It is the peak of the warm summer season. Violence escalates as gangs beat their verbal war drums. Graffiti mark their territories and chalk outlines testify to their exploits. But they don’t speak for the majority of our youth in the cities. The four young men I’ve profiled below represent their peers at large. I’ve withheld their names to protect their identities.
I think of 16 year old A who studies hard and is excelling in school. A superb soccer athlete, he shows as much dedication to his younger siblings and his parents, as he does his other interests. A prime target candidate for gang recruiters, he makes the better choice. The courageous choice. You likely will never see his name in the media; he’s okay with that since he is too busy doing the right thing for those he loves.
Of course there is also 15 year old J who is a natural leader and terrific athlete. He is excels in whatever sport he tries, but that is not what impresses me most. He also looks out for the younger kids in the neighborhood. A fierce competitor, he shows remarkable grace and gentleness with little ones who strive to improve their skills.
And how can I not mention T, a scrappy, hard working athlete who defied early expectations and is growing into a disciplined leadership presence on the basketball court, notwithstanding some rough edges. At 15, he excels in his studies and has high hopes of succeeding in life. His Vietnamese upbringing exposed him to Bhuddist thought, yet he is very much Americanized.
And last, there is 16 year old M. He also is a hard worker and a leader particularly among the other Muslim youth in our neighborhood. A good athlete, what he lacks in basketball acumen, he makes up for it through shear determination. He is slowly warming up to me, demonstrated by a recent willingness to receive coaching instruction from me concerning specific basketball skills.
These four young men represent their peers in my neighborhood. I’ve spent many hours with them, coaching them, listening to them, observing them in the neighborhood as they interact with their families and each other, and praying for them. Indeed, i pray not only them but for all the kids and their families whom I’ve grown to love.
They are a diverse group, representing many nations, ethnicities, languages, customs, religions, and expectations. But like you and me, they hope, they hurt, they feel, they love, and they fail. Many of these kids are prime targets for the gangs, for the wicked plans of manipulative marauders who sweep in on vulnerable, impressionable kids and youth to convince them that gang life offers true family. For some of these kids, it’s a pretty persuasive argument. My prayer is that the young leaders I have profiled above will provide the additional positive influence their peers and younger siblings need.
They have potential to be a formidable influence for good in a neighborhood often forgotten by the city, but deeply loved by a small church which is learning to love well, and deeply loved by a middle-aged truck driver who desires to serve them in the margins as a representative of Christ through the daily routines of life. In a nation torn by violence and racial strife, we need stories of young men like these who despite their diversity as a group–Black, White, Vietnamese, Mexican, and Middle-eastern–they figure out how to overcome their many differences and simply get along.
Violence is the easy path. The gangs have that figured out already. Reconciliation? That’s where the real courage and hard work is required. My young friends in my neighborhood have some things to teach us about bravely doing the right things, even when it hurts.
What courageous act will you do this week to promote reconciliation in your neighborhood?