"You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off; fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God." (Isaiah 41:10).
We at St. Anne's are blessed to have hundreds of students in our religious education programs. These students provide for our community rich sources of insight into the heart of God and the tensions of the modern world.
For example, following the shooting death of Angelica Osorio, I visited some of our middle school students to seek their insight as to why young men and women are drawn to the evils of gang life. Their responses varied from "desire to fit in" and "poor home life" to "look good for girls". One response that I found very helpful was given by a young seventh-grade girl who said, "People join gangs because they want to 'get their name out' on the street. They want people to treat them with respect."
Our conclusion, as a class, was that men want to "get their name out" because if they don't, they feel vulnerable. Without a type of "respect" for who they are, there is a strong fear amongst young men that they will be attacked, either physically or emotionally/psychologically.
Out of this fear, they join other young men who, together, are less vulnerable to assault. This fear of harm is so strong that young men are willing to avoid it at all costs and, in some cases, are even willing to resort to violence if such violence secures their place of safety in the group.
The Lord shared with me another insight in reading the autobiography "Heart and Fist." This work, written by Navy Seal Eric Greitens, recounts his journey into the most elite group of military soldiers on the planet. Greitens, in his reflection on "Hell Week," writes, "I — like all of the others in the tent that night — had grown up in a modern America that offered its young men few tests. As a kid I read about Spartans, the Romans, the Knights of the Round Table. I studied Native Americans, aboriginal cultures, and ancient Jewish tribes. Past cultures all seemed to offer young men some orderly set of trials that allowed one to progress into manhood. America offered very little ... Men came to BUD/S for many reasons, but to some extent we all shared at least one reason: We wanted to be tested. We wanted to prove ourselves worthy."
Could it be that our young men are simply looking for some way to be tested, to prove their "manhood"? What can we, as a community, offer as an alternative to the ugly tests of violence that gangs provide?
The insights of our young people, that fear is a strong motivator for gang membership, and of this Navy Seal, that young men need some sort of trial through which to advance into "manhood," present a strong challenge for me as a leader in our community.
I am challenged by these insights to find ways/venues where young men and women can come together without fear and with safe challenges that enhance their self-awareness and confidence. Provide a safe "harbor," so to speak, where young people can discover who they are in the light of God's love. "Fear not, for I am with you ..."
I pray for guidance moving forward, and rejoice at the prospect of our city leaders working together to help alleviate fear and provide challenges that lead young people away from the ugliness of gang life.
Father Brandon Ware is pastor at St. Anne's Church.