When the musical West Side Story made its way to the silver screen in 1961, the Academy Award—winning film offered American moviegoers glimpses into the plight of impoverished urban teenagers. Many viewers saw the shocking reality of youth gang violence for the first time.
Yet, nearly three decades later—amid the squalor of America’s inner cities and an explosion of new and more sophisticated gang brutality—the sweet-spirited West Side Story seems like an ode to better days. As we enter the final decade of the twentieth century, we are living in a nation that from all appearances seems to be coming apart at its urban seams.
Witness these recent headlines:
• “Dead Zones: Whole sections of urban America are being written off as anarchic badlands, places where cops fear to go and acknowledge: ‘This is Beirut, U.S.A.’ ”
—U.S. News & World Report
• “L.A. 1989 Gang Violence Death Rate Grows to 2 per Day in Wake of New Surge of Drive-by Shootings.”
—Los Angeles Times
• “Menace in Fort Wayne, Indiana: Big city L.A. gangs fuel crack crisis.”
An Orwellian Urban Nightmare
Across the nation, images of inner-city violence give the impression of cities under siege, of an Orwellian nightmare in which gangs of urban terrorists freely roam the streets.
Thirty-four-year-old Tone (pronounced Tony) Head, a member of the Chicago- and Los Angeles-based Crips gang for 25 years before coming to Christ, puts it like this: “The environment we live in is a murderous, dope-selling environment. I was hard as a rock. I didn’t care about my own life, let alone about anybody else.” Glimpses from TV news and print media suggest an urban America that has become a giant, roiling cauldron of social chaos.
How close to reality are these impressions? A growing number of urban church and parachurch leaders fear that such mass-media images may not even tell the half of it. And they are reaching the conclusion that communicating the gospel face to face on gang turf—whatever the risks—is the only response that will bring lasting change.
“The code of the street is to kill or be killed,” says John Perkins, founder of the Foundation for Reconciliation and Development in northwest Pasadena, California, and one of evangelicalism’s acknowledged deans of urban ministry. “I think we’re seeing the first signs of a bomb that’s ready to blow. We’re seeing a whole generation of young people reacting to two decades of neglect, poverty, and the scourge of the dysfunctional family. The only values they aspire to are survival, power, and greed,” adds Perkins, who rose to prominence in the Christian community with his innovative ministry with Mississippi’s rural poor in the 1960s and ’70s.
Asserts Steve Russo, a Southern California-based international youth evangelist who has counseled hundreds of incarcerated gang members in big-city juvenile halls: “We’re talking about kids who no longer have hope. They believe the world has conspired against them, and in a lot of ways it has. They believe the only thing left for them is to strike back at society.”
And strike they do. While reliable national statistics are rare on gang-related deaths, there is little doubt the carnage is escalating. And the stakes now are far higher.
A New Urban Mafia
No longer are chains and knives the weapons of choice among gangs today. They have been replaced by sawed-off shotguns, AK-47 assault rifles, Uzi submachine guns, and a black-market trade in “Saturday Night Specials”—small, easy-to-conceal handguns. Due to the gangs’ increasing firepower, federal law-enforcement officials have tabbed at least a dozen major U.S. cities as having “combatlike conditions.”
And while gangs still run along racial, ethnic, and geographical lines as they have for decades, there are now more sinister factors fueling their growth.
The most obvious of these is drugs. It is more apparent than ever that gang activity and drugs are two sides of the same blade cutting a frightening swath across urban America. From marijuana “reefer madness” in the 1940s to heroin addiction on the streets of Brooklyn in the 1950s to LSD and PCP today, drugs have always played a role in the social phenomenon of gangs.
But in the last four years, one drug in particular has fueled the gang explosion: crack cocaine. L.A.’s two biggest black gangs—the Bloods and the Crips—forced their way into the U.S. networks of the Colombian cocaine cartels in the early 1980s, and by 1985 introduced this cheaper, smokable form of cocaine. Whereas cocaine had always been a rich man’s drug, crack was a marketer’s dream—a “consumer” drug that could be sold for $5 to $10 a “hit.” Crack increased drug profits for inner-city gangs perhaps as much as tenfold, leading gangs to trade their orientation as turf-oriented toughs for one resembling a vicious urban mafia.
And no longer are the Bloods and Crips content to stay within America’s largest cities. According to police, they are reaching their tentacles into increasingly smaller cities across the nation’s heartland, including Denver, Albuquerque, Minneapolis, Tulsa, Des Moines—even towns such as Ogden, Utah; Elkhorn, Nebraska; and Buckeye, Arizona. There they recruit disenchanted youth to form “chapters” and run crack houses.
More Than A Social Gospel
In the midst of the escalating violence, can the church reach gang members for Christ and stem the tide of death and destruction?
A number of national and local urban church leaders say “yes.” But they argue that the answer lies not in a flood of church-sponsored social programs for the inner city, as has been the practice of socially active churches during the 1970s and ’80s. Instead, their solution is little different from that offered nearly three decades ago when a young, naïve suburban pastor, David Wilkerson, landed in New York’s worst gang neighborhoods and led a hard-core Puerto Rican named Nicky Cruz to Christ (see “Cruz, Wilkerson, Return to Old ‘Turf,’ ” p. 18). The growing consensus on the strategy for the nineties is evangelism—simply preaching the gospel.
“No matter how you dress it up and talk about the social problems and the breakdown of the family, the primary issue in gang ministry today—just as it was in the 1950s and ’60s—is spiritual warfare,” says Sonny Arguinzoni, who as a teenage heroin addict and New York gang member was one of Wilkerson’s early converts. Arguinzoni now heads Victory Outreach, an international, church-based urban ministry with sister churches in 16 states and nine countries.
“Despite the crack dealing, the money, the fancy cars, these are young people who are dying,” says Arguinzoni. “They all know it’s going to end someday. They’re playing this dangerous game of ‘Who’s gonna blink first?’ and no one wants to be the first. They’re scared and they want out, and they don’t know how to get out. It’s our job to tell them.”
Former Crip Tone Head says this of his earlier toughness: “That was me on the outside. The me inside was afraid all the time. I didn’t want to go back to prison. I didn’t want to die. That’s when I heard about Victory Outreach. The love they had just melted me down. But the most important thing is they didn’t let me off the hook. They told me how it was with God. I had to decide between Jesus and the Crips. I decided on Jesus.”
For all their apparent malevolence and lack of conscience, it would seem gang members are particularly open when it comes to religion.
“It’s been said there are only two ways out of a gang—either to be killed in the loyal defense of your gang, or to be ‘jumped out’ [a brutal beating that often leaves a gang member crippled or near dead],” explains Daniel Becerill, director of Young Life’s junior-high and high-school programs with Hispanic gangs in Carson, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.
“But we have found that there is a third way out, and that is a sincere experience with Jesus Christ. Because these young people come from cultures that still have deep religious convictions, and because they so desperately want out of the gangs, for some reason Christ has become neutral turf. If you accept Christ and mean it, you’re out of the gang. But just don’t let them catch you backsliding, or you’re dead,” adds Becerill, who regularly sees as many as eight gangs represented among the participants in his weekly Young Life club meetings.
Even Perkins, who has been among the staunchest advocates of social activism in inner-city ministry, sees the need for more direct evangelism: “In our zeal we’ve left out the most important part. We have to become proclaimers of the gospel once again—proclaimers that Christ is the only hope.”
Kenneth Ulmer, whose Faithful Central Baptist Church is located at a south central Los Angeles street corner between rival Blood and Crip turf, has conducted funerals for gang members killed in drive-by shootings. He agrees with Perkins about the need for a more direct spiritual showdown.
“One of the most powerful ways to reach these kids is through a gang funeral. We’re able to confront them with the fact that they’re going to die, and then offer them a chance to live through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” says Ulmer. “Ultimately, these are all spiritual problems and we have to present spiritual solutions. We’ve been putting social bandages on spiritual cancers for too many years.
“For the last decade, the church has tried to minister incognito. What’s called for now is to pull the cover off the gospel. We’ve been espousing a powerful gospel, but in our timidity denying its power. Either God has the power to change lives, or he doesn’t. Why play games?”
Says Russo: “We have been anemic as a church in dealing with today’s young people. We’ve been afraid to call them to radical faith in Christ. And that’s what they’re looking for. We’ve got to get back to believing the reality of the Resurrection. If the Ayatollah Khomeini can recruit 20,000 teenagers to the cause of Islam in the Iran-Iraq war, we can go into the inner cities and call Bloods and Crips to a radical faith in Christ.”
The Gospel In Practical Terms
While the emerging focus of groups like Victory Outreach, Young Life, and other agencies starts with open declaration of God’s truths, these groups are also working to be more imaginative in demonstrating the gospel in practical ways.
For instance, in addition to sending out “strike-force” witnessing teams to some of the area’s most notorious gang hangouts, Victory Outreach’s downtown Los Angeles congregation supports a wide range of other programs. These include men’s and women’s rehabilitation shelters, which house as many as 32 recovering drug addicts, former gang members, or ex-offenders attempting to re-enter society. Victory Outreach also sponsors a commissary for food and clothing distribution to an estimated 500 poor families each week; telephone crisis counseling (the church takes an average of 50 emergency calls a day); and creative-arts expression, including sponsorship of an evangelistic drama, 7th and Broadway, performed on sites around the city, with a cast made up of ex-addicts, gang members, and others, portraying their own lives prior to finding Christ (see “Showdown at 7th and Broadway,” p. 20).
According to Robert Alvarado, pastor of Victory Outreach and himself a former gang member and drug addict, the church has provided ministry services to an estimated 25,000 people in the last five years on an annual budget of less than $140,000. “Our goal is to take Christ to the gangs. Many have heard about Christ all their lives, but they’ve never experienced him incarnated in their lives,” says Alvarado.
Arguinzoni, who founded Victory Outreach in a storefront Southern California church in 1967, says Alvarado’s accomplishments in Los Angeles are typical of what is happening in Victory Outreach sites in dozens of major cities across the U.S.
But there are other examples:
Across the Chicago area, where 125 separate black and Hispanic gangs rule the streets, Youth for Christ’s Gordon McLean has penetrated dozens of the gangs with an innovative monthly “gang summit” program. After making initial contact with gang members in correctional institutions, McLean follows up with visits after their release. The more responsive are picked up in Youth for Christ vans and dropped off at McLean’s apartment—located in neutral territory—for straight talk about the consequences of “gangbanging” (brutal fighting) and frequent testimonies from converted gang members. McLean says the program has resulted in many gang members receiving Christ, and in a reduction of hostilities between participating gangs.
In Atlanta, Family Consultation Services (FCS), established by Vietnam veteran and former Youth for Christ staff member Bob Lupton, works in the gang-infested Grant Park community. Lupton and his family and FCS staff live in the community, where they have purchased or rented condemned houses and renovated them, providing an incentive to other neighbors to do likewise. FCS has also set up discount grocery and hardware stores, putting hard-to-employ gang members and high-school dropouts to work; and purchased a former chain-gang prison—the old Atlanta Stockade—for renovation as a transitional living shelter.
Young Life’s approach to gang ministry in the Los Angeles area, according to Larry Anderson, director for the Southern California region, is to recognize existing inner-city minority leaders and support them in running the Young Life program in partnership with local churches. It is a strategy based, he says, on a model that has worked in many major cities across the U.S. since the 50-year-old organization began an urban focus on New York’s lower east side in the early 1960s.
“People often associate Young Life and other campus-oriented programs with suburbia,” Anderson explains. “But I knew when I came to Los Angeles that one of our major emphases had to be on outreach to the inner city.”
Anderson had a minority-leadership model in mind when he recruited Daniel Becerill, a 47-year-old Hispanic layman in a local Pentecostal church, to head up the Carson-area Young Life program a year ago. In addition to holding weekly evangelistic Young Life club meetings—which have become a peaceful meeting ground for as many as eight rival gangs in one year’s time—Becerill has won the support of community and local school officials for a unique afterschool tutoring program.
During the last school year, the program enabled 35 gang members with previously failing grades to graduate. Becerill also went door-to-door in the community’s business district and convinced shop owners to give the students summer jobs as a reward for passing their classes. The graduates, many of whom came from the neighborhood and later voluntarily disbanded their gang, are serving as tutors this school year for a new group of troubled students. Other schools in the area have asked Becerill to replicate his program for them.
“Brother Dan stands up for kids,” says Anderson. “He goes to court with them. He breaks up their fights. He holds them when they cry. But he also carries a big Bible wherever he goes, and he’s not afraid to tell them that they need Christ.”
“I think we’ve ‘overstrategized’ the whole area of inner-city ministry,” Anderson adds. “In a city where a Crip or a Blood has the power to call a press conference, I think what we really need is a deeper sense of the leading of God’s Spirit. We need to be able to offer them something really powerful. Clearly the answer is to lift up Christ.”
Beyond Remote-Control Ministry
Most urban church leaders agree that gang outreach cannot be done with a checkbook—or by remote control from the suburbs.
“If you give me a choice between the financial support of wealthy suburban churches, or the manpower, I’d take the manpower every time,” says Perkins, whose Harambee Christian Center in northwest Pasadena serves varied functions, such as day care for the latch-key kids of poor working mothers to informal detoxification space.
“If a suburban church wants to get involved, they can’t come in and drop a set of plans on us. They have to be willing to stick around for a while. Clean a few floors. Make a few friends. The only way we are going to reverse the damage in the inner city is to make these neighborhoods our own—live here, if possible, and be salt and light daily,” Perkins argues.
Atlanta’s Lupton agrees: “To the powerful, affluent church in this country, entering into relationships with people who have none of its values can be very intimidating. The typical response I hear when suburban Christians want to serve here is that maybe they can teach a course in how to budget, or how to have better hygiene.
“That reveals a blind spot. The blind spot is poverty—their own personal poverty, and the inability to see Christ where he usually was—among the poor and oppressed. But when you can invite suburban Christians into the inner city—not as teachers, but as servants—the message they hear, the discomfort they go away with, is the beginning of reconciliation.”
So where does all this leave predominantly white suburban churches looking for urban ministry opportunities, but for whom the urban war zone—with all its complex social dilemmas—seems so threatening?
Former Crip Tone Head has some advice: “Come ahead. If you come to us, we’re going to think you are one of two things—a cop, or a crazy white Christian wanting to do some good. We’ll be able to rule out cop right away, and if you’re crazy enough to come down here, we’re going to know you must have something really important to say.”
Showdown at 7th and Broadway
The lights go up on a trash-strewn, inner-city street corner. In moments, it will become a scene of destruction and death as rival gang members face a bloody showdown. Many will be left bruised and wounded. And one will be left dead, his last glimpse of life the grim-faced, tattooed “homeboy” in dark glasses with a .38-caliber revolver in his hand.
This is 7th and Broadway, a production named after a real corner in downtown Los Angeles where gangs have waged war for years. But this time, the blood is stage blood and the guns fire blanks. And instead of retreating to hangouts to smoke crack and boast of victories, these “gang members” will come back on stage to offer an audience of gang members a one-way ticket out of the urban jungle—in the form of a relationship with Christ.
7th and Broadway was conceived more than a year ago as an evangelistic tool by Robert Alvarado—himself a former gang member, drug addict, and ex-prison inmate who now pastors the Victory Outreach Church in downtown Los Angeles. The church is part of an international organization with more than 100 congregations, founded in 1967 by ex-gang member Sonny Arguinzoni.
Cast members, in the roles of “gang-bangers” (fighters), hustlers, drug dealers, and prostitutes, portray their lives prior to conversion to Christ. For most, it is more the “art of remembering” than acting. Says 37-year-old Louis Rubalcava, “We’re not trying to convince the audience we’re professional actors. We’re going back and going through the garbage of our lives before we found Christ. We’re showing the audience we can relate to where they are, and that there really is an escape.”
7th and Broadway is only the most recent example of community-based drama that Victory Outreach churches have used in inner-city evangelism. The San Jose, California, Victory Outreach congregation, for example, sponsored the production of a gang-theme play, The Dukes of Earl II. Recently the drama was presented at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Alvarado says, to an audience of 4,500—made up mostly of gang members. After the performance, nearly 700 street toughs publicly committed their lives to Christ.
By Brian Bird.
Cruz, Wilkerson, Return to Old “Turf”
Few American Christians will forget the book and 1972 film The Cross and the Switchblade, which told the story of a young Assemblies of God preacher, David Wilkerson, who risked his life in the late fifties to reach Puerto Rican gangs in New York City and led gang leader Nicky Cruz to Christ.
Whatever became of the two central characters?
“That Nicky Cruz I buried 31 years ago,” says Cruz today from his headquarters in Colorado Springs. “I was full of bitterness and evil when Brother David told me that Jesus loved me. I was born all over again into a completely new creature.”
In the years immediately following his conversion, Cruz maintained close ties with Wilkerson and went on to direct the burgeoning Teen Challenge ministry in New York, reaching out to his former “Mau Maus” and other inner-city gangs. After three years, Cruz stepped out on his own, forming Outreach for Youth Ministries (later called Nicky Cruz Outreach) in order to take advantage of the evangelistic speaking invitations he was receiving from all over the world.
The opportunities to do crusades overseas led Cruz to distance himself from his earlier identity as “primarily a gang evangelist.” But the recent explosion in gang violence has given him second thoughts about that emphasis.
“My daughters sat me down this year and put it to me. They said, ‘Daddy, you need to do something about this gang situation.’ So I prayed about it, and I believe God is directing me to renew my commitment to reaching the gangs,” Cruz says. “I’m going to join with other ministries and begin recruiting thousands of American Christians who are willing to go to the inner cities and take them over for Christ. We’re going to go in armed with nothing but the gospel. We have to surprise and saturate the streets with the gospel like David Wilkerson surprised me with the gospel.”
As for Wilkerson, his leadership helped the Teen Challenge movement—with its focus on the healing and treatment of life-controlling problems such as drug addiction—grow from its original Brooklyn center to more than 200 centers worldwide by the late sixties. Wilkerson then turned over leadership of the organization to the Assemblies of God, and established World Challenge in Lindale, Texas, to serve as base of operations for his own international crusade, book, and television ministry.
But much as Cruz has gradually been drawn back to the streets, Wilkerson felt compelled in 1987 to found Times Square Church, a church Wilkerson’s executive assistant Barbara Mackery says is right in the heart of crack alley.”
“He was here in New York for some street meetings in 1986 and just became overwhelmed with the human decay. At that moment God spoke to him and said, ‘Don’t pray for someone else to have the burden, you do it.’ ”
The congregation of 2,000, which now meets in New York’s famed Mark Hellinger Theatre, includes Wall Street brokers, the homeless, and AIDS sufferers. “The kids sometimes have to walk over crack vials to get to Sunday school,” Mackery says, “but God is doing miracles here”—miracles like an earlier one, when a naïve, fresh-scrubbed pastor showed up on New York streets, preaching salvation to a vicious, hellbound gang member.
By Brian Bird.
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