In the next piece in our Community Voices series, Jorge O. shares what it’s like living in a community struggling with gang violence and how one man, a Claretian pastor at Holy Cross Parish, helped him change the way he views gang members.
The Back of the Yards neighborhood, located behind the old Chicago stockyards, is home to many families of mostly Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans. It is inhabited by low-income residents, and because of that, there isn’t much to brag about when it comes to looks. But it does have the Holy Cross Parish, it is home to good cuisine, and it is filled with a lot of youth making the place lively.
I used to think that there were two types of youth in the neighborhood: one type is involved with clubs in or outside of Holy Cross and is interested in education. The other type has one major interest—being in a gang on the street. It really makes me wonder how these second type of young people can live with themselves doing the things they do. In one minute, someone could be getting killed while you’re home deciding what to wear.
But the gangs are a part of you once you know them. The violence created by gangs is so normal that we in the neighborhood are used to seeing it. Someone who is not used to this could question how I could ever get used to gangs, but this is true about anything where when you see it long enough—it becomes normal. But even though we’re used to it, the neighborhood fears the violent acts they do for the purpose of revenge when they see rivals or enemies they despise. This is our reality.
However, this place is my home. I grew up in the neighborhood, and as a 20-year-old, I have never moved out and probably won’t for a long time. It seems there is no escaping from the gang’s troubled ways that cause nothing but despair. I started off looking at them as the “bad guys,” the “troublemakers,” and “gangbangers.” But I’ve started to see things a bit differently.
My perception of what is really going on with gangs and what they are all about changed when I talked to a long-time Claretian pastor of Holy Cross—someone who has worked with gangs a lot. I quickly saw the reality of the gangs because of his words, and I’d like to think they would change your mind about gang members a bit too.
But how did the pastor meet these gangs? It started when he began to work with youth in the parish. One young person told him that he wasn’t going to school because of “bullies.” The pastor soon discovered that these bullies were causing all sorts of problems in the neighborhood, but felt if they spent a day together, then the first steps toward change could happen.
So the pastor organized a free trip to go see the Chicago Bulls play to hook them in. Much to his surprise, the guests, these “bullies,” turned out to be gang members. When one member—a young person he hadn’t known before—greeted the pastor in a familiar, friendly way, he was shocked by the fact that he was known by gangs. So he realized the time had come to find out what these gangs were all about.
Their stories were unpleasant to say the least. The pastor explained to me what he learned: “There are many reasons a youth joins a gang, but the problem always starts at home.” Issues like domestic violence and substance abuse make it so kids don’t want to be at home, so they go out to the street.
The pastor explained he has heard stories of some members who want to continue their education, but their loyalty to their gang causes problems. That’s right, some gang members actually still care about school, which contradicts what I first thought about them. Some are kicked out despite wanting to stay in school. Others get murdered by rival gangs, creating suffering in their family from their own death. To say gang members have it tough would be an understatement. As the pastor heard more of their stories and tried to help, he knew then why all the members already knew him at the Bulls game. “You know one, then you know them all,” he said.
The pastor telling me all this changed the way I thought about them. Instead of hating them, I try to remember that these gang members might not have been raised the way I was. They don’t know about good decision making, so when a rival gang kills their family member, of course they are going to want to get revenge. This is the reality they live in. They didn’t have the privilege of having good family lives, so their family is their fellow gang members. Perhaps it’s time to use a different method of approach to fix the problem we are all really scared of: the violence.
And who is creating this violence? The gang members are, so we have to help them. These gang members have to see they can do well in life in order to slowly fix their violent behavior. They need someone to tell them that they can help in the neighborhood by working jobs or even volunteering, a voice to tell them that despite the odds, they can complete their education. They hear voices like that from the staff at Holy Cross.
The parish is all about youth getting an education, and these gang members are no exception. The voices of gang members interested in education were heard when, after a lot of work, Chicago Public Schools opened an alternative high school in the neighborhood. One story that sticks with me is that when the ribbon for the school was cut, the mayor gave a speech about how he wanted to end gangs in Chicago. There were gang members at that ceremony, and they couldn’t have cared less about what the mayor had to say. They continued to smile because all they cared about was that they were finally getting a school.
As the Holy Cross’ pastor continued to work with gangs, he saw the need for them to have real jobs. Because of him, many gang members were offered jobs cleaning up around the parish area. He wanted them to see the importance of earning a dollar through hard work rather than their selling in the streets. Not only did they get jobs around the parish, but for the first time ever, a gang member became employed at the local park.
The initial response of the public was negative. Many were already scared of them in the streets, so they weren’t so thrilled to hear that they would be working in the church and in the parks where kids played. Many were shocked that the church was affiliating with these “troublemakers.” This did not fare well especially with workers in the church. A receptionist who had to stay in the same room as the gang members when they worked threatened to quit her position.
But the pastor did not give up because he hoped people would see they were wrong about the gang members. The gang members proved they cared with the opening of the alternative high school, and he believed they would prove others wrong through this work. After weeks of work, change came. Graffiti stopped in the park, the park became a bit more peaceful, and everyone noticed. It appeared that now that gang members were working in the park, they saw the importance in what they cleaned and they wanted to keep their work clean, so they spread word that graffiti must be stopped. The same receptionist that threatened to quit admitted to being wrong and that some of the gang members were actually kind and humorous to be around. The people just had to stand up to their fear. Talking about this change, the pastor told me, “Fear paralyzes you, and if you are in fear, then you can’t live.”
The pastor was the first to help gang members, but he wasn’t the only one. The work in the parish continues, and the staff is dedicated. A lot of people now see these gang members are just young people in need of help and guidance and that the violence they create is a different issue to deal with. So many arrests and imprisonments have happened and where has that gotten us? Nowhere. Choosing to help these young people instead of punishing them is better because then change can happen. When given the chance at a new opportunity, people will take it, including gang members. We give students having a hard time with school attention, so why not gang members having a hard time with life?
This movement to stop violence will take time, but the support just needs to keep presenting itself. The neighborhood continues to have these gangs in the street, but the work isn’t over. The neighborhood feels calmer when the parish connects with everyone, including gang members, because as we see them working with the church, we learn they are on our side. Sure, I still feel uncomfortable when I walk by a group of gangs in the street, but overall I feel safer knowing the change that happens when they are given an opportunity. Obviously, my opinion on gang members has changed drastically with all this history I learned from Holy Cross’ staff. I said before that I thought there is one type of young person who is interested in education and another is a gang member who doesn’t. I was very wrong.
To support the work Holy Cross is doing in the community, please make a donation today. With your help, their programs can continue to give young gang members the support they need to get back into school, out of gangs, and onto the path for a healthy, successful future.