Madame de Staël, a famous French Revolutionary writer, said, “The more we know, the better we forgive. Those who feel deeply feel for all living beings.” I feel that compassion and empathy in the world are dying with each progressive year. One individual of a race or nation does something terrible and society thinks that just because that individual did something bad, that must mean the rest of his race/nation is exactly the same. Some individuals are forced into positions due to the environment they are placed in. Just because an individual joins an organization with a bad reputation doesn’t mean we should entirely shun the individual or hate them for doing so. One of these positions that I speak of is joining gangs.
As a volunteer missionary for my church, I spent two years in the ghettos of Southern Georgia and South Carolina. I lived among the people there and fell in love with them. They taught me lessons I will always treasure and lessons I could have not gained elsewhere. Gangs were a huge part of ghetto life. Many joined them for protection and to find a family. Although I am not thrilled with the activities some of these gangs participate in, I respect them because they respected me while I did my work in their communities. I would like to share applicable lessons I learned from a Crip gang member in Southern Georgia.
When I was serving in November 2010, the missionary I was with and I spotted a young man walking through the projects. He looked intimidating. He wore saggy jeans, blue hat, gold necklace, had huge tattoos on his neck, and was massive. To this day, we are pretty sure he was a part of the Crip gang since a majority of what he wore was blue and that gang was prominent in that particular city we lived in. We eventually summoned up the courage to go talk to him. Joshua* (name changed) ended up becoming one of our good friends and even came to church with us a few times, along with inviting us over to his place. We even once played football with him and several other kids in those particular projects.
One day while we sat with him on the porch of his apartment, Joshua told us, “I know I am a scary guy to talk to. Yet, you two white guys came over here to talk with me. That’s saying something about y’alls character.” Unfortunately, not everyone could see Joshua in the same way. I clearly remember the Sunday we brought him to church. Joshua received several glares and one man who saw us walk in quickly pressed himself against the wall so as to be nowhere close. It was sad to see. Because of that Joshua didn’t feel comfortable coming to church. He told us, “I wish the rest of y’alls church could see me as y’all do.”
In my church, we partake of the sacrament, or the communion, as it’s commonly called. We believe that the bread and water are the symbols of our Savior Jesus Christ who died so that we may return to live with him again someday. We partake of the sacrament every Sunday at the beginning of each meeting. When we walked into the chapel of our meetinghouse, Joshua took his blue hat off and was silent. The sacrament was passed to us. When the tray came to Joshua, he shook his head to me and whispered, “Man, I’ve been doing a lot of wrong this week. I can’t take that.” I was impressed. Here I was, sitting next to a Crip gang member who was humble enough to recognize that his life was not in order, and he, like all of us, had much to improve on.
Although not all my experiences with gang members were positive, I did learn a lesson from Joshua. Just because you are a member of a notorious gang doesn’t mean you are an overall bad person. I have seen it with my own eyes. It breaks my heart when I listen to people tell me they don’t want to associate with a certain group of people and they see them as vile. There are some people in those areas you do want to avoid, but not everyone is bad.
One last example is of two unbiased people–my parents. When I returned for a visit to my mission in 2011, they wanted to meet all the people I had worked with in the South. In one city, we agreed to treat four African American teenagers I had worked with to lunch at a food court in a local mall. When they failed to show up, I called and quickly realized they didn’t have a car. The only way they were going to get there was if we picked them up. They didn’t live in a safe neighborhood. In their neighborhood alone, there was a drug house and also a gang that had chased me out with my companion, threatening to kill us. I told my dad of the situation and explained the type of area these teenagers lived in. My dad nodded his head, smiled, and said, “Let’s pick them up!” And that we did. My parents treated these four teenagers great. My mom was constantly asking the four of them questions about their lives and learning all she could about them. My dad was coaxing one of the more hesitant teenagers to choose something to eat and even walked with him around the food court to help him decide. I learned that these teenagers, besides working with me, had never associated with white people and had stereotypes of them. My parents helped remove those.
So what do these stories have to do with you? I would encourage you to have empathy for all people, regardless of what you see in the news. Learn to love all people, regardless of what you see or hear about their race or nation. I never would have imagined that a Crip gang member could teach me so much in such a short time. Put this challenge to the test–show more empathy.
Me in a poorer part of Bluffton, South Carolina in October of 2009.