Cultivating Communitas

Hi, thanks for checking out my blog! This summer I'm interning with an organization called InnerCHANGE. I'll be in San Francisco from June 8 through July 30, working with at-risk youth and gang members. I would love to invite you to support me in prayer as I do this! In addition, this program costs $1600. If you would like to support me financially, that would be amazing as well. Click the "Support Me" link above my picture to do so. Every little bit helps!
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From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make.

As long as “being the Beloved” is little more than a beautiful thought or a lofty idea…, nothing really changes. What is required is to become the Beloved in the commonplaces of my daily existence and, bit by bit, to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless specific realities of everyday life.

Henri Nouwen
Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.
George MacDonald
Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly — who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship — through affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.
James K A Smith

Having conversations with some of the gangbangers who we hang out with here in the city has definitely opened my eyes to the severity of that lifestyle. I’ve realized the complexity of gangs and the severity of regulations that gangbangers are under, and recognized that I’ve only just scratched the surface of their lives. To me, it’s a miracle that my team here has built these relationships as long as they have; some of them up to six years. There is no way I can wrap my mind around the fact that gangbangers willingly come multiple times a week to our house to eat dinner, go over Bible stories, watch movies, and play video games and card games with us, other than to attribute it to the work of God, and I’m grateful for the love He shows to this city. Last night we had a good conversation with a few of the guys at Bible study, and they were explaining to us essentially how impossible they felt it was to simply convert to Christianity. For those not exposed to gang culture and who hear the calling of Christ, they explained, committing to that faith, to that way of life was one thing. But for those who have already committed to life with a certain gang, changing that commitment was suicide. “Dropouts” to gangs are found and killed. You can run, but it really is only a matter of time before they find you. Asking these guys to leave their gangs for the Christian faith is literally asking them to commit suicide. This hit me last night; for these guys, Christ is asking them to trust Him with their lives, with the full knowledge that they could lose them. Most American Christians don’t know what this kind of commitment is. They’ve never had to make that life or death choice before—I certainly don’t claim to understand the full weight of that. One of the guys mentioned that if he had met us (our ministry) sooner, before he had committed to his gang, his life would be much different. And it wasn’t just himself he was worried about, but his mother, his girlfriend, his brothers, and his three year old daughter. These guys are completely owned by their gangs and don’t yet see Christ as a legitimate Savior from that life. But it’s a process, as even they were willing to admit. It’d be great if you could pray for their continued growth in Christ, and my wisdom as I live life with them.

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our fellow men throughout the world who live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them through our hands this day their daily bread, and by our understanding love, give peace and joy.
Mother Teresa

"Beautiful Things" - Gungor

These past couple of weeks have been more challenging, as I process what it means to love those I minister to. The most heartbreaking challenge I have met with so far involves my increased observation of gang culture. Some of these observations have been really difficult to swallow.

For instance, it is rare to find any male in this culture who has grown up with a father or any sort of other positive role model. These guys’ lives revolve completely around drugs (doing and selling), drinking, and sex. They constantly brag about these things, trying to one-up each other in the power play for respect. The gang culture highly values respect, but the primary way it is gained is by male power plays. To be the alpha male and maintain that power, they degrade, belittle, and physically beat down the guys around them. Outsiders are expected to turn a blind eye; interferers are scorned.

What has frustrated me most, is that women have no place in the fight for respect. Instead, they are endlessly objectified as part of the obsession with sex. As a result, they turn to sneaky, more subtle but just as cruel ways of gaining power over men, but have to be careful, because as a general rule they are physically abused when “out of place”.

Taking all of this in and being surrounded by it as much as I am can be tiring, exhausting, frustrating. It’s difficult to love people like this on my own. I have left the worst of times like this caught up in how broken this culture is, and how heartbreaking it is that my team has been building some of these relationships for five or six years and yet still some of these guys highlight the worst parts of their culture, daily.

But I keep coming back to the realization that I am them. I am the broken and unredeemable, the cast out and societal dregs. By all rights I too should be given up, but God so loved the world. Our team believes in something greater: in a worldview that says people, no matter who they are or what they’ve down or how they’ve been tainted, have been given worth by God and therefore are loveable.

I heard Beautiful Things, by Gungor, in church this past Sunday and remembered that beauty can come from pain; that that’s exactly what I, as a Christian, believe. So if y’all could pray for me this week, as I figure out how to love these guys, that would be great, because something is bringing them back to our ministry here. Something has had them sticking around for the past five, six years. I ask for prayer that I would not only know the love that surpasses knowledge but therefore love as I am loved.

Though my neighborhood is diverse, Latino culture seeps through the fabric of the city. The main gangs we are seeking to build relationships with, the Norteños and Sureños, are mostly comprised of second and third generation Latino young adults. San Francisco itself has Spanish and Central American history, and because of that there are many aspects of Latino and Hispanic religion, folklore, and culture that play pronounced parts in the every day lives of the gangs. One such thing my team has noticed is Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. Santa Muerte goes by many names, one of which is Santa Sebastienne, which highlights the connection to the Catholic church (Saint Sebastian was a martyr of the faith and is the patron saint of, among other things, death).

In the process of spiritual mapping, my team has noticed many Latino religious shops that sell Santa Muerte figurines or icons. In addition, our team has received questions about Santa Muerte from gangbangers we’ve built relationship with. We began to sense that Santa Muerte’s place in both the community and gang culture seemed to have much deeper roots than we had first realized and so decided to dig further.

A simple Google search turned up countless helpful links. It turns out that many pray and pay homage to the Saint of Death to gain protection against death. It’s actually become its own religion. In Mexico, for instance, many drug rings worship Santa Muerte for protection. As Mexicans and Central Americans immigrate to the States, they have brought the Santa Muerte religion with them into the cities. Consequently, innercity gangs comprised of second and third generation youth bring this religion into their gangs, sometimes in full-out worship, other times in just traces and rumors.

After taking all this in, things began to make more sense. The gangs we work with are primarily drug gangs; they typically deal the harder stuff: coke, speed, and others. It is literally a million dollar industry, with dealers raking in tens of thousands of dollars a day. Violence surrounding the industry is widespread, and the resulting interest in Santa Muerte by its members comes from the culturally hispanic roots.

The Catholic church in Mexico has spoken out against the Santa Muerte religion. Santa Muerte’s followers have twisted Catholic liturgy and rites to worship her, and the Catholic church has in turn called out the religion as in no way related to the true Catholic faith and instead as essentially a devil-worshipping cult.

We as a team, therefore, have become increasingly aware of the more subtle evil that has roots in our neighborhood. Santa Muerte is hidden beneath the surface everywhere. We see bumper stickers driving through the neighborhood, or Santa Muerte symbols subtly painted into a brightly colored, beautiful mural on an elementary school wall. Despite these new realizations, our job description hasn’t changed; we proceed in our spiritual mapping with caution and faith. As followers of Christ, we are called to be a light in darkness, and we will continue to be a presence in our community, walking the streets in prayer.

Pancakes with the crew in Golden Gate (Taken with Instagram at Golden Gate Park)

This is San Francisco (Taken with Instagram)