In this series, Melody Rossi, Executive Director of Cloud and Fire Ministries, examines the missiological implications of working with gang members.
Gangs foster ruthless behavior towards other human beings. And yet, ironically, studies such as the Advancement Project (Rice, 2007) have shown that many youth join gangs because they have experienced horrific trauma and violence early in life. Joining the gang seems to give those who have been victimized or abandoned a temporary sense of power and respect. But the solutions provided by the gangs are, of course, only temporary, and lead to greater and greater chaos and destruction in their lives. It is only when God’s love transforms them and breaks the power of Satan in their lives that gang members can be truly free to live another way.
An Overlooked Group
Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles are a people group largely overlooked by believers and unreached by the gospel. Their values are repulsive to many Christians, and they live in communities that are often extremely dangerous. And yet, what greater place for God to show His power than in a gang community! And, because there are so many Christians in Los Angeles, it makes perfect sense that God might soon begin a work that would allow great numbers of gang members to come to faith. So, we must ask ourselves how God might choose to lead these lost ones to Himself, and then be ready to act!
Some may argue that members of Hispanic are not an unreached people group, due to the historic connection between Latinos and the Roman Catholic Church. Though many Hispanics certainly have a nominal affinity with Catholicism, those in the gang lifestyle typically consider themselves to be secular. There is, however, syncretism in the gangs that combines elements of Catholic ritual with more tribal beliefs and superstitions. To substantiate this, one gang member told me that at gang meetings a statue of the Virgin Mary is often present, and is prayed to immediately prior to “missions,” (crime and/or killing sprees). Gang members are also frequently involved in Santeria, a syncretic religion that combines elements of African, Caribbean, and even Native American religious rituals with aspects of Roman Catholicism. Most gang members, even “religious” ones, have a true respect for religion and/or God. However, to most, God still remains distant and impersonal.
How Do We Reach Them?
So, how do we reach gang members with the gospel? What would be their motivation for seeking a Savior? Like most people, gang members seek God most when their lives are in turmoil, or seem to be falling apart. Often, a window of opportunity comes when a friend or loved one is killed, or when someone close is arrested. All too often, however, these circumstances lead to anger, hatred, and retaliation.
When working with gang members, it is important to realize that there is a great deal of spiritual darkness present. Believers who enter into this realm MUST have prayer support, and must be constantly aware of the schemes of the devil. However, it is also important to remember that being in gangs is nothing more than a cry for community. Those who are drawn to gangs are those who are hurting and longing for a way to fill up the emptiness and brokenness inside. If we can connect with the pain inside, we have a better chance of helping gang members break free of the things that hold them in bondage.