...gangs are just as much a part of these places as are the coffee shops, fancy restaurants, and new apartment complexes...
What’s the first thing that pops in your mind when you hear “the Westside”? Is it the beaches? Is it the pricy apartments and houses? Maybe it’s the traffic? The words “hood”, “ghetto”, or “barrio” probably don’t come to mind. The phrase “gang neighborhood” probably doesn’t stand out when you think of places like West LA, Venice, Santa Monica, Palms or Culver City. But if you are from these areas or have taken time to learn some of the history of these communities, you’d realize that gangs were just as much a part of these places as are the coffee shops, fancy restaurants, and new apartment complexes that we see nowadays. Some gangs on the Westside date back 50+ years and even though other things may be different now, those gangs remain.
So why the Westside when it comes to gang outreach? Simply put, there are gangs here! The gangs in our Westside communities are our neighbors! We are their neighbors! In Mark 12:31 and Matthew 22:39, Jesus answers the religious leaders with 2 simple commands: love God and love your neighbor. So as believers, what is our approach to our gang neighbors here on the Westside?
As a member of Cornerstone Church West LA and as a lifelong resident of the Westside, I have seen the gangs that reside on this side of town and hope the church can be a shining light in our communities towards our fellow gang members. When Jesus confronted the Pharisees, He spoke to their lack of love first and foremost for God then for their neighbors. The religious elites who “had it together” were the individuals the Pharisees favored. The lowly, the Samaritan, the Gentile, the non-elite were the individuals the Pharisees disregarded and showed no love towards.
If we look at our society today and specifically the Westside communities, what does our heart’s attitude reflect towards our gang neighbors? If you are trying to get to Venice Beach or Abbot Kinney Blvd, do you take the time to take a quick drive through Oakwood to pray for that community? If you drive down Inglewood Blvd towards Playa Vista and see the Mar Vista Gardens Housing Projects, do you take an attitude of wishing/hoping they were gone or praying for opportunities to love on those within the gates? If you spend time at Stoner Park and see gang graffiti, does it bother you they still come around the park? I ask these questions because as the Westside slowly takes on a different identity than what it used to be, are we as believers considering our lifelong neighbors who are still around?
Whether we realize it or not, gangs reside here on the Westside. We are all neighbors. If Jesus gave us as a second command to love our neighbors, than are we doing so? This may simply involve praying for them, not taking on a Pharisee-type attitude towards them, or engaging with them if an opportunity presents itself. I pray we don’t fall in to the temptation of being picky with our neighbors, loving the neighbors that most resemble ourselves, or judging the neighbors we have a difficult time with. That “elitism” and lack of love is what Jesus spoke against. Living on the Westside means we not only embrace the beaches, the traffic, the new restaurants, and the coffee shops but we also embrace and look for ways to care for the gang neighbors in our local neighborhoods.
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.