Friday, August 05, 2011

The Interrupters

NPR did a very interesting interview with some folks involved with a documentary, which is entitled The Interrupters. I haven't seen the documentary yet; and I am not even sure if it has been released to the general American public yet. I comment, however, because I am familiar with the group the documentary is talking about: Ceasefire.

When I was a seminarian in Chicago, I was at a parish in the north side of Chicago that was in a pretty rough neighborhood. There were a lot of immigrant groups, many of whom didn't get along. There was also a lot of gang violence. This is simply a fact of life in most urban (and increasingly rural) areas in modern America. As such, I had some contacts with the Ceasefire group.

There are several groups that have tried to tackle gang violence in Chicago, many of whom have had limited success. Many groups are motivated by extreme political ideology. If one is not a member of a certain strand of one certain political party, their methodology will be found to be problematic for many (including myself). A lot of the anti-gang groups try to basically brainwash kids into thinking their ideological way, and, as one would expect, has limited success. My experience with Ceasefire, however, was that it was much less politically motivated and geared more towards behavior modification. Though not a perfect solution, the Ceasefire methods were actually pretty productive to that end.

In the movie trailer, they capture a lot of my own experience with gangs. In South Dakota, we have a large population of Native Americans. In fact, half of the churches in this diocese are primarily made up of members the Lakota tribe. During one summer in seminary, I was an intern on the Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota. I worked largely under a priest who was in charge of several parish churches and chapels on that Reservation. During that ministry to a radically different culture, I came to a greater understanding of many things, particularly the notion of family. I came to understand why the allure of gangs has such a powerful hold on young people.

Traditional Lakota culture is very tribe oriented. Respect for elders, communal learning, and cultural identity are very important factors in that culture historically. However, with the onslaught of alcoholism, oppression, and various other factors, violent, urban style gangs have arisen on the Reservations. I had trouble understanding how or why such a gang culture, something highly antithetical to traditional Lakota values, could be so alluring to the youth. Largely, the tribal government was likewise at a loss as to why this was happening. In my ministry to the youth there, I asked some middle school age children about that one time. The answer a ten year old gave me was phenomenally enlightening and something I have never forgotten. He said, “That's easy! Gangs give kids a family. When your parents are constantly passed out drunk on the floor, who wants to claim that as your family?”

Usually, what I tell kids who might be interested in gangs is to ask them, if and when they get arrested for whatever gang violence they get caught doing, is that family willing to do jail time for you? Is that family willing to visit you when you're in prison? If not, that ain't your family. That's basically the message of Ceasefire, and that's the message of the Church. The Church is your family. 

It's not perfect, but it will be there for you when you get arrested. Your gang family surely won't. 

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