a total of 21 passengers. The common destination was an unusual meeting of youth gang leaders from around the city, a monthly summit that YFC staffer Gordon McLean calls his “Little UN” (since each gang designates itself a “nation”).

“One more stop,” says Joey.

“Who is it?” asks Gilberto “Bam Bam” Flores of the Latin Lovers.

Joey gives a name. “You know him? He’s LK [Latin King]. You probably shot at him sometime.”

“Maybe,” replies Bam Bam. “If he live on this street, I know we be havin’ it out.”

McLean had explained earlier: “We plan our pickup routes very carefully, because we don’t want some of the guys to know where some of the others live.”

The van does a lot of backtracking before everyone is aboard and heading for McLean’s apartment. The eight-story building lies just a few blocks beyond the official Chicago city boundary. More important, it falls outside any territories claimed by a gang.

The police department says you can find more than 125 different youth gangs in Chicago. McLean and his colleagues with YFC’S Youth Guidance Division know right where to look. Primarily an institutional ministry working with young people in juvenile homes and prisons, YFC’S Chicago Youth Guidance program is currently working with kids from 23 of the city’s gangs. “If you’re going to follow up with these kids when they go back on the streets, you’re going to have to know who their friends are. So that’s how we’ve come to work with the gangs,” explained McLean.

Every gang in the city of Chicago, large or small (and they range in size from 10 to over 4,000), is allied with one of two factions—“the People” or “the Folks.” Violent conflict between the factions results in 60 to 80 known deaths a year. And there are countless lesser acts of violence.

At McLean’s apartment, there are greetings all around the crowded living room. Not everyone shakes hands. But there is no real feeling of tension. The air is relaxed and comfortable. The laughter and loud conversation (much of it gossip from the streets) drowns out the sound of the ball game on the TV in the corner. This is obviously neutral turf.

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The first order of business at every meeting is food. So as soon as everyone has arrived, the apartment empties again and the crowd piles back into cars for the drive to a nearby Western Sizzler steak house.

The long line of gang guys filing into the busy restaurant draws many curious stares from other diners. But the management is expecting the group. A blessing is given and the procession to the giant salad bar begins.

One of the first times the group came to this restaurant the manager came to the table to greet them. “Is this a basketball team?” he asked.

The guys grinned. “No.”

A football team?


Before he could guess again, one of the guys spoke up and said, “I don’t think you really want to know.”

An hour later the group is seated, on couches and on the floor of the apartment living room. Introductions are made for the benefit of visitors and newcomers. Everyone gives his name and street name along with his gang affiliation. There are more than 20 in all.

“Julios Cerrano, ‘Capone’—Latin Kings.”

“James ‘sweet Pea’ Davis—Unknown Vice Lords.”

“ ‘Little Fly,’ Hector Lara—Two Six.” “Johnny LeSain—Egyptian King Cobras—‘Nutty.’ ”

“ ‘Little Benito’ Moreno—Satan’s Disciples.”

When introductions are completed, McLean calls on a special guest, a young man he recently led to Christ in the Cook County Jail. Steve B. had been accused of murder and held for six months without bail before a judge finally heard the testimony of Steve’s boss. He said Steve was working for him at the time of the murder. All charges against Steve were dropped and he was finally released.

Everyone in the room listens respectfully as Steve recounts his story. He talks about what God has done in his life and what he now plans for the future.

When Steve finishes, Gordon McLean steps to the front and takes charge of the meeting. While the two other Youth Guidance staffers appear at home on the city streets, McLean looks as if he’s been miscast. A veteran of more than 30 years of youth ministry, he is white, in his fifties, and almost always wears a coat and tie. He looks more like a pillar of the establishment than a street worker. He gives a brief, straightforward talk about the difficulties of Christian discipleship.

Then it’s prayer time. And the prayer requests are a little different from those you hear in the average Wednesday night church prayer meeting: “Pray for my boy Spooky. He’s locked up.”

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“Pray that when I get back in school I’ll stay there.”

“Pray for the tension in my area between the Villa Lobos and the Latin Kings.”

When all the requests are made, Gordon asks his young colleague Gerald Long to pray, and everyone in the room reverently bows his head. Gerald’s “Amen” signals the end of the official meeting.

Will it make any difference? This kind of youth ministry demands a lot of patience.

“One day on the street I asked one of my young friends how he was doing spiritually,” McLean recalls. “He said, ‘I’m doing better. I’m trying to cut down on shooting people.’ ”

There are successes. Some kids have broken free from the influence of the streets to live productive lives in Christian ministry. And the Villa Lobos and the Two Six have been bitter, violent rivals for years. But “since they’ve both been represented at our meetings there hasn’t been a shooting incident between them in over a year and a half,” reported McLean.

He considers Proverbs 16:7 his personal theme verse for the Little UN meetings: “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him” (NIV).

It’s happening even now in the lobby of the apartment building, where everyone gathers for the ritual group photos taken after every meeting.

“First let’s have all the ‘People’ in here.” The camera shutter snaps.

“Now the ‘Folks.’ ”

“You mean the ‘Flakes’!” There is laughter, and the camera snaps again.

“Okay. Now everyone together!”

By Gregg Lewis, senior editor of PARTNERSHIP and editor-at-large of CAMPUS LIFE.

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