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.
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.
The focus of this blog is to share some of my own thoughts and reflections about Nipsey Hussle and how he meant so much to Los Angeles. I don’t really feel I can do him justice by what I share here but I hope we can gain some insight into the person he was and think through how we live our own lives.
It was Sunday afternoon and I had just finished playing basketball at church. I was checking my Twitter feed and noticed a triple shooting happened at Crenshaw and Slauson in front of The Marathon clothing store. I knew this store belonged to Nipsey Hussle and my first thought was “I wonder if Nipsey got shot….nah he couldn’t get shot in front of his own store.” Then I started reading that one of the victims was Nipsey and some reports were saying he’d been shot six times. Soon after I began seeing various twitter accounts posting “Pull Through Nipsey” or “Not Nipsey” or “Prayers for Nip”. As I kept refreshing my feed, I saw at least one victim was deceased. And then shortly after, I read it was Nipsey Hussle who had passed away. My heart just sank. I didn’t even know him and I had this feeling of deep sorrow inside of me, just staring at my phone, in complete shock. I was rocked that afternoon and it was one of those moments where I knew I’d always remember where I was the day I heard Nipsey died.
I heard about Nipsey quite a few years ago. I had seen him in some interviews and my cousins and I would bump his music sometimes when we were driving around. I wasn’t a faithful follower of Nipsey just because I stopped keeping up with most present day hip-hop. However, I still liked him as a standout artist and appreciated him for having actual purpose and meaning with his art form. He told stories and shed light not only into his own life but also the realities of inner city Los Angeles. In his interviews, it was easy to tell he was a voice for the voiceless as he gave insight into what really happens in the streets and some of the injustices that take place. Unfortunately he lost his life Sunday, March 31, 2019 around 3:30 in the afternoon in front of his own store in the neighborhood he loved and gave so much for.
Since that afternoon, the city of Los Angeles (and many parts of our country) has been in mourning. To see the aftermath from his death has been remarkable yet extremely sad. The mass of people that have showed up on the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson everyday has been something to behold. Traffic blocked up, streets closed, people hanging out, coming and going to the vigil, and most importantly the overwhelming amount of respect and honor that has been shown to Nipsey at that location where he passed. The countless “R.I.P. Nipsey” tags and Nipsey murals everywhere throughout the city have gone to show how much this man was loved.
There was a press conference a day after regarding Nipsey’s death. During the conference the city mayor, various city council members, along with a few members of the police department all praised Nipsey for what he meant to the communities. I couldn’t help but think that this individual had city leaders and police officers speaking so highly of him because they recognized the good he was doing for his area.
Along with that, five days after his passing, various gangs came together to march in honor of Nipsey. These were various neighborhoods from all over Los Angeles, with rivalries and hatred all put to the side so they could come together to honor him. I found this incredibly powerful, that a man who came from the streets, became successful, and never forgot where he came from, had people from his same walk of life (some enemies mind you) come together to acknowledge and pay respects on his behalf.
And the truth is, Nipsey just didn’t have city leaders and gang members come together to honor him. He had Los Angeles itself, all of his fans, numerous athletes, entertainers, and his community all coming together because of what he did and what he meant.
Now as I reflected on his life and how important he was to communities throughout our city, a few thoughts came to mind about the church (generally speaking). There isn’t necessarily a thread that ties these thoughts together but I think it’s worth thinking through as believers, specifically when it comes to loving our neighbors and whether our communities recognize our devoted commitment to Christ and His glory.
Are We Known for Lamenting In Prayer?
I say this often but we should continue to develop hearts of prayerful lament for our city. The Bible isn’t short on the topic of prayer and lament. It speaks of the two subjects constantly yet how often do we put them in to practice? We might pray and lament for circumstances in our lives or in the lives of loved ones and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. God calls us to bring our burdens before Him because He cares for us. I wonder though if we ever extend the prayers and lament to other people or places in our city that we might not encounter. Do we think beyond our own immediate circles to consider what issues, pains, tragedies, etc., have impacted our city/neighborhoods?
When we currently think about the Crenshaw district, and our city as a whole, do we consider the fact that they are grieving? Are we mourning and praying alongside our city over the loss of someone so important to Los Angeles? Just because you may not be familiar with Nipsey doesn’t mean you can’t try to cultivate a heart that is burdened for people in our city. We can be praying and weeping over what Nipsey’s life meant to LA and to South Central specifically. We lost an icon and a person who brought change to an area that most people would rather disregard. As we look at Nipsey’s killing, it was also the climax of a week where 26 people had been shot, with 10 fatalities, many of which were in South Los Angeles. Are we also praying for the violence and brokenness that affects so many throughout LA and that took Nipsey’s life?
Sometimes we adopt an “out-of-sight, out-of mind” approach and neglect the hurts of people we tend not to consider. Areas of our city are dealing with so much brokenness and the church should consistently be ones who pray & weep for these issues, especially if we say we “love our city”. Familiarize yourself with what’s taking place. With this Nipsey tragedy, look up his story, see what he was about, and see why so much of our city misses this man and grieves for him. Allow your hearts to be intentional with prayer and lament for Nipsey’s family/friends and Los Angeles.
Are We Known For Our Love for Neighbors and Our City?
Nipsey’s death brought to light so many stories of how he loved his community. Stories of how he owned properties and businesses that were for people in the neighborhood. Hiring people from within his area to work in his stores. Hiring a homeless man to sweep and clean up the storefronts in his shopping center. Helping to fix up schools in his neighborhood and buying shoes for students in the school. Opening a workspace in his community for young entrepreneurs in his neighborhood. Los Angeles native Propaganda wrote a blog on Nipsey as well and mentioned how he met a woman at the vigil who knew Nipsey. This woman told him she came down with a terminal illness and Nipsey paid for all her medical bills. He also sought ways to reduce gang violence and was scheduled to meet with LAPD the day after he was killed. When he was shot, he was meeting up with a friend at his store that just got out of prison after 20 years. He was going to get his friend some clothes so he can go see his family but unfortunately, in the midst of that kind act, he ended up getting shot.
The thing is, there are probably so many more personal stories from his people, his family, and his community that we will never know about. I have never seen a candlelight vigil as big as the one for Nipsey. It’s taken up most of the parking lot and even the businesses and corners nearby had vigils too. He built a legacy and people didn’t just love him because he was a famous rapper. Instead he was deeply loved and known for the ways he gave back and loved the community that raised him.
Now as I thought about how Nipsey was recognized, it made me start thinking about whether we as the church are known for the way we love our neighbors, communities, and city. This doesn’t mean we do all those things Nipsey did. I’m not saying we just start buying up properties or anything like that. But as our neighbors and communities see our churches, do they see a place of compassion, love, and hope? Do our neighbors see our churches as places of refuge and a place where they can come and feel “safe”? Do we seek the welfare of our city as a whole? Do our neighbors and communities look at the church, and at us individually, and see a group of people characterized by radical love for others? Have we taken time to get to know our communities and the people there? Do we love the poor and the broken? Are we willing to abandon comfort for the sake of loving our city?
Many of these questions came to my mind when I saw the reaction to Nipsey’s death and how so many people loved him because of what he did. The church should also stand out as a pillar within our communities and city for the way we love and minister to our neighbors. We can see the good in what Nipsey did and learn from that. Ponder those questions and think through how we can continue to effectively love our neighbors and Los Angeles.
Is God's Love and Glory Known to Others?
This love we’re called to display must be rooted in Christ. That’s the foundation from where our love pours out. We love because He first loved us. He loved by healing the sick and ministering to the poor and broken. He wept for others. He went and intentionally ministered to the people that most people wanted to avoid. He radically loved us by coming to this earth and dying in our place, taking our punishment so that we might have a relationship with the Father. He loved us when we were His enemies and completely unlovable. We didn’t deserve His love yet He willingly came to lay down His life for us. That was the love Jesus reflected.
For us as Christians, do we love people and do so in a way where they see Christ? Are we so radical in our love that Christ is the One who stands out and is glorified? Do our neighbors, communities and cities see the hope of the gospel by the way we live and love those around us? I think there’s a trap Christians can easily fall into where we set up a comfortable structure that doesn’t always reflect a radical, Christ-infused love towards others. We set up our own “rules to live by” and structure our lives in a way that doesn’t ever really challenge our own comfort. Is Christ seen in that? We should live a life where people not only recognize how we live/love but ultimately see the root of that love found only in our Savior.
There are some final thoughts I wanted to close with. First, I do recognize there are Christians who do radically love and point people to Christ by how they live. I don't want to disregard that there are many fellow brothers and sisters in the faith who are making Christ known amongst their communities/city. We can be praying and lamenting for our city/neighbors and intentionally looking for ways to love them so they can know the hope of the gospel.
In regards to Nipsey, one thing I keep going back to was how he was living out a dream to give hope to people who came from where he came from and struggled through the same struggles he went through. Coming from the streets, he could’ve easily sought comfort in staying far away from that area once he found success. But he stayed plugged in to the people of his community to inspire them and help bring about change.
I have never seen a funeral response for someone the way I saw it for Nip. They sold out tickets to his ceremony in a matter of minutes (held at the Staples Center). They did a 25-mile drive afterwards through South Central, Watts, and Inglewood and the number of people lined up, crowding the streets for him was beyond incredible. I saw social media updates all day, many filled with sorrow as they grieved and paid respect to Nipsey. It was televised on various TV channels and I know many people who tuned in that day because it was such a momentous occasion.
I remember seeing these types of ceremonies usually when a president would pass away or big time entertainer/leader. To see a Rollin 60 Crips member, community leader, entrepreneur, philanthropist, rapper, and Los Angeles hero get the same treatment goes to show us how important this man was, far more important than we might even realize. When celebrities pass away, people think of how they as a star will be missed. You don’t normally hear stories of how they impacted a community or city. It’s more focused on their career. Nipsey surpassed that and his music basically took a backseat to the work and life he lived for his community.
Again, I don’t know if I really could do him justice with these thoughts but I hope that we can recognize the good he did and how he really loved his neighborhood and the people there. He will be sorely missed and I pray for our city and his family/friends as everyone continues to grieve. Rest in peace Nipsey. You will always be an icon in Los Angeles.
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.
God’s heart for the gang member is rooted in the fact He created them as image-bearers and sees their sin and suffering and offers them hope in His Son.
In recent months there have been various Los Angeles communities that have been plagued by violence. In one section of our city, around 15 people were shot in roughly a 2-week span. Another small community saw 8 people killed over the course of 3 months, all within a mile of each other.
How do you react when you hear that?
We can all agree that it’s sad. But what do you assume about the nature of the communities where this is taking place? How does your response change if you learn the shootings involved gang members? If the stories were publicized as gang shootings, would you tend to respond with indifference?
Our society often tends to draw a line on compassion and care based on “what kind of people” are involved. One of the biggest determinants is whether or not these types of situations involve gangs. The truth is, violence isn’t even required for society to hold a view that gangs are nothing but criminals and monsters. It’s this attitude that leads many of us to feel like it’s no big deal when the life of a gang member is lost. It’s a view that looks at gangs as an inner city problem with people whose lives don’t matter. As a result, they are dehumanized and not cared about because they are only seen as a problem. The challenge for the church is to fight against this worldly, dehumanizing perception of gang members and develop a heart that sees them as God does. That heart should be reflected in our views, interactions, and responses with our gang neighbors.
Genesis 1 gives us the creation account. In verses 26-27, we read about God creating man in His own image. People stood apart from His other creation because they were made after His likeness. Every person is created in the image of God. That includes gang members! They are people. They are God’s image bearers.
In fact, their identity as an image bearer far outweighs the fact that they are gang members. They are individuals who’ve gotten caught up in a lifestyle that is symbolized by brokenness. Despite the brokenness, they still uphold God’s image and because of that they are precious to Him. He doesn’t view them as “less-than” or “un-human” but rather as people who matter. As part of His creation, He loved them enough to graciously send Christ to die on their behalf, just like He did for you and me. So when we see the candlelight vigils where a life was lost or see a group of guys posted up at a park, we need to remember to view them as image-bearers who should be looked upon with compassion.
One way my heart has grown for this culture is taking time to know them individually. The more time I’ve spent with gang members over the years, the more I come to realize each of them have individual stories of hardship and brokenness that is common amongst the entire culture. Difficult home lives, trauma, abuse, addictions, lack of love, abandonment are just some of the shared experiences I’ve heard about. We neglect to focus on the suffering many of them went through growing up as kids, how many of them just wanted someone to care about them. We don’t think about what it’s like for a young kid who has lost countless people in their life, whether it’s family or friends, at such an early age. We don’t consider the violence/abuse many are exposed to early on and how they grow accustomed to it during their lifetime. What most people hear about focuses on the shootings, the violence, the drugs, etc., but rarely on what a gang member has gone through in their life. There is real pain and suffering behind the gang image, but the beauty is we have a Savior who can identify with that pain and suffering. When we take time to care for and know people, we can point them to the One offering hope.
Along with taking time to hear and know a person, it’s important to develop a heart of compassionate lament as a response. That means seeing the sin and suffering in the lives of individuals and being driven to prayer on their behalf. Throughout Scripture we regularly come across lamenting and being burdened for the lost. At the end of Matthew 23, we read about Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, a place where He ministered but still was characterized by an unrepentant heart. Jeremiah laments over Israel and their sinfulness that led them to captivity. Even Paul talks about how he would lay aside his own faith if it meant his Jewish brethren would know Christ. And in the gospels we see Christ demonstrate compassion continually as he healed the sick and ministered to many who were seen as outcasts in their society. We can’t hear the pain and brokenness of the streets and turn our backs to it. When you get to know a person’s story or hear about a life lost on the streets, allow your hearts to be characterized by lament and compassion instead of disdain and disregard.
I’ve taken many drives these past few months throughout the various communities I mentioned earlier. I’ve lost count of all the candles, flowers, posters, and empty bottles I’ve seen symbolizing the lives that have been lost. Some of the victims were teenagers, others were adults. They were someone’s son or daughter, a child’s mother or father, someone’s spouse or significant other. Those vigils serve to remember individuals because their lives mattered. They mattered to their loved ones, to communities, and they also mattered to God. God’s heart for the gang member is rooted in the fact He created them as image-bearers and sees their sin and suffering and offers them hope in His Son. I pray the church will continue to cultivate a similar heart, not because gang members are problems that need to be fixed, but because they are image-bearers in need of Christ.
So I invite you, please take time to know the stories and experiences and let that shape a heart of compassion and lament over the lost in our city.
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.