Since the summer of 2015 I (Brian) have lived in neighborhoods of Los Angeles that are “gang infested”. While this label simplifies the array of qualities in a neighborhood into a “problem area”, it does highlight the reality of gang violence in LA. 6 weeks ago I moved from the neighborhood of Historic South Central, 80 blocks south to the community of Westmont. Within the past few weeks of living here, 6 people have died as a result of gang violence or officer involved shootings within a mile of my house. It seems that everyday news breaks of another shooting.
I must confess – while I know the proper “love your neighbor” response looks like praying for the community, seeking to know and care for affected families, etc.– my default posture is to focus on myself, my world, and my plans; unaffected by the grief, trauma, and fear that weighs on my neighbors. The news of the trauma becomes background noise to the foreground of my life.
While the priorities of my life are not solely “me focused”, the gap between Christ’s call to “love our neighbors/city as ourselves” and my functional lack of compassion towards these neighbors and city gives me pause. Why does this default come so easily? What is the Biblical call here? How can I faithfully pursue loving the community in these tragedies? What would it look like to turn up the volume on the background noise and, like our Savior, hear people and be moved to compassion by their pain?
What Brian shares here is helpful and revealing for most of us. He gives a snapshot into his community where violence is so common it starts becoming “background noise”. People feel numb and even disengaged because of the normalcy of violence in these areas. But Brian’s story isn’t just unique to South L.A. It’s affecting many other communities as well.
Recent news stories report on the uptick in violence throughout Los Angeles. Shootings and homicide numbers are up this year — many people are getting shot and killed. Two weeks ago an LA news station covered a 3-4 day span where 50 people were shot, with more than a dozen of these murdered. Tenagers, 20-somethings, and random victims have been shot and killed. These past few weeks and months have been overwhelmingly crazy and hard, but as Brian brought up – where does compassion and intentionality fit in when all this doesn’t have to affect you personally? Is our city’s pain and trauma just background noise?
When we hear about these stories and what’s taking place throughout L.A., there are two directions we can go. One, is to see/hear all this and be disengaged, to the point where it is out of sight and out of mind . Actually, we might be so disengaged that we don’t even know this is going on in our city! We talk about elections, we talk sports, we know all those topics of conversations yet have zero knowledge of how much trauma parts of our city are dealing with.
A second response is to pray, lament, and go to God on behalf of our city. He is the source of hope even when it seems like violence will never stop. He is the source of comfort even when it seems the pain of losing someone is too much. God is who we go to on behalf of Los Angeles. We don’t have to live in these areas to know what’s going on and seek to be engaged. We can develop compassion and love for our city. Engagement can look like praying or being intentional to know neighbors more, especially if you do live in communities being affected by violence. Maybe there are opportunities to bless families during tragedies. Maybe engagement involves simply being more intentional to see what’s taking place throughout the city. You may not be able to wrap your arms around someone as they cry over losing a loved one but you can care enough to know and pray for them and their community.
I (Danny) often hear the phrase “we/I love our city”. It’s even kind of a Christian buzzword “to love the city we’re in”. While we absolutely should love Los Angeles, really think about what that means to you. Does that mean only loving the cool neighborhood you live in? Does it mean loving the comfort that perhaps your community might bring with it? Does it mean just loving local sports teams or your favorite restaurants? Growing up in L.A., I didn’t stay in a part of town like Brian’s current residence. But I knew a lot of people affected by violence and trauma. And it wasn’t just in the South LA’s or East LA’s. It was places like The Valley, The Westside, The South Bay. I knew that what affected some of the toughest parts of our city also affected other communities too. We can say we love our city but do we love it enough to at least know what’s taking place throughout and praying for it.
I appreciate Brian’s thoughts and questions. His vulnerability to share that even as a resident of one of these traumatized communities, it’s difficult for him to turn up the volume on the background noise. But I think the call here is to know, to care, to love, to be intentional; to not turn down the switch but perhaps make that noise more loud and clear. Loving our city, loving our neighbors means we should try to learn what’s affecting the communities and city we love. We can continue to pray for things around the country and around the world but don’t forget to offer prayers up for what is happening locally. God is pushing us towards intentional engagement and it might look different across the board depending where you live. It might be knowing and praying, it might be coming alongside and connecting with a neighbor when the violence and pain touches down in your area. Love Los Angeles beyond the convenience you find in it. Love Los Angeles because God knows, loves and cares about it.
As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me.
COVID-19 has impacted virtually every aspect of our lives. At the beginning of March, Daniel, our CEO was sick and, though untested for the virus, stayed in isolation for two weeks. He has recovered and is doing well, and is adjusting to life under "Safer at Home" orders. Brian, our Partnership Development Director, welcomed a son into the world at the end of February, and then all of this hit. He's enjoying time with the new baby, and the time with his 3 other children at home. Both Daniel and Brian are continuing to work together virtually during this most wild time.
It seems like the difficulty and uncertainty grow with each day in these times, but one thing we hold to is that God does not change. He is sovereign. He is good loving always, and that doesn't change during times like this. We can have confidence that He knows our every need (Luke 12:30). And so, we pray. A lot.
We continue to pray for those around the globe affected by this pandemic, and particularly those in our own communities. As Prodigal Sons Inc., we are trying to settle into a new transition for the next few weeks/months. We ask that you continue praying for us and for the ministry. A few specific requests to pray for are:
Gang culture in particular seems so far removed from our experience that the idea of bridging that gap in any kind of meaningful way seems impossible. And while you may not be able to understand everything about that person’s experience, there’s a good chance that you’re able to understand something.
It was a weird time for me. My mother had passed away in May 2017, and I was shocked every time I realized that I would never see her again. It still shocks me to this day. In the days and weeks immediately after her passing, there was a strange sensation as I lived my life day-to-day. It was like I was living in a cloud, some weird alternate universe that looked like my life but was missing a key part of it. How did everything else in the world just keep on going like nothing had ever happened? It didn’t feel right somehow, but nevertheless you have to keep on going with groceries and bills and work all of those things that don’t wait up when personal hardships happen.
Less than two weeks after my mom died, I got an email from my friend Danny, sharing a heartbreaking story of a man who had recently died in a car accident. The man wasn’t much older than me, and he left behind a young daughter. His sister and the family were holding a car wash at the church to raise money for the funeral. I instantly thought back to being at the hospital, my family’s grief, and all of the stress of funeral arrangements, and my heart went out to this family. There had been fundraising car washes at the church before, but with my mom’s death so fresh on my mind contributing to this one was of deep importance to me. Though I didn’t know this family personally, I understood in a realistic way what they were going through. This time when I went, I wouldn’t just be sympathizing with loss, I’d be empathizing with it.
I pulled up to the car wash early and a few cars were there as things started to get rolling for the day. I got out of the car and said "hi" to Danny, who shared his condolences for my mom and thanked me for coming. He always made it a point at the car washes to give a quick lay of the land and point out the family members and friends of the deceased, to give context to who was there and why. He gestured to a young woman over at the entrance to the parking lot, mentioning that she was the deceased man’s sister. She looked about my age, with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and a big sign in her hands that she held up high trying to bring people in to the car wash.
I knew in my heart that I wanted to talk to her specifically. I wanted her to know that I had lost someone, too, that I knew how much it hurt, and that I was so sorry for her loss. I was sure that she had received so many condolences lately that those of a stranger might not mean much in the grand scheme of things. Still, it seemed important to say.
I walked up to her and she lowered her big sign as she noticed me approaching. I gave her a modest smile and said, “Hi, I’m Ashley. I lost my mom a few weeks ago, and I just wanted to say…”
I hadn’t even finished my sentence before she set her sign on the ground and threw her arms around me. She hugged me like we were old friends, and we embraced for a moment without saying a word. All we knew were each other’s first names, and that we had shared pain from a deep loss. That was all it took. She knew that I needed that hug as much as she did. When we came apart, she was first to speak to express condolences for my mom. I thanked her, told her I was so sorry for her loss, and that I would be praying for her. She said she appreciated it, and just like that someone called to me to let me know that my car was finished. She picked up her sign and went back to the parking lot entrance, eager to wave her hands and bring more people in.
At the time, I was still in that inconvenient frazzled brain fog that hangs over you after traumatic events. I didn’t think to get her phone number or anything, some way of contacting her to offer to talk more. It would have been so great to have a conversation with her about life and Jesus and the eternal hope that he offers, and the removal of the sting of death that comes with His victory. In retrospect though, I know I couldn’t have had that conversation anyway. My mind wasn’t in a place to be able to hold long conversations period, let alone eloquently share the gospel.
I thought back to that verse in 2 Corinthians 1: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Though that verse does speak to sharing the hope of the gospel, I don’t think it means less than sharing a hug. Than sharing a smile. Than sharing that you’re not alone in your pain, that I see you and you matter to me, and that you and your pain matter to God, too.
Sometimes we see people in our community enduring hardships that are so unlike our own. Gang culture in particular seems so far removed from our experience that the idea of bridging that gap in any kind of meaningful way seems impossible. And while you may not be able to understand everything about that person’s experience, there’s a good chance that you’re able to understand something. Financial hardships, trials in parenting, loss of loved ones - these things transcend lifestyles for many of us. With open eyes and open hearts, making connections and giving comfort do not have to be as complicated as we might think. When we put personal connection first, the bridge to cross the gap becomes much more navigable. May we see those bridges and walk across them, however briefly or imperfectly.
As the son of Salvadoran war refugees who could barely speak English and were constantly working to make ends meet, I struggled with a sense of identity as a child. I did not understand any of it at the time but I was alone, seeking attention from anyone because my parents were strangers to me.
During my middle school years I had a style all my own that clashed with the rest of my classmates’ hip hop and street culture. For 3 years they bullied me relentlessly and with every attack, every insult, I learned anger, rage, and hostility. They buried themselves deep inside my heart and I became cold and distant.
It would take about twenty years before my wife would eventually explain to me that I had begun walking down the stairway of depression. Not only had I learned about pain, rejection, and depression, from the roots of my anger, also began to become very afraid. I feared rejection and pain, I feared embarrassment.
After graduating from middle school, I would rebuild myself. I would create for myself a new persona, based on strength and dominance. I would hide my shame, my anxiety, my pain, but most importantly, my fear.
Growing up on the border of downtown and south central LA in the 90s and early 2000’s, I was inundated with the street and gang culture. I saw some of my neighbors go from innocent children playing with WWF action figures to hardened taggers, crew members, and gang members almost overnight. Their new toys were spray cans, knives, and small caliber pistols. They listened to only hip hop and rap and believed anything that was Caucasian was pathetic and weak. Before I knew it, their lifestyle became very narrow minded, misogynist, racist, and criminal. There was wildness to them. You could see it in their eyes, there was no stability, just a shifty gaze that was constantly plotting. The only time their eyes were calm were when they were dreaming under the influence of some drug. They were learning from their parents and uncles who were drug dealers, ex-pimps, and murderers. I had no idea that I was in a bubble, protected by the neighborhood “OG.”
I had grown up with some of these young bloods. We prided ourselves for having known each other since we were in diapers. They introduced me to this lifestyle. And one day I listened to Tupac Shakur for the first time and I connected with his passion, his angst, his anger. I lived my life by the words of the mighty Big Pun and learned about women through Suga Free. In 8th grade we read S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and someone dared to compare me to Johnny. But she was right. I had been beaten one time too many. And I guess when you push someone hard enough and long enough, eventually they’ll start pushing back. If they don’t end up getting killed that is. I swore to myself I would never be “weak” again. And just like that, I replaced Legos for a knife, some Adidas, and a white Pro Club T-shirt.
I swore to myself I would never be “weak” again. And just like that, I replaced Legos for a knife, some Adidas, and a white Pro Club T-shirt.
I rebelled in high school and created an identity for myself based on gang culture. It was about strength and I glorified it. I grew up in a rough neighborhood, therefore I was rough too. And that is all I needed. I lashed out and unleashed the rage inside of me. I raced into fights, purposefully sought out trouble, robbed people, ran from the police, drank, smoked and committed many other crimes. But it wasn’t me. It was not who I really was inside. After school, while my friends ran off with their corresponding crews and gangs, I stayed behind to play sports. Academics came easy for me. I was living a double life. I wanted to do well in school and participate in school functions meanwhile back home I was memorizing back allies and planning “get away” paths. I was what was so endearingly called in the streets a “half-way crook” and lived my life trying to prove to my teachers and coaches that I was a “good boy” while being a “bad boy” to the rest of my friends. The girls loved it. The local gang however, would eventually catch on to my antics and began asking questions. They had my bus routes memorized already. I was avoiding them by finding different bus routes with other friends that lived nearby. I would eventually become a part of a crew, authorized by the two local gangs to operate in the neighborhood. I was a part of a rather short lived 27th Street MOB crew. My moniker was “wild.” This veiled my half-way crookedness. This stopped them from following me to and from school.
Eventually, my mom and dad’s schedules became more normalized and they began to influence my life in a different way. I began to get to know them and understood who I was dealing with. Years of a bloody war and struggling, working to the bone, made my parents into very hard people. No matter how hard I thought I was, my parents outmatched me. My dad stressed in me the importance of an education and hounded me about it for the rest of my high school years. My mom fought tooth and nail to force me to go back to church. I had first heard the gospel and believed in Christ when I was about 5 years old. But how much can a 5 year old understand? Their ultimatum for me was easy: I would succumb and get my act together, or I’d find myself in the street, homeless. I was not going to try to call their bluff because Lord knows, bluffing, they definitely were not. I would graduate from high school and get accepted into quite the prestigious university. And even though my mom’s church was not the most scripturally sound church, it fueled the little flame that had sparked inside me when I was 5 years old. I began to get closer to God. The Bible made sense and God began to work in my life in way that made me say that so many happenings in my life could not be coincidence.
God began working in my life. It was undeniable. I could see it. But in the hardest moments in my life, I would still run away and escape with my crew. Our crimes were getting heavier and darker and now, the price for making a mistake was fatal. Many of my friends had already spent some time in prison; others were on their way there. For others, I regret not going to their funerals. Life was quickly changing around me and for the few in my crew that were still free; their eyes were trapped in addiction. They were not the same people I knew. They had changed, controlled by some inescapable inevitability, slowing withering away. They could not understand why they were living; they could not understand the point. Meanwhile, after so many years, I became the person I wanted to be, I was feared, I was envied, and I was strong. This was my kingdom. But I was never satisfied.
I drove home in tears. God had spared me. And at that moment I knew that I had come to a crossroads.
I could not tell you when I became a Christian. As far back as I could remember I have always understood that I was a sinner and so deserved to go to Hell. I knew that without repentance, without the forgiveness of Christ, without accepting Him, I was well on my way. But such as it was, I always had a relationship with God. I knew I was saved. And perhaps I am a prodigal son, but for whatever reason, God, waited for this very moment in my life to destroy the person I had become. Of all my flaws, He decided to start with my pride.
Jealousy led to some of my closest friends to finally call me out for not being truly hood. I was soft. And so their coup began. They had planned it out and decided to finally spring their trap. Alex had been drinking and decided to do some cocaine to bring back some of his energy. Meanwhile Bito watched eagerly, relishing the moment as his hatred for me began to overflow. “Yo, let me buy that burner off you.” Alex had asked.
It was a .38 special police bulldog revolver. We had stolen it from a police officer. I figured the thing was going to get me killed so I decided to sell it to him. Red flag #1: Alex wanted to do the exchange at an alley behind his house. Why not just make the exchange here at Bito’s house? Red flag #2: “Alright, whatever, I’ll drive us over there.”
“Nah, I’ll meet you there.” It made no sense that they wouldn’t want a ride. Why would we need to do this in an alley anyway? We could just do it at Bito’s house. Bito’s mom wouldn’t care. She wasn’t even home.
Of course I didn’t trust my friends so I took the bullets out of the gun and put them in my pocket. When they finally got to the alley, Alex was standing in front of me. Bito was standing diagonally from me and asked me for the gun. They were curiously silent and I understood what was going on. I was not sure if either one of them had a gun on them but they were standing close enough that I could rush them if they did. I decided to play along. I gave Bito the pistol. Alex snatched it from Bito’s hands and asked, “You scared?”
He pulled the trigger. A fight ensued that eventually spilled out into the parking lot of a corner store. A crowd was gathering and our entire crew and many of our family members witnessed it. Eventually, in a lull in the fight as we were all huffing and puffing, Bito and Alex ran off cursing and calling me out for a half-way crook, unworthy of the streets, unworthy of 27th street MOB. I drove home in tears. God had spared me. And at that moment I knew that I had come to a crossroads. For years I would claim that God had given me a choice at this moment: continue in the streets or turn to Christ. Later, I realized this was not true. God had already made the decision for me. Had I continued on my path, I would have ended up dead or in jail. From that moment on, my life changed completely.
Now, I am so far removed from that world, I marvel at how God could make such a complete transformation in a person.
I would come back years later, a much more mature Christian, to find that I had been completely forgotten in the streets. Shortly after I was attacked, 27th street MOB had dissolved. There was no one left “on the block.” My friends had died, been sent to prison, or moved away. One of them even ended up in Arkansas of all places.
I was non-existent in my old neighborhood and anyone that might have known me moved away. The records of my actions, my dirt, and my crimes had been lost. Anyone who might have cared to remember, who could recount my stories, was long gone.
I was a no-body in my old kingdom. It was as if God had completely eliminated all traces of my sin.
Now, I am so far removed from that world, I marvel at how God could make such a complete transformation in a person. Granted, things did not just change for the better over night. God had to break me down and destroy the person I had become so that eventually, many years later, he could rebuild me with a new identity found solely in Christ.
Francisco Carranza is a husband, father, and National Guardsman, and he serves on the board of Prodigal Sons Inc.