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“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.”
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 determiners 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 is the founder and CEO of Prodigal Sons, Inc, a non-profit ministry serving gang members and their families on the Westside. Danny also serves Cornerstone as a Family Ministries Assistant.
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