Church is in session on a Wednesday night in White Center, and Pastor Joe Lopez doesn't want his parishioners to forget about Maria "Sweetheart" Failautusi, the 24-year-old woman who was gunned down on August 18 by three alleged gang members at a bus stop just a few blocks away from where he is standing.
"You turn on the news and see that people are getting killed right here in our own backyard," Lopez says, his voice rising from a hefty frame. "How many know there is an evil one lurking in the darkness to take this generation out? I know. I was all messed up, all down and out, all confused. But Jesus brought me out of the darkness..."
He continues preaching about fire and brimstone while promising salvation, punctuating his sentences throughout the sermon with the line, "And the gang says..."
To which the 50-strong congregation responds on cue: "Amen!"
The "gang" in the eerily scripted call-and-response is the youth group at Seattle's Victory Outreach Church. It's an acronym that stands for "God's Anointed Now Generation." The parish is part of Victory Outreach International, an evangelical organization that proselytizes to ex-cons and people with substance-abuse problems. Pastor John Heredia established the Seattle outpost in 1985, and for the past four years Lopez and Heredia's 24-year-old son Samuel has hosted "G.A.N.G. Night," targeting at-risk Latino teens and their parents.
After Lopez's sermon, Heredia pulls 17-year-old Mauricio Rodriguez aside to talk. A wiry soccer player whose broad smile reveals a mouthful of braces, Rodriguez shares how he started taking drugs when he was 10, and by the time he hit eighth grade he was snorting meth and showing up drunk to school every day. He describes being recruited by the Vatos Locos gang, and his otherwise boyish face still bears a gnarly scar on the nose from the beating he received when they jumped him in. He arrived at the church through a court-ordered rehab program.
"I came here with my bandanna on, just thugging," Rodriguez says. "Other churches would say 'Take that off,' but here they didn't care, so I came back. This church really changed my perspective on life. I started having goals. I'm going to be the first person from my family to graduate [from high school] and go to college."
Image Source A packed house at Victory Outreach in White Center.
As mentioned in this week's feature story on Latino gangs, such abrupt, drastic conversions are actually not uncommon. Carlos Garza, the Mr. Buzzard pictured on our cover, partially credits his rejuvenated faith for helping him quit the gang life after nearly three decades spent in and out of prison and addicted to cocaine and heroin.
According to Thomas Ward, an anthropology professor at USC who studies Latino street-gang members, many gangbangers are raised "culturally Catholic," laying the foundation for spiritual awakening later in life. "There's this stereotype of the 'gang member for life' that gets perpetuated," Ward says. "The reality is--and we now have 30 years of excellent research on street-gang membership to back this up--the vast majority mature out or age out of the gang. They get too old for it. They burn out . . . Often the church fills that gap of support in their frayed social net."
Here's more on that transformation from our feature story:
Secular outreach workers and former gang members talk often about the importance of "replacing the social element" that makes gang life so alluring. The substitute can be anything from a lowrider car club to a boxing gym--camaraderie and positive reinforcement are what's critical. Garza's summer program, for instance, included field trips to a Seahawks preseason game and to Wild Waves, and hosted several cookouts in local parks. In those settings, it quickly became obvious that despite their hardships, the kids ultimately just wanted to hang out with their friends and have a good time.
"It's like everything else," Garza says. "They just want a sense of belonging."
At Victory Outreach, the sense of belonging is a come-as-you-are environment and frequent meetings like "G.A.N.G. night" that allow ex-gang members to worship, socialize, and receive strong moral support from their peers.
"The gangs provide this image of family, power, respect, back-up," says Heredia, the youth pastor. "This generation wants to be a part of something, so we let them dedicate their lives to the church instead."
After the services at one G.A.N.G. night, 16-year-old Daniel Vargas describes how gangs are a family tradition. He was raised in San Jose, and many of his uncles are members of norteño gangs. Seattle's Latino gangs are primarily sureños, the sworn enemies of norteños, so when Vargas' family moved to the area, he says he established his own norteño crew and began targeting sureños for random acts of violence.
"I would punk 'em," Vargas says. "We'd rally up the homies and start fights. Nothing real serious, you know, just kid stuff."
Then he recalls how he got jumped himself in the summer of 2009 and took a severe beating. That prompted him to reevaluate his life, and his Catholic upbringing led him to the evangelical Victory Outreach. He's been a regular ever since, much to the chagrin of his norteño extended family.
"I won't kick it with them like I used to," Vargas says. "Discouragement goes on behind the scenes, but I don't let that get to me. The only way I'm able to shut 'em up is with the word of God."