A group of about 20 concerned Latino mothers gathers on Fridays—typically one of the more violent nights of the week—at the Dolores Mission parish in Los Angeles to pray. The women regularly ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" After their Friday night prayers, they follow up on what they believe is an answer to the question.

The group, with bullets sometimes flying overhead, walk through their children's turf carrying signs that read "We Love You" and "Don't Kill Each Other." They then invite whoever they find on the streets to their next barbecue for the youth of the barrio. The shooting quiets down, if only for the duration of the walk. But the witness of their walk is not lost on anyone.

"The parish's work has really brought the community closer together," says Grumpy, 23, a member of the Clarence Street Locos gang.

With about 6 million violent crimes committed annually, Americans have become intensely concerned about safety for themselves and their children. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 44 percent of respondents believe that the most important issue for government to deal with is crime, compared to the 34 percent who put health-care reform as most important.

The Clinton administration has put crime legislation near the top of its legislative priorities for this year. But the $22 billion crime bill has drawn criticism for its approach to solving crime by simply spending more money on prisons and police. A central irony in the debate is that while the U.S. prison population has increased fourfold since the 1960s, violent crime has gone up 560 percent.

As lawmakers in Washington labor on the crime bill, Christians and churches are working in little publicized but effective anticrime initiatives of their own that focus on individuals, communities, and neighborhoods.

Approaches such as the one Dolores Mission mothers take get at the heart of what John Perkins, a leading figure in urban ministry, says is how the church must respond: "It's no coincidence that as the church pulled from problem areas, violence mushroomed. Our nation faces a crisis greater than the breakdown of the family—the breakdown of community. The burden lies with the church to change this."

Charles Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, sees that much of what is leading youth to commit crimes is a reflection of society's moral state. "Today parents spend 40 percent less time with their children than their own parents did," he said in a prepared statement. "So there have got to be moral solutions. More prisons are not going to reduce crime. Fear doesn't change people's behavior, love does."

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Colson strongly believes that the kind of public fear that is driving new crime legislation could lead America toward becoming a police state. "The dark truth is that people always prefer order to chaos—even when imposed at the cost of freedom," Colson says. "So there is much more at stake here than building prisons and writing new laws. At stake is nothing less than our liberty."


A key misconception in the debate over crime and violence is that America's inner cities are overflowing with lawless youth bent on revenge and mayhem.

"The ways people are talking about crime really demonizes urban youth," says Jude Tiersma, an urban mission coordinator at Fuller Theological Seminary and a resident of inner-city Los Angeles. Tiersma, who occasionally brings one of her young neighbors, perhaps a gang member, to talk to her class, tells of the astonishment on the part of her seminary students when they meet them.

"They are surprised at how human they are. 'I had no idea' they tell me." She adds, "The crucial thing that needs to happen in the debate about crime is to realize we're talking about real people, not monsters."

Greg Boyle, a priest at the Roman Catholic Dolores Mission, works with urban families in Los Angeles and has buried 32 teenage victims of violence. "If we are going to be the church of Jesus, we have to extend the welcome mat out to them," Boyle says, emphasizing that not enough congregations make outreach to unchurched youth a priority.

"What the streets are saying to the church is, 'If you can't deal with me, you can't be following the real savior,'" says Mac Charles Jones, pastor of a Baptist church in inner-city Kansas City, Missouri.


What does it look like when church members live, work, and minister in high crime areas? Nonviolent crime prevention, for example, is but one of many efforts Christians are using, sometimes at grave personal risk.

One evening, while standing on a Chicago mass transit platform, Pete Begly of the Christian Peacemaker Corps was asked at knifepoint for his wallet. As a Christian committed to nonviolent crime prevention, Begly decided to practice what he had been preaching.

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"Well," he said slowly but firmly to his assailant, "You can't have it. It's my wallet."
But the man shook the knife at him. "Hand it over!"
"Okay," Begly responded. "Nothing in my wallet is worth hurting me or you. Here, you can have it." But as he handed over his wallet, Begly asked if he could have $1 to get home on the train.

And after he got his dollar he asked for his driver's license. "It'll save me a lot of hassle," he explained. Then the robber did the unexpected—he threw the whole wallet back at Begly and turned to flee. At that point, police arrived at the platform, possibly in response to a report from others nearby, but Begly decided against turning in the would-be thief.

For the past seven years, the Christian Peacemaker Corps has been experimenting with nonviolent intervention in international hot spots such as Haiti and the Gaza Strip. In Haitian villages, for instance, their presence served as a deterrent for human rights abuses on the part of the police and army as well as armed thugs in their employ.

Now the group hopes to see their methods work in urban America. Cole Arendt, John Reuwer, and Kathy Kern—all in their thirties—are part of a Christian Peacemaker Corps pilot program in Washington, D.C., which has one of North America's highest crime rates. Arendt says, "Many situations in the United States would be called civil war in other countries."

Among the Peacemaker Corps' goals—with a foundation of prayer and worship—are networking with other peacemaking groups, escorting people threatened by violence, and training individuals in conflict mediation and nonviolence principles, many of which employ well-researched psychological principles by behavioral psychiatrists.

The heart of their approach is "to treat every human being like they are a child of God." If the pilot program works out, they hope to duplicate the model in other urban areas.

The idea for these peace mobilization units began in 1984 when Ron Sider spoke at the Mennonite World Conference and challenged churches to raise thousands of "peace foot soldiers." Sider asked, "Are you willing to lay down your life for peace?"

Though many meet the Peacemaker Corps with deep skepticism in an age of semiautomatic weapons and irrational drive-by shootings, members of these units take their inspiration from those who have successfully gone before them in the face of vengeful violence, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

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A different model for Christians working against violent crime emerged as a result of a violent interruption during a church worship service in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a neighborhood of Boston.

A teenager fleeing rival gang members ran into a church for cover. To his astonishment, the pursuing attackers did not stop at the church doors, but rushed into the sanctuary, spraying bullets as the congregation and the pastor, who darted behind the pulpit, took cover.

Afterwards, church leaders from the area held a news conference. Eugene Rivers, pastor of Boston's Azusa Community Church, told the news media, "If the church won't go to the streets, the streets will come to the church."

With those words ringing in their ears, several Boston-area pastors committed themselves to going into the streets to build relationships and develop programs from "the street-level" up. To their surprise, they were welcomed. "How come it's taken you so long to get out here?" they were asked.

"Gang kids also want the violence to stop," says Jean Sindab, program director for Economic and Environmental Justice at the National Council of Churches. "They are telling us, 'You can help lead us to the Lord. We have habits only God can cure.' "

Complicating the ability of Christian workers to reach out to today's urban youth is that so often the government response to crime becomes inadvertently targeted at people of color, leading to a greater number of blacks and Latinos in prison.

Roberto Rivera, director of research and development at Justice Fellowship, an arm of Prison Fellowship, observes that many of the people jailed under the federal War on Drugs have been African Americans and Latinos, although studies clearly show that drug use among nonwhites and whites is about the same. "You have to ask if the War on Drugs really is a War on Minority Drug Offenders," he says.

Former gang member Luis Rodriquez, author of "Always Running: La Vida Loca—Gang Days in LA," said, "When I was in a gang, the only thing I felt I had control over was whether I lived or died. It was a powerfully empowering thing. I would deliberately put myself in the line of fire. It was a way of saying, 'I exist.' Miraculously I survived." Christians at work against urban violence hope for many more such miracles of survival. Rivers, seeing this generation caught up in urban violence, puts the matter in starker terms: "We've got to reclaim our children."

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Boyce "Bo" Allen, as a member of the Unknown Vice Lords on Chicago's West Side, served as the gang's "enforcer"—the one responsible for wounding or even killing rival gang members. At the height of his criminal career, Allen had an unexpected encounter that changed his life.

"One of my boys brings around this white preacher dude who greets me and gives me a Bible, and I thought to myself, 'What am I going to do out on the street with a Bible when I'm getting ready for some heavy actions?' But he kept coming around, and asked me if I'd read the book yet."

One day when he was bored, Allen did begin reading the Bible, and then read some more, causing him to reflect on his future.

"I knew I couldn't stay on the streets forever, and the only future in what I was doing was death or jail," Allen says. "One day I went to church, and that just blew all my brothers' minds. "Soon after, Allen became a Christian and saw his life transformed.

Gordon McLean, the "white dude," feels that "unless you make a change on the inside of a kid's life, what you do on the outside won't make any difference."

"But,' adds McLean, a 40-year-veteran working with gang members as a minister with Youth for Christ's Juvenile Justice Ministry, "once a gang member makes a faith commitment to Christ, then education, job training, counseling, and church all become extremely important." That's why the point of contact with gang members for McLean and his full- and part-time staff of 20 is in prisons and juvenile detention centers, using Bible studies.

Once a youth with whom a relationship has been established is released from prison, the ministry team follows up by hanging out on the gang member's turf, such as a basketball court. This way they meet the rest of the gang and determine what other needs may exist.

"We are accepted by them," McLean says, "because we cared for one of their own who was in trouble by posting bail, recommending a good lawyer, and visiting them while they were incarcerated."

From these contacts, Youth for Christ forms Bible-study groups and every six weeks holds a "United Nations" meeting in a suburban church where around 60 rival gang members who in the neighborhood might be trying to kill each other-gather for pizza, games, and discussions about Jesus.

In addition to many conversions, more than 50 gang members have found jobs through the ministry team's efforts.

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