Gang Life

OCTOBER 2012: AS WE SEE IT

by Danny Iverson

I buried Daniel last Friday. He was nineteen years old. It’s been two weeks since he was murdered and I was hoping all the emotions would have faded by now, but they haven’t. Kimberly, my wife, has wept every day as she thinks about him. It is still hard to believe he is gone. He was one of the first kids I met in Newark when I moved there in 2003 to help my grandfather replant an inner-city church.

He was eleven when I met him. I’ll never forget the day. This wide-eyed little African American boy with a basketball in his hands walked by me as I was sitting on the porch. I asked him if he liked basketball and he simply said: “I can beat you.” So I challenged him and made the stakes quite high. If he beat me I would give him five bucks, but if he lost to the white boy (me), he would have to come to church with me that Sunday. I beat him real good—so good he started coming to the church every day and brought all his friends. He always wanted to be around me. When Kimberly and I were falling in love and she started coming up to Newark to see me, we would pretty much just hang out with Daniel and “The Brick City Kids” the whole time. After dinner we would try to send the kids home so we could have some time together or go out on a date, but Daniel would always pout, never understanding why he couldn’t go with us. He was like a son to me, and I had become the father figure he longed for.

It was hard to watch the circumstances of Daniel’s life unfold. The choices he made brought inevitable consequences. As a thirteen-yearold, he had accepted Jesus as his savior and joined the church on his own. When he was fifteen, his mom lost the apartment where the whole family, along with lots of relatives, was living—about eight of them in a small two-bedroom. She moved into a different housing project with her boyfriend and the father of her newest baby. Daniel had to move in with his uncle in a housing project with serious gang issues. Slowly we watched him fall into the traps of gang life. I remember visiting him in jail when he was sixteen. He started coming to the church again, and I saw hints of the faith he had so honestly confessed. Like a struggling f lower, it was still there, trying to stay alive in the midst of a blizzard.

I remember driving home with him from a youth retreat in Virginia and hearing him talk about how Jesus was the only thing that got him through each day of his hard life. Multiple times he confessed that he wished things could go back to the way it used to be, to the good old days before I had my own kids and a ministry to run, back when we could just hang out all the time.

There are thousands of Daniels in our Newark community, many that have never heard or been exposed to the love of God and the peace and hope offered in the gospel. Those are the types of kids that murdered Daniel, shot him down as he tried to run from them, and then stood over him and unloaded twenty-two bullets into his body.

So many of these kids in Newark join the gang in their community to feel safe, to find comfort in the midst of life’s storms, to feel like they have power and control in their lives, to feel good about themselves. The innercity culture has its norms, just like any other society, things people do to help them deal with the hard parts of life. We all jump on bandwagons and follow the crowds around us toward the norms of our community. Every gang promises certain levels of safety, comfort, control, and self-esteem. Like gang members in the inner-city community, members of any group invest their time, abilities, and resources in hopes of being accepted into their particular group. Failure to comply with a certain group’s norms usually means termination from that group. When people join a country club, or choose to live in a gated community, when they become fans of a certain sports team, or even join a religion, there are norms that the group expects to be followed. Your lawn has to look a certain way, or a certain type of car is expected to be parked in your driveway. You need to put in your time and pay your dues, and you definitely can’t wear the opposing team’s colors on game days. If you don’t conform to the norms of your gang, you are warned, ridiculed, and usually terminated from membership. Daniel’s own gang members were the ones who decided his fate and chose to end his nineteen-year-old life.

All of this makes me think about the various gangs in my own life whose norms I submit myself to. It makes me ask why I devote so much of my time, energy, and resources toward my membership in such groups. How significant and eternal are my gangs? Why is my joy so affected by my status in them? Why do I fear termination?

By actively choosing not to spend time with the least of these in this world—people who can’t give us anything in return, people who we think don’t deserve our time or resources, the marginalized and lowly of the world, even our enemies—we are actively choosing not to spend time with Jesus. Our fantasy football leagues consume our time and energy while fatherless kids like Daniel wish they had one person who would spend even a few minutes throwing the football with them. Those twenty-two bullets shot into the body of Daniel made me think once again about what it really means to be a servant of Jesus and to serve this world he loves. The Lord Jesus is leading a war of peace on this world and seeking members to join in his mission of global restoration.

Danny Iverson was a pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Newark, New Jersey, and founder of Safe Haven Urban Redemption (www.safenewark.org), a community development ministry in Newark. He currently lives in Orlando, Florida, where he is finishing a master’s degree at Reformed Theological Seminary.