Gang theory: Bureaucratism vs. Christian cooperation, co-learning

How We Define Poverty from The Chalmers Center on Vimeo.

Gang culture in the government ghetto has two causes. One is the artificiality of city culture operating on a public dole with little personal accountability among the beneficiaries.

Another is the soul and how it is turned aside as a boy grows to manhood. Is his time during high school years given to his short-term pleasures and quick approval, or to long-term investment in knowledge, to education and moral development?

The latter are a blessing that come from home life and from Christianity, and rare in the pasts of gang members. Religion focuses a man on the person and will of God, His holy character, the account of His people, and His requirements for man. These requirements upon the individual might fairly be summed up in the 10 commandments, or God’s moral law. Christianity invites other-centered; it compels an ethical life, and trains one in self-denial and duty. As family weakens, the gang gains. As church appears to say less, and finally nothing, the gang claims a new adherent. The agenda: “Things such as steal, kill, lie, cheat. Anything,” a former gang member says.

Proposed solutions

On Thursday a former police chief of Atlanta, Eldrin Bell, addressed more than a dozen local young men enrolled in a Christian ministry’s jobs program. Hope for the Inner City hosted an event in which Mr. Bell suggested part of the solution. That is entrepreneurship. “Develop a product, package it, promote it and distribute” is how the Chattanooga Times Free Press summarized this idea. As the graying of the American demographic continues (too few babies are being sired), the No. 1 job in Chattanooga in 2040 will be health care, Mr. Bell said. This economic prediction is a safe one, as Greg Vital, developer of nursing home properties in Chattanooga, no doubt agrees.

Two kinds of answers to the gang problem are questionable. “Mayor Berke, give me some help,” city police officer Napolean “Donut” Williams said. “These kids want a job.” Do we want these youth on the city payroll? Might that be left to the free market?

Paul Smith, Mayor Andy Berke’s pick for security chief offers ideas that seem largely largely organizational and administrative. Mr. Smith, it seems, has a blueprint.

We have to find ways to provide more opportunities for youth to be engaged constructively by community services and summer programs in our schools and other facilities. *** Our community would do well to develop and support stronger neighborhood associations and allow their collective input to create a cohesive plan that will bring a keen awareness to these issues and pull community, churches and other neighborhood resources together to develop proactive measures to curtail this issue,

There’s life in this statement, but it is masked by jargon. It reads like a flow chart from a series of meetings and strains to inject everyone’s input. It is bureaucratic vs. market oriented. It views the church, as does the Ochs report about gangs for the city, as a public utility. God’s house is just part of the process, the materiel, that city government might use to draw young men away from gangs and toward productive life.

The dream in Christianity

Mr. Bell, the former Atlanta police chief, is nonplussed at the event by the suggestion from his listeners that they do not dream. He asks for a show of hands: “How many of you know the meaning of the word dream?” Perhaps his listeners dream and know its meaning, but are bashful. But maybe some of them don’t dream, but are choked with cares, riches and pleasures of life and bring no fruit to maturity.

Christianity and the church, for their part, dream. Christianity assumes a totally personal universe premised on a totally personal God who operates spiritually, not just in terms of physical means and resources. God thinks big, of winning the world to Himself by weak and simple and poor things by the power of the Holy Spirit. The utilitarian view of the church denies that its Master claims the universe for Himself.

Now the rise of the turf-connected gangs and youth cartels might seem apart from questions of poverty. But a valuable resource for dealing with both questions is the work of Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, Covenant College profs who run the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. They are the authors of When Helping Hurts[;] How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself. The book doesn’t deal with gangs, but it deals with poverty and ways to help people raise themselves out its clutches.

A main problem in missionary charity is American giantism, our propensity to swoop into a poor place, impose equipment, solutions, freebies and plans, with no sense of local economy or relationships. Drs. Corbett and Fikkert calls this approach that of the “blueprint.” “Although the blueprint approach appears to be very efficient, it often fails because it imposes solutions on poor communities that are inconsistent with local culture, that are not embraced and ‘owned’ by the community members, or that cannot work in that particular setting. the fact that the equipment worked well in Kansas simply does not mean it will work well in the cultural, economic, and institutional context of sub-Saharan Africa” (p. 142).

As the blueprint model for Christian aid in foreign lands failed, a “learning process” approach to development has emerged. “The role of the outsider in this approach is not to do something to or for the economically poor individual or community but to seek solutions together with them” (p. 144).

This cooperative model is proposed in Chattanooga by a former gang member.

Christian friends saved Corey “Ace” Stafford from life in the gang.

Personal, patient involvement by Christians

I ask a young former gang member at Tennessee Temple University how to stem the power of gangs over disaffected young men whose lives are a trail of broken human relationships and no relationship with God. Cory “Ace” Stafford proposes individual  Christian men inject themselves as friends and helpers in the culture of poverty where gang members live.

“The solution to the gang problem will be a radical revolution,” Mr. Stafford says. “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.”

Agents of government, especially in so-called post-Christian times, presume the realities with which they work are largely material and economic. A free market solution allows for explicit spiritual interest in the work at hand. The free market implies people working at liberty with another, in service one to another, without force, compunction or bureaucracy. It’s friendship, not police work. As jargon deadens the insight evinced by Mr. Smith in the newspaper story, bureaucracies take control when an organization becomes too big. Administration rises and sometimes quietly deadens the life of the host.

What might be needed in my city (and yours, possibly) is personal involvement vs. organizational strategy. Operating along the lines of the Corbett/Fikkert theory is the charitable work of Ron Lowe and Johnny Garth of Chattanooga. These men work with black children in city-owned  community centers, bringing personal interest and educational interactions to families whose young men are tempted by the tough-guy gang life.

Sources: Yolanda Putman, “Former law officers encourage job seekers,” Chattanooga Times Free Press website, June 13, 2013

Beth Burger, “Chattanooga police add officers to downtown, Coolidge to address problems with some teens” Chattanooga Times Free Press website, June 13, 2013

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts[;] How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself (Chicago: Moody Press, 2009), 230 pp.

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