(Second of two parts) A Southern city has a growing gang problem involving children as young as 9.
Chattanooga is a prosperous town along a winding Tennessee River that flows around a scenic mountain upon which a great battle was fought in the second American war for independence. Lookout Mountain in late afternoon casts its shadow across many government-run housing projects and blue-collar neighborhoods. In these, young men find their identity and pathways for life among gangs.
The Bloods hold forth in South Chattanooga. The Crips occupy East Chattanooga. Gangster Disciples politely decline to limit themselves to a given district (Comprehensive Gang Assessment, submitted to Chattanooga city government Sept. 13, p. 31). Eight in 10 gang members are black. Mostly they are male. In a four-year period through 2011 1,883 purported gang members were involved in 654 incidents in Hamilton County. Forty gangs operate in the city limits (pp. 27, 31).
A primary cause of gang involvement is broken family life and careless parenting, says a report by Ochs Center of Metropolitan Studies and UTC. It regards Christianity, through the church, as a potential public resource in an effort to reduce the sway of gangs.
Church — just another neighborhood club?
According to scriptures, God has confided His oracles to the ministry of the church, to the power of the pulpit from which is faithfully preached the Word, God’s written self-revelation to man. Does the Chattanooga comprehensive gang assessment, a 162-page book, view the church in these terms?
The academicians would have readers believe the church is of negligible consequence: “Overall, churches are working hard to change neighborhoods, yet conditions on the ground in some neighborhoods suggest that these efforts are not moving the needle.” Ministers of the gospel, ridiculously, “sometimes compete with one another for funding and publicity. This behavior does not promote an efficient allocation of resources to programs that are evidence-based; it also leads to programs that die of after the initial funding ends, furthering frustration in affected communities” (pp. 122, 123).
The church has been entrusted from the time of the Apostles to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19, 20). Its work is to use the propositions of the gospel to win ultimately every nation to Christ, one soul at a time.
But sociologists consider it just another social agency, like a neighborhood association, youth club or police department. Their view shares with that of Erastianism, espoused by King Henry VIII and the Soviet Union, the view that the church is a mere department of state. Residents in gang-saturated areas share this low view of the church, whose call is to discipleship, repentance and sweet conquest by the suasive power of the Lamb of God. In surveys, people suggest ministers refocus their labors from preaching to “a more activist role *** reaching kids on the street” rather than “the traditional role of leading the flock.”
Replacing preaching with civic activism
How do gang members view the black church? “Some gang members stated that church appeals to salvation are not strong motivators for youth. Church leaders could play a much stronger role in the streets as mediators, facilitators and violence interrupters.” The report discusses the white church as disconnected from the gang problem, but suggests wealthier white churches help their black fellows with money and volunteers.
The report suggests gospel ministers shift some attention to social work, joining groups and police in having relationships with gang members and building neighborhood groups.
The critiques of black church leaders suggest that leaders could be more engaged in the community outside the walls of the church building. Church leaders could facilitate locally-based action to reclaim neighborhoods. They are well-suited to building neighborhood coalitions that are action oriented. Passive residents admonished city leaders to “do something.” Churches could be the agents who make something happen rather than relying solely on the police, elected officials or outside organizations.
Engaged church leaders could also play a valuable role in educating the business and nonprofit community on community conditions. They have relationships with gang members and could arrange interviews between gang members and community leaders. Public, business, and nonprofit leaders are all aware of the statistics in gang-entrenched communities, but one-on-one dialogue with gang members might provide needed context for understanding the roots of the gang problem. (p. 123)
Churches are involved in “community outreach and mentoring through a variety of programs” (p. 134). The report suggests ministers are ideal for arranging interview sessions with gang members to build human relationships.
Students are generally more enlightened as to the work of the gospel ministry. Students are quoted as suggesting church people should “talk to gangs about Christianity” so members could come to “know God,” in which case the church would “spread the love [instead of] the hate” in Bible classes, prayer and other “church activities” (p. 73).
Secularized salvation sought in community spirit
The report alludes to a growing sense of alienation in American culture.
Trust in traditional institutions, from the church to Congress, continues to wane. Distrust is fueled by media saturation and increased knowledge of the perceived failures of public and private sector leaders. It is also fueled by the failure of well-intentioned programs to truly uplift struggling communities and young men. Those failures are reinforced by high incarceration rates, especially for African American males. (pp. 5, 6)
It proposes, instead, “prosociality,” which envisions a turning away from a sense of alienation and a turning toward feelings of belonging, participation, mutuality, friendship and care of others. This vision is approximate to the equity, mercy, charity and just laws envisioned in holy writ. The mutuality inherent in Christianity is ignored as a spiritual ground for “prosociality,” but the report alludes to what suggests itself as the fruit of gospel truth lived out with noble hearts. And it seems to desire it.
“If we are going to build neighborhoods of successful young people, it will pay to promote prosociality. But for prosociality to succeed, we need to be sure that our neighborhoods are highly nurturing and minimize stress and conflict,” the authors say, citing the Promise Neighborhoods Research Consortium (p. 5). A “community-wide strategy” is needed to eventually overcome the gang problem, the study says.
How an unearthly authority might intervene in gang problem
The church represents a divine jurisdiction and has a divine calling. Left to itself, mankind would not have invented the church or devised the Bible. That library of 66 books is full of the majesty and power of God; it gives man no role in saving himself and pleasing a holy and perfect God who hates sin. In ordinary religion, man always is sovereign, and always saves himself by his will or his good deeds, whether in ritual, self-abasement or conquest.
In contrast, the scriptures declare an alien righteousness saves sinners, a propitiatory sacrifice by the Son of God in favor of the rebel and the enemy, the autonomous one who claims captaincy of his soul but who finally yields that helm to his maker. Sinners obtain this righteousness not by their works or their persons, but by unmerited favor of God, Christianity teaches.
The dogmas of the church are incomprehensible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. He moves through the society of man upon oracles of faithful pulpit ministry. Until God through the Spirit brings repentance of sin, no reformation — no “prosociality” — is possible.
Conflict, warfare, greed, competition for the dole, turf battles are the lot of man apart from in-breathed prosociality.
The Ochs Center study proposes a reconstruction of society based on data and goodwill, and state control is implied. Certainly good intentions can do much. Just look at the federal government’s New Deal and the Great Society to see how society can be transformed by the force of new laws and taxes. But the church brings forth the means to change men from the inside.
Insofar as the church is faithful to its calling in stewarding the Truth, it will be helpful to bring self-government to heads of households, and the young people who otherwise might end up in the grip of the Crips.
Police blotter image grabbed from WRCBtv’s website and its story, “Police Arrest Alleged Gang Members for Role in Brainerd Fire Bombing,” Oct. 5, 2009
Comprehensive Gang Assessment, Ochs Center of Metropolitan Studies and Center for Applied Social Research, UTC, submitted to Chattanooga city government, Sept. 13, 2012
Download the gang study to your computer drive.
(This text first appeared in Chattanoogan.com)