One of the consistent questions I get asked when it comes to gang ministry is “What can I do? How can I be involved?” It seems like a broad question because there can be various factors at play. Sometimes the cultural gaps create discomfort and unfamiliarity, and result in a lack of intentionality. Other times, it might be hard to verbalize how two people should interact -- it’s unusual to lay out a structure of what a person should say or do. But, if Christians are striving to minister to others, and specifically individuals who come from a gang background, it’s important to think through and help people find ways they can intentionally serve.
I want to focus on internal heart attitudes God has called us to have along with more practical approaches. It’s necessary to have that biblical heart foundation before just jumping in to ministering, otherwise burn out can easily occur. People may already be burdened for others, but many want to know how to apply this on a more consistent basis, whether it’s at work, their neighborhoods, church, etc. My hope is that it doesn’t come off as a list of to-do’s and treating individuals like a project. People are not projects and we should avoid ministering to them as if they are! Instead, my challenge is for us to adopt a humble posture as learners so we can lovingly and graciously serve our neighbors and point them to Christ!
The Heart Attitude
The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is a great example of an internal heart attitude leading to intentional action. We read about a Jewish man beaten by two robbers and left for dead. Two elite religious leaders see him and completely avoid helping—but a Samaritan man (Samaritans were looked down upon and hated by Jewish people) comes along, sees the injured man, and intentionally goes to help him. This parable doesn’t just focus on the Samaritan’s action but explains his heart of compassion and mercy which led to putting this injured man’s needs above his own. He didn’t just tend to his injuries but also found him a place of rest and paid for those expenses. He put his own comfort and convenience aside to minister to someone who, culturally speaking, would want nothing to do with him.
Dr. Martin Luther King had a fascinating quote about the Good Samaritan. He said: "I imagine that the first question the priest and Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” The priest and Levite were focused on themselves and their comfort while the Samaritan was more concerned with the well being of his neighbor. One would think the priest and Levite who knew the law would act on it yet it was the Samaritan who ministered to a man whom he wouldn’t normally interact with. A genuine heart of compassion and mercy will reveal itself in seeking to meet others’ needs above our own wants and comforts. People will not be an inconvenience, but rather a gospel priority.
So what does this compassionate heart look like lived out amongst one of the most marginalized groups in our city? Here are a few practical things you can do.
Be on the lookout. First off, simply think through your daily schedule. What job has God placed you at? What’s your neighborhood like? What parks or restaurants are in your community? What schools do you or your kids go to? Where is your church located? What streets/neighborhoods do you drive through each day? Do you look at these areas as specific ministry opportunities? Do you consider the fact that gang members share some of these exact same locations as you? Think through these various situations and how you can be intentional in the environments God has placed you.
Perhaps there’s a local park you visit with your family. Maybe there are gang members that occasionally frequent that park. I wouldn’t advise going up to a group of them but maybe someone has brought their family to the park. Look for a way to engage in conversation--even if it’s a “hello” and introducing yourself. Or perhaps someone was shot and killed somewhere in your community. Normally there are candle light vigils at those scenes in the following days/weeks. That could be an opportunity to visit the vigil and possibly minister to grieving family or friends if they are present. Be someone who intentionally thinks through how to engage with your neighbors even when the opportunities don’t always present themselves.
Be there for people. Take advantage of when the church is doing something--whether it’s attending car washes, events, or welcoming guests if they are visiting a service. Those are perfect situations where we can try to converse with people and get to know them. Gangs are probably not going out of their way to connect so these can be moments where the church shows intentionality and allows the Spirit to work in those interactions.
Be a learner. When things like classes, seminars, or group discussions are offered that focus on ministering to this culture or other marginalized individuals in our city, I would highly recommend attending. It is a way to better equip ourselves in order to understand cultures, issues, and difficulties amongst our neighbors. The more we can learn, the more our hearts can be challenged by the brokenness we see amongst our communities. And also take time on your own to learn about communities and people groups. Even though the Westside has undergone drastic changes, get to know its history and the stories from those in the community. Here are a few links dealing with some of the issues such as gang injunctions, gentrification, and life growing up in the projects:
Be praying. Prayer is one of the most important and powerful actions to take. Even if there aren’t many opportunities where you cross paths with a gang member, pray for them, pray for future opportunities to connect and share the love of Christ. Pray for the brokenness and pain many of them had to endure in their lifetime and that God will shine a light of hope into their hearts. When we hear about gangs, be driven to prayer on their behalf rather than disregard and not caring.
We often want to know what actions we should do to reach people. I think that is a good passion to have, but if it isn’t grounded in a heart of compassion or mercy, we can easily step back and retreat to comfort and convenience and avoid our gang neighbors. Like the Samaritan, compassion and mercy should be the springboard for our actions. They should be consistently shaping our hearts so we can intentionally look for opportunities in our communities/work/schools to minister; we can be better equipped to learn and understand the cultures we share space with; we can speak on their behalf rather than dehumanizing them, and we can be praying for them. God may open and close different doors, and opportunities may change, but the love we have for our neighbors should stem from a heart motivated by God’s compassion and mercy.
Danny Neiditch is the founder and CEO of Prodigal Sons, Inc. Born and Raised in LA, Danny is a diehard Dodgers, Lakers, and street tacos fan. You can find him on Twitter @dannyneiditch.