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Jails, Prisons, Gangs and Broken Lives

I caught a mention of the Crips on Twitter. Found it by accident searching the term "Red Bandana," the named of my running column. Surprised me.

The Crips, for those of you who don't follow the American crime scene, are an exceedingly violent and large gang based in Los Angeles. It seems a blue bandana is part pf their team colors, much like school colors, only gangs get more upset about who wears what. The team color of the Bloods, their chief enemy is red. The Crips, just as their competition, are not known for cool headed civil negotiation, but intimidation, threats, and violence. Read more about the Crips hereRead about the Bloods here.

Various gang nonsense seem to pop up everytime I searched Twitter, and I made no connection. I thought it was a line in a song I was unfamiliar with. Might still be.

I responded, "Gotta love that people are still think gang membership makes them better people. Sad, isn't it?" It amazes me. Of course I know some kids think thug culture is cool, and that some young adults are so caught up in it that they sell out their later adult years for a very needed sense of belonging.

It brought me back to the late 1980s and mid-90s when I taught in the McLean Law and Justice Center and did volunteering and advising in Chicagoland. Teaching in the jail and all that came with it changed my life.

Still, today, it breaks my heart to see young men flaunt the foolish gang lifestyle, not realizing that they are making a mockery of themselves. Desperate to find community, most gang members come from broken homes. Fathers are either not present, abusive, or part of a turnstyle relationship. For those leading the gangs, how they are teaching their younger brothers how to waste their lives. Instead offering something positive, they offer hopelessness.

With great irony, you might see a gang member wearing a cross. At first glance, you might think he is a Christian, but nothing in the manifestos reflect anything of the sort.

The Short Version:

I served as a volunteer for seven years in the late 1980 and early 1990s under the chaplain at the McLean County Law and Justice Center (jail), and through the Home Sweet Home Mission, both in Bloomington, IL. I led a class with 12-18 adult inmates, served as a local liaison to the press (mostly regarding gang sociology), visited inmates one-on-one, communicated via letters (particularly those who moved onto prison). I taught a weekly Bible study, engaging inmates in discussion leading toward spiritual and lifestyle rehabilitation. Once released, served ex-offenders through personal relationships, helping them connect with churches, using my contacts to assist in getting a job, leading occasional small group discussions, and otherwise helping with post-incarceration re-integration.

The Cross and the Switchblade-DVDThe longer version would involve stories of knowing men inside and outside of jail. I saw men give up lives of crime live a life that's true. I saw others not man enough to turn away from the gang life and either wind up in jail or dead.

The longer version would involve getting into working to help free a man convicted of four brutal homicides because I thought he was innocent. He's free, and I still think he's innocent.

The longer version would go to explain specific adventures helping one young man leave the Black Gangster Disciples, a knife at my throat that was later handed to me by a weeping man, visits to most Illinois prisons and day long visits meeting inmates in the Florida Everglades prison system.

There were tough talks with young men about how God and crime are in conflict, that a true man of God will set down his gang colors and pick up a Bible and learn how live a life that's true. The rebellious ones would try to tell me how the Nation of Islam is the way and related lies. Not only is that blasphemous before God, but even the Nation of Islam condemns the thug life.

I could tell you about the funerals I went to. Saw three people buried. Two men, one women. Missed the funerals of a few others. Or the young men I met facing life in prison for murders they admitted they committed. Or how I played chess with one guy several times a week over the phone through a thick glass barrier. He was full of hate, but could play a decent game.

The best stories, though, are the ones in which a guy earned his GED, left jail, got jobs and married a beautiful woman. That man honored his God, helped his children live a life that did not involve incarceration and/or violence.

How Did this Happen? A Few Details
Sometime during college, I stepped into assist with a Bible study in the county jail. Eric, a friend from church, presumed that because I grew up near Chicago, I must be an expert in connecting with those from a tough background. I knew a little, at best, about any of these kinds of things.

What started as a few week fill-in turned into over a seven-year commitment leading a small ministry. I learned quick, served as a jail liaison to the press on gang issues, and fell in love with evangelism. I worked with adults inmates of all flavors, and became involved in one of Illinois's' most noted cases, a murder retrial looking at whether or not a man killed his wife and three children. I volunteered to do research for the defense. He was released, one of the most fulfilling experiences in my life.

Although there's just two paragraphs here, the jail ministry changed my view on humanity. I became friends with rapists, murderers and innocents. I learned that the worst criminal deserves the same fate as I do… all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but to whom will God deny who humbly approaches His throne?

No, I do not respect gangs. I do not respect a man who wastes his life. That is no man. Human, yes, but not a real man. The real man knows he needs to serve God, not the Crips, not the Gangster Disciples, not the Latin Kings, or the Bloods or any of the other gangrene groups ruining an urban citizen's life.
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