Grace wipes scar on gangster’s heart, could solve growing problem in city

Cory “Ace” Stafford, a former gang member, at 22 is convinced that the power of gangs can be broken by the sway of personal relationships among youths and Christian commoners.

By David Tulis

Cory “Ace” Stafford, 22, is a native of Sanford, Fla., and a former gang member. He has been in Chattanooga since 2009 and is a student at Tennessee Temple University, working toward a bachelor’s degree in youth ministry. His wife, Channetta, is a business student at the school. The couple lives in East Ridge.

Mr. Stafford is in demand among Christian organizations. He is youth director at Camp Joy. He is also Chattanooga director for Above and Beyond, a youth ministry with branches in Washington D.C., Chattanooga and Florida. Mr. Stafford is giving fully of himself and “shares God with the kids in a very sincere way,” the Rev. Ken Mahan of Above and Beyond says.

Mr. Stafford is also in demand among gang members from Chattanooga and Florida, and often meets with them.

Mr. Stafford granted an interview in the library of the conservative Baptist university after attending a worldview class.

David Tulis: Tell us something of the worldview class you just came from. What is the idea of a Christian worldview class? What do you get from it?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: The idea of a Christian worldview class is pretty much to expose the things in the world that we Christians have to perceive and discern, and how to take true biblical principles and apply them to our lives, that affect how we see the world, and how we play a role in it. It’s been amazing. Because it challenges us in so many ways to rethink the way that we’re living, and the way we’re representing the Lord Jesus Christ from day to day. It’s just amazing. It shows us the flaws in the different types of systems that the enemy tries to use against us, and how they’re so effective and why they’re so effective in our world today.

Q: Can you be specific on one area, or one example, please?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: One area, for example, would be schooling and creationism. A majority of schools are really pushing [evolution] and how the world was created by the big bang theory cosmic explosion, cosmic jell. And pretty much what it’s doing is deteriorating the morals of the not just the nation, but the world because so many people are not accrediting God for His creation.

But they are coming under the presupposition that we “just happened.” And with us “just happening,” there’s absolutely no moral code. Every single person gets to make up what they think is true and everything is subjective; nothing is objective. [The class] is pretty intense. It shows us the way our view as a Christian combats — and should combat — the worldview of a secular person or, I would say, an atheist. For that is pretty much what they’re indoctrinated to be, atheists.

Q: In public school?

Evolution theory’s disregard for poor

Cory “Ace” Stafford: Yes, in public school and also at the university level, and so it’s pretty neat. It’s pretty neat how, you know — it’s always good whenever you go into a battle, it’s good to know what it is you’re going up against, so you can defend not only yourself but what you believe in. It exposes different realms of this belief that everything was “just an accident,” and how it is being taught in schools, and how we ought to study these things in order to show people the flaws that are in it. And so it’s been extremely impactful.

Q: What does the theory of evolution say about poor people, and disadvantaged people?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: In that case we would go to what Darwin teaches, and natural selection, survival of the fittest. Poor people are not capable of sustaining themselves, so they have no significance, or hold no type of significance in our society today. So, for a poor person, a lot of people look at it as that person — they’re just not smart enough, they’re not intellectual, they weren’t strong enough, they didn’t adapt to their environment. But, truth is that a lot of people that have mental instability, physical incapabilities that, you know, it doesn’t really boil down to the character of the person in most cases.

So it really, it’s really like we’re trying to advance, and if this person doesn’t keep up, he’s going to be left behind. And that’s the way they pretty much view poor people. They’ll just be left behind. *** The whole principle of the survival of the fittest just makes you more self-centered and less other-centered.

Q: Four out of five gang members are black. What do eugenics and evolution say about the black man? Have you studied that?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: No, not necessarily. No, I haven’t studied it.

Q: What might you suppose?

Personal affirmations from gang pals

Cory “Ace” Stafford: I would suppose, I know for me personally, with being involved in a gang, I was looking for security. I was looking for respect. I was looking for a place where I belonged. And outside of it it was so hard, going through life on my own without my father being around, and this and that, so instead of really fighting to be the best, it was fighting to find a family, or fighting to find others who I could confide in, who I could trust, that would help build me as a person.

You know the exact same attributes and characteristics that was in the church was what my heart desired. But I looked for those in the wrong places. I believe especially with the African American culture that that’s major, having someone there for you. When it comes down to your family not doing that for you, you try to find that in other people, and normally that’s where a lot of people find that in gangs, so they turn to gangs.

Q: How do gangs give that sort of affirmation?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: To begin with, it’s the initiation. Once you get initiated, they feel comfortable, as though you’re willing to do whatever to help their cause. You’re willing to do whatever to help the brotherhood. And once you do get initiated, the gang, they really lead you to believe that they will do anything that will better you as a person, whether it is bettering your pride, the amount of money that you have, maybe your core value or interest they want to help you better that. But they seek for you to better them, as well.

Q: What do they expect you to do to better them as a group?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: Anything necessary. Literally.

Q: Such as?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: Things such as steal, kill, lie, cheat. Anything.

Christianity’s alternative affirmation

Q: What does the church offer as a substitute for gang acceptance and affirmation? What does the church and Christianity propose instead?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: Christianity proposes true life. True love. True purpose. True fulfillment. True everything. Everything that an individual looks for in a gang, that’s what they find in the church. And it’s the actual truth.

For example, in gang life, you believe a person loves you if they are willing to do wrong with you. But in the church, a person loves you by keeping you from doing that wrong which would eventually hurt you. And that’s why I say they offer you true love. In a gang, they don’t try to turn you away from the wrong you are about to do, even when they understand that it is wrong.

But in the church, they turn you from that, and it’s truly for your benefit. It may not benefit them whatsoever. But it’s truly for your benefit. When it comes to truth, in the gang, they try to teach you how to be a man, but what they’re teaching you is to become a monster. But because everyone believes this, you think that it truly is what it takes to be a man. And the church, they instill truly biblical principles in you that make you become a man, that make you a true man. But the difference between the gang and the church are night and day [laughter].

Q: Can the church make a man a true, godly man, and if so, how is that man’s character different from the strong, earnest, fierce man of the gang? What is the difference between the two types?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: Well, let me rephrase that. The church doesn’t make the man. A man submitted to God makes a true man, but the character is that they’re not willing to lie, they’re not willing to steal, they’re not willing to go against the Word of God whatsoever for the sake of seeing that the next person receives salvation. But in the gang, they’re willing to do anything to find security for themselves. They’re willing to do anything in order to receive the props, the respect, the pride — anything for themselves. So, in a gang, you’re trying to rise to the top. In the church, in true Christianity, you’re trying to lift up another individual to the top, instead of yourself.

Role of God’s grace

Q: Say something about grace. What is grace? How does grace work? How might the doctrines of grace, which is God’s goodness to man, influence the person who is tempted to become a member of a gang, or who is a member of a gang? Talk about grace a little bit, and how you found it.

Cory “Ace” Stafford: In gang life, grace is nonexistent. In gang life, you have a strict set of rules that you abide by, and if you don’t, you receive the penalty for it, even up to the death penalty. Whenever a gang member receives grace, it’s as if you’re throwing them an unseen pitch, worse than a curveball, a slider, a split finger — all combined. And, initially, they’re caught off guard. But as you explain to them that you’re being forgiving, that you’re being merciful, that you’re caring for them because the Lord cared for you and wants you to the same — it rocks their world. Because it’s something that so foreign in gang life. The grace the Lord offers us is far beyond anything we could ever think or imagine. And once we hear, and once we know of this grace, it changes us internally when it is given to us according to the Truth.

Many, many gang members are presented with the gospel, and they get a distorted view of grace, and they see grace as if, “If I mess up, you have to forgive me,” so I mess up as much as I want to and you have to forgive me regardless. They never feel the weight of their sin, they never feel how destructive the things they’re doing not only affects them, but affects others. But once you give them the clear gospel message and why God had to give us grace, how it was nothing that we could work for, nothing that we could deserve, nothing that we could earn — man, it just radically changes us.

We understand the weight of the penalty, and we understand that God took that away in order that He could give us life, new life abundantly, and — man, there’s nothing like it! In fact, God gives us all these different promises and is willing to fulfill them, that we don’t deserve them whatsoever — man!

Source for good friendships? Church members

Q: What is the solution to the gang problem?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: The solution to the gang problem will be a radical revolution. Instead of avoiding the gang areas — going into the gang areas, finding out what their needs may be, finding out what their problems and situations are, and coming alongside of them to truly, truly show them that they’re loved, not only by you, but by God. If you go to a person and you have a ministry or a day’s worth of outreach and you tell them “God loves you” and then you walk away, they won’t believe God loves them, because you’re not there to love them yourself.

But when you’re there, and you’re caring, and you’re truly reaching out to that person, that opens up a door that you can share the gospel with them. And once they see the Christian life lived, they want to take part in it. They see it’s exactly what the gang claimed to be, exactly what it claimed to be, and it exposes the shades of gray and the darkness that is consumed by the gang. And the solution and the answer would be a radical revolution, going to the gang areas, and loving the hell out of them. That would be it.

Q: The city report suggests the black minister should give more time to civic work outside the walls of the church, and less time tending the flock. What do you make of that kind of suggestion? What should the church, the black church especially in areas where gangs are highly active — what should happen — what should the minister keep in mind as he does his job faithfully preaching the word and tending to the members of the church? Talk about that.

Cory “Ace” Stafford: In a congregation it is the minister’s responsibility to feed the flock, to teach, not to go and to wait tables.‡ Instead of everyone expecting the minister, the pastor, the teacher, the bishop, the deacons to be the ones to go out, the churches should unite and al, go out together. The body should, and invite them in. That way, the weight won’t be so much on the minister himself, but the people. And that would have the people open to where they would be able to come and hear the Word taught, and they will be cared for, and they will be able to join the community as well, the community of believers and actually get a glimpse of it from the inside instead of hearing about what’s going on on the inside, and nothing happening on the outside.

‘I would want someone to come and tell me’

Q: Is there some element the Christian faith that you suspect is being underemphasized or ignored in the church, in the churches that are in these neighborhoods?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: I will have to be careful about this one. I would not condemn any congregation. But I would urge them to remember the work of the Lord Jesus Christ at Calvary and the fact that it was for the whole world, and not just them individually, and that He calls us in Matthew 28 to go and preach the gospel to every nation, and to make disciples of them, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and to teach them everything that He taught us.

And I believe the ministers are doing a great job of teaching it. But teaching without doing isn’t really teaching at all. *** The main thing I would say we are lacking as a church body in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is loving others as ourselves. When I see myself, I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a condition where I am doomed to an eternity in hell. I would want someone to come and tell me. And just with that thought resonating on my mind, everytime I see a person it makes me want to do — they need to know, I would want to know, and if I would want to know, why wouldn’t I tell them?

This is honestly the beauty of the gospel. We love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul and love our neighbor as ourself. We see that person as ourself. Instead of seeing that person as a terrible and crooked individual, we see them as a person who is in need of the Lord just as we are. That’s what we’re missing out as a church.

For repentance, concept of God’s law required

Q: Can you say something about God’s law and repentance and how those two things affect the issue of violence and gangs?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: The Word makes it clear that all men have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And there’s a lot people in gangs who know they have done wrong, but they don’t understand why. And what I truly believe they need to be taught is the law of God, the Word of God, that they may know what they are doing is wrong, and what the wages for it is. Romans 6:23 says the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. We tell them about the wages for the wrong they are doing, and then share the gospel with them.

But God sent His one and only Son to take their place on the cross that you might have life eternal, not just life eternal, but a relationship with the mighty and holy and righteous God, and He wants that with you.

When we show them that by doing good things, they won’t be able to attain it. By doing wrong, they get their due reward, the penalty death. But, God shows his love for us that while we were yet sinners, his son Jesus Christ died for us, that we may be reconciled to Him. Share the gospel with them, that they may know there is a way back to the Father and they may know by his grace, that He gives us the power to do right in order to glorify Him.
Without that, they’re lost, they’re sinners, they’re going to hell — there’s no way around it. And if no one is telling them, how will they ever repent? The message of the gospel is believe and repent, believe and repent. Believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that He came to die to make atonement for your sins. Believe in Him, and turn away from the sin, the very thing He had to die for — turn away from it.

Q: So you’re emphasizing not just believing, but turning? Turning is important?

Cory “Ace” Stafford: Yes

‡ Waiting tables is the service provided by the ordained office of deacon.

Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tenn., teaches students how to deal with worldviews hostile to Christianity.

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