AT A RECENT gathering of ministers, I asked a colleague what was new at her parish. "I've been doing a lot with gang ministry," said Maria Edmonds, a pastor in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. "I'm trying to get gang members into the church. They're not accepted anywhere else. So I figure Jesus would have me spend time with them."
There are few images in our culture more frightening than that of the gang member: tattooed, armed, as likely to shoot you as look at you--as part of the member's demand for "respect." Millions of dollars are spent each year at the federal level and in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to combat gang activity and reduce gang-related violence. And as the North Carolina pastor found out, gangs are also a feature of life in many small towns.
How does the church minister to youths in street gangs and to neighborhoods marked by their presence? An even more daring question: Is there something the church can learn from the gangs? (There was a time when the church was reviled as dangerously antisocial because it provided an alternative identity and community.) From urban to rural settings, I found that churches are meeting the challenge of the gangs in a variety of creative ways. While political leaders and police focus largely on suppressing gangs, church groups are stepping in to offer alternative forms of community.
Pastor Edmonds wasn't seeking to start a ministry to gang members. She just listened, and found out that it was what kids in Franklin needed. Franklin is located in traditionally poor Appalachian country, though an influx of retirees and vacationers is changing the economic picture. The town's location between Atlanta and Charlotte makes it a highway stop for drugs as well, especially crystal meth.
Early in her tenure as associate pastor at First United Methodist Church, a teenager in the church named Robin died unexpectedly while alone at a friend's house. He was the leader of a skateboarding gang named Toxic. The circumstances of his death raised questions. Church members pondered what went wrong, what they could have done differently and what they should do now.
Skateboarders are considered a public nuisance in Macon County. Skating on public property is against the law--a law that skaters break because they see their activity as no different from, say, playing basketball. But police in Franklin stop a kid simply for carrying a skateboard; he might, after all, be about to break the law.
Edmonds had been trying to befriend the skater kids before Robin's death, bringing Kool-Aid to the places where they skated. After his death, she sensed their need for a special kind of service. She purchased a skateboard that Robin had put on layaway, placed it at the front of the sanctuary and encouraged the kids to write farewell messages to Robin on it. A hundred kids came for the unconventional memorial service. Many were in a church sanctuary for the first time. Edmonds let them tell their stories and "have their time with this space." She spoke briefly to them about heaven as a skate park.
Edmonds suggested that the church offer the kids a space to gather and skate. Ramps were built, a church member with an insurance agency supplied the needed coverage, and The Walk was born. Once a week kids gather to skate, hang out, eat together and take part in a devotional. Since this is Appalachia, many kids need further help: clothes, dental care and adult guidance--and parishioners provide it. Some kids count on The Walk for their most regular meal of the week (one brought his elderly grandfather for the food the night I was there). Some almost always wear sweatshirts and T-shirts from The Walk--they don't have many other clothes. This year, for the first time, kids from The Walk will graduate from high school on time. Others have found permanent jobs with the church's help.
Edmonds also hosts an annual "blessing of the skateboards" service in the church. …