Justin Coleman: Reclaiming holy ground

God never left the Houston neighborhoods where gangs rule, but the church did. Now a congregation is trying to change that, writes its lead pastor.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came. … Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (Matthew 4:1-3a, 11 NRSV)

Lent is a season about a journey into a wilderness.

We are often tempted on our wilderness journeys, because of the godforsakenness that we experience. Jesus, while in the wilderness, was tempted with food, power and safety. We can relate to these temptations, but unlike Jesus, we are not always able to sense the presence of the Spirit with us in the wilderness. In godforsaken places, godforsaken people are tempted to act out of desperation and deep hunger.

The gang members who dwell near our church in the Sharpstown and Gulfton areas of Houston are similarly tempted every season of the year.

Many have been tempted to make ill-gotten electronic devices become bread for tables because they or their families are hungry. Many have been tempted with the “security” of joining a group or cause, believing that the gangbanger angels will swoop in whenever there is trouble. Many have been tempted to worship the success and power gained by violence in the streets.

Isolated and often convinced they will die in this wilderness, these young gang members believe that God has forsaken them and have given up hoping for angels.

The term “godforsaken” implies that God has left a place -- that it has become bleak and desolate, that God no longer dwells there.

It is here, in a popular and seemingly benign phrase, that a subtle theology of wealth and class emerges. No one ever says a wealthy area is a godforsaken place. No, enfranchised people say this of economically depressed places. This begs the question: Has God in fact forsaken the residents of these places?

The truth is that God never left these places. But in many instances, the church did.

As functional prosperity gospel adherents, the enfranchised begin to believe that wealth and well-maintained environments are signs of God’s blessings and that poverty and struggle are perhaps even signs of God’s judgment -- godforsakenness.

But then we are reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (61:4).

As a Christian people, our task is not to abandon but to reclaim -- to reclaim in our own understanding that the earth and all that is in it is God’s, that we are standing on holy ground.

In this urban wilderness in Houston, the Gethsemane Campus of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church is called to stand shoulder to shoulder with gang members in mentoring relationships until we become family. A family is a community where no one is excluded and there is a high sense of belonging. We want those who might demonize gang members and our community to see a different way.

We are inspired by the work of the Rev. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, and his Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, which helps former gang members and other at-risk youth to become productive community members.

“The powers bent on waging war against … the ‘other’ will only be moved to kinship when they observe it,” Boyle writes in “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” “Only when we can see a community where the outcast is valued and appreciated will we abandon the values that seek to exclude.”

In Houston, most of the gang members we see are between the ages of 11 and 17. They join gangs to have some group in which to belong -- a group that has a name, signs and symbols and that will give them a new name.

These young people join gangs because of what Boyle calls a “lethal absence of hope,” but also, I have come to believe, because of a lethal absence of the church.

The church should have been the place that offered its name, signs and symbols. We should have given these young people a new name in baptism.

Our church’s work begins primarily with gang members who are part of the juvenile probation system in Houston. We connect with them through referrals from the juvenile system and through relationships in the community, and we simply offer them the opportunity to become part of a new community.

Throughout the week, these youth have opportunities to connect with our community through break dancing, service learning or time with mentors. This month classes begin for the parents of these gang members. We are training volunteers to visit a local juvenile detention facility to connect with these young people so we can be a bridge back into the community for them when they are released.

Thomas Merton writes that we find our truest selves in love, and thus it is not only the case that we offer something to the gang member, but the gang member offers something to us.

Somehow we, the church, find our truest selves in our loving them. We tell the gang members that God never left them and they do not have to walk alone. We confess that the church did leave and seek forgiveness. And then we ask, “May we walk with you?”

This Lenten season, our church is journeying with a group of young gang members who used to believe that they were godforsaken, castoff people. We met together in the wilderness and have been signs to one another of God’s presence and provision.

In this work we are reminded that, for many, the journey into the wilderness is not neatly confined to the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent. Wilderness journeys occur perennially. The task of the church is to maintain a presence in the wilderness while leaning, together, toward Easter.