Two sets of brothers—Elias and Saul Juarez and Ruben and Oscar Sanchez—said they just wanted to minister to gang members and help the men they worked with leave this lifestyle behind. But they blame an anti-gang lawsuit in their home in Elgin, Illinois, for holding up their work for nearly a decade.
Last week, an Illinois appellate court rejected the brothers’ claims that the state had infringed on their religious freedom rights while enforcing the Illinois Streetgang Terrorism Omnibus Prevention Act (STOPA).
The case began back in 2010, when the city of Elgin sued more than 80 alleged members of the Latin Kings, trying to undermine the gang with a measure that authorized police officers to detain and search any gathering of two or more gang members.
Among the targets of the lawusit were Elias Juarez, Ruben Sanchez, and Oscar Sanchez—ex-members of the Latin Kings—as well as Saul Juarez, who was never in a gang. According to their attorney, the suit impeded their ministry by preventing them from organizing events like an anti-gang parade and outreach to warn young people about gangs.
The Juarez and Sanchez brothers argued they were also barred from sharing their faith with existing gang members without fears of being arrested. They claimed that the lawsuit violated the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act by restricting their ability to evangelize.
But the court last Monday concluded otherwise: “The lawsuit here did not constitute a substantial burden on defendants' religious exercise. … Defendants were still able to communicate their faith to Latin Kings gang members after the complaint was filed in this case.”
Oscar Sanchez claimed that the lawsuit had prevented him from conducting outreach to Latin Kings in different cities or counties and that it hampered communication with current gang members, even through Facebook.
“However, he conceded that no one told him that he could not do so and that he merely considered it an inconvenience,” according to the recent decision. (Elias Juarez, another brother, told the court that he had texted gang members, without expressing concerns that the suit impeded his communication.)
The law firm representing the brothers told CT that despite last week’s decision, the legal battle will continue as they seek damages and repayment of legal fees over alleged civil rights violations.
Corey Brooks, pastor of New Beginnings Church of Chicago, criticized STOPA as a violation of “first amendment rights and freedom of religion” and “counterproductive” to the aims of curbing gang violence. “If gang members cannot associate in public, they will create innovative private and underground networks, which can cause greater difficulty in detecting true gang activity,” he told CT.
In addition to the legal complications they faced, Elias Juarez and Oscar Sanchez suffered physical consequences for leaving gang life to proclaim Christ. Though they were assaulted by fellow gang members, they said they have no regrets about their decision.
“I testify that we are all changed men by the power of God and that we are not the same men from a few years back,” Elias Juarez said in a statement last year. “Our lives are a living testimony to those who are in the same place we were in at one point in our past.”
Others who have been involved in gangs or gang ministry can relate to the frustrations, motivations, and risks around the brothers’ efforts to connect with current members of the Latin Kings. CT asked: For the safety of former gang members and their communities, should anti-gang measures apply to evangelism efforts? Besides legal restrictions, what other considerations come into play for former gang members who wish to spread the gospel?
Dimas Salaberrios, author of Street God: The Explosive True Story of a Former Drug Boss on the Run from the Hood—and the Courageous Mission That Drove Him Back:
We cannot assume that any time an ex-gang member is conversing with a person in a gang that something nefarious is about to happen. In urban environments, many will be open to sanctions on gang activity because of contact with neighbors, childhood friends, and loved ones who need help.
The most credible sources to helping people out of gangs are ex-gang members. I hope the discussion will bring the adjustments to be sensitive to those with right motives and safeguard from those with no credible tract record of change.
Kyle Howard, a biblical counselor who was involved in a gang prior to his conversion:
For gang members, their set is like their blood family. When a gang member becomes a Christian, the burden for them to see their family come to Christ can be intense and, like Paul, it may compel them to enter into dangerous situations for the sake of winning souls to Christ.
In most gangs, the only options for leaving require one to undergo life-threatening violence. Christians who enter back into gang-affiliated spaces are often risking their lives for the sake of the gospel, but they are not doing anything new; they are following the example of Christ and his apostles.
Corey Brooks, pastor and CEO of ProjectHOOD:
I believe former gang members should be permitted to contact current gang members concerning evangelism. Throughout biblical history God often used people who grew up and had experiences in the same environment where they were called to evangelize. … As with any worthwhile endeavor, there will be risks involved such as the possibility of re-entering their former lifestyle, however, Christians can’t be afraid of the devil taking people more than Christ keeping people.
I would advise former gang members reaching out to current gang members to keep in constant contact with people who provide them accountability and correction as needed. As well, accountability partners should be kept well informed of their evangelistic outreach activities.
Naomi McSwain, executive director at the Al Wooten Jr. Youth Center:
I was a gang member in the 1970s in Los Angeles. I became a Christian at age 16 and encouraged my best friend to also accept Christ and leave our gang. My mom had sent me to church saying they were the only ones who could help me. She also enrolled me in a youth center. My counselors were ex-gang members who had graduated college. They encouraged me to attend night school to make up credits. They helped me complete applications for the university where I ultimately obtained a BA in journalism.
Today … I am doing what my counselors once did, directing youth, including gang members, to new lives. I could not help my friend or our current students if I could not talk to them.
Casey Diaz, author ofThe Shot Caller: A Latino Gangbanger’s Miraculous Escape from a Life of Violence to a New Life in Christ
I think every situation is different and there are many elements that need to get looked at, but I agree that the State of Illinois is violating a religious freedom right if indeed these are the facts. The article states that of the four, only one was not a gang member and that it was this gentleman that brought the other three former gang members into faith. If this is authentic then I don't see why officials would want to stop these guys from bringing the gospel to the rest.
Having said that, when I was stepping out of my gang and did parole, I mentioned it to no one. I moved far away from what was familiar territory to me. I did this because it was important for me to grow and mature in faith. The temptation of backsliding would have been too easy for me to fall back into a life of crime. I personally would not immediately recommend any former gang member on the streets to seek his or her past gang members in order to win them to Christ right away.
I waited over 15 years before I started to witness to those that were close to me in my past lifestyle and the time that went by was a witness to those that I tried to reach as evidence of my changed life. I was successful in bringing several heavy hitters (gang leaders/shot callers) to Christ. There is a greater physical and spiritual risk when one has just come to Christ and attempts to feel overconfident. We must remember that it is not us that have the power to change someone—or ourselves for that matter. It is the unique working of the Holy Spirit.