Friday, July 31, 2009

Encouraging Words

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel; I have called you by name, you are mine." (Isaiah 43:1)

One of the passions God has ignited in my heart is for what are typically called "at-risk youth;" specifically, I care about the young men and women who are involved with "street gangs," fraternities/sororities that originally started as a way of forming community and for mutual protection, but now have evolved into a culture of drugs and violence.

Gang violence is a problem in my home town. My perception, which may or may not be accurate, is that it has gotten worse in recent months.

Don't misunderstand. I don't live in fear. I feel safe in my home, in my church, and on the streets. I realize that innocent bystanders sometimes get caught in the crossfire - a perfect example is a four-year-old from Long Beach who is now recovering from a gunshot to the head - but most of the violence is directed at members of rival gangs, or people who are mistaken for rival gangmembers. As a middle-aged white woman, I don't fit the profile. ("Profiling" isn't just something the police do!)

In my previous post I asked the questions, "What are you doing about it?" and "What can the church do about it?" I don't know what to do. I'm not sure that my feeble efforts are making a difference, that my passion and my caring are translating into successful action. I'm frustrated with my helplessness.

This week, though, I saw a glimmer of hope. This week I'm at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a gathering of some 6,000 clergy and laypeople who are here to conduct the business of the church, learn from one another, discuss priorities, learn from one another, reconnect with old friends, and recharge our batteries. This year's theme, based on Revelation 22:2, is "...for the Healing of the Nations."(1)

One of the friends I hooked up with is the Reverend Silvia Tiznado of Phoenix, Arizona. I told Silvia about how much I want to reach out to the young people in the neighborhood surrounding my church and my contention that, as much as it frustrates me, if they're tagging(2) on the back of our building at least they aren't out doing something worse. I shared with her that I try to address them with humor, and it seems to work - for a while - at least in stopping the tagging. Here's an example:

This is the House of God and it doesn't belong to me (the Pastor) or to the people in the pews. It doesn't belong to you or your homies. It belongs to God, and God loves you. Jesus Christ died for you, so why don't you come by some Sunday and get to know him. Get to know the people, too. You might like us!

It cuts down on the tagging, but that’s not enough. I want to offer them “a future and a hope.”(3) I want them to know the joy and excitement of having a life centered around God.

And Silvia said, “They want to be there. They’re drawn to the church, and that’s why they keep tagging on it.”(4)

Yes! Words of hope! I believe that it is God who draws all of us to Godself, to Christ, to the Church. And I am determined that Silvia was speaking with a prophetic voice when she declared that the young men who claim the neighborhood around our church are being drawn there.

QUESTION: What can those of us who are on the "inside" do to prepare for the arrival of those who are "outside" to ensure that they feel wanted? How can we communicate welcome to people who do not know that they are welcome?

(1) "... on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month;and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations." Revelation 22:2, RSV.

(2) For those of you who don't know, "tagging" is graffiti, usually one's name or the name of the gang, frequently using spraypaint and with a distinctive style.

(3) For I know the plans I have for you," says the LORD, "plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11, RSV.

(4) I'm operating from memory. My apologies to Silvia if this isn't exactly what she said!

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