A safe haven in gang country

Compton, Calif. Corps works with community leaders and area churches to provide alternatives to gang involvement.

by Janet Chismar – 

“We all know people who have been shot,” says Damaris, a 15-year-old who attends the Lifeline Charter School at The Salvation Army Compton Corps. “It’s really easy to get guns in Compton.”

“We are used to violence,” 16-year-old Jose chimes in. Four other students—who gathered in the corps office to discuss the impact of gangs in their community—nod in agreement.

The five teens have seen more death and violence in the span of a few years than most adults will in a lifetime. In 2006, the FBI rated Compton as the fourth most dangerous city in the United States. Compton’s homicide rate is approximately eight times higher than the national average, most of which are gang killings.

Karen, a shy 14-year-old, says that living in the midst of gang activity scares her. “It is hard,” she reveals. “We all hear gun shots every night. When that happens, I just stay away from windows and keep the lights off. And I never go out after the sun goes down.”
The rest of the group signals agreement.

Girls in Compton are not immune from recruitment efforts. “We are supposed to identify with the gangs in our neighborhood,” explains 14-year-old Tatiana. “We’re under just as much pressure to join as the guys,” Alyeree, who is 15, says, “You have to be tough to live here.”

Safe haven in a war zone

In the middle of this war zone, The Salvation Army’s Compton Corps Community Center serves as a safe haven. The 22,008-square-foot facility is equipped with a chapel, the Lifeline Charter School, a regulation-sized basketball court, a fully-stocked weight room known as The Lord’s Gym, an industrial kitchen, a computer room and a playground.

Led by an African-American executive director who is fluent in Spanish, the Compton Corps intentionally demonstrates bridge building between the city’s predominant populations. “Our building is situated in a low-income neighborhood comprised primarily of Hispanics (65 percent) and African Americans (35 percent),” says Captain Martin Ross.

Multicultural services and programs include tutoring and mentoring, The Love Kitchen (soup kitchen), a steel drum band/performing arts, low fee counseling, Women in Action/Seniors in Ministry (Home League), and culinary arts training initiatives. “In these ways,” says Ross, “the potential within individuals is developed, which can then be reinvested in the community.

“With 100,000 people in our population area,” Ross adds, “there is tremendous potential that the Compton Corps is uniquely positioned to tap, nurture and multiply.”

A community working together

Ross’s vision includes an “Urban Think Tank”—a collaboration of like-minded community leaders and stakeholders who want to leverage resources and decrease duplication of services. The goal of the think tank is to build up urban/inner-city community infrastructure through holistic synergy (mind, body and spirit) and through intellectual and economic capacity building.

“Making the most of the urban potential is part of the fabric of our leadership,” says Ross. “Our role here is that of community advocate.”

For example, each month, representatives from eight to 10 churches and another eight to 10 civic groups—including the Compton Sheriff’s Station—meet at the corps to discuss gang prevention strategies. Some of the other partnering organizations include Rotary International–Compton, El Nido Children & Family Services, Here’s Life Inner City, City of Compton Women’s Commission–Girls Mentoring Program, Shields for Families, the Department of Children & Family Services, Immanuel Baptist Church and Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church.

Known as WITH (Welcoming Intervention Through Healing), the group collaborates on a variety of activities from public rallies to direct gang interventions. Most importantly, they pray together.
“We want to foster transformation in the city of Compton,” explains Ross. “Our focus is on violence prevention at the grassroots level. We hope to change thinking.”

With a church on every corner

In a community that houses more than 176 churches, cooperation is crucial. Ross points out that “we can do more together than we ever could do alone.” By pooling resources, the members of WITH can offer former gang members mentoring, job skills, tutoring, anger management workshops and even tattoo removal.

Yet, the individual churches play an important role too. Thanks to the large number of congregations dotting the landscape, kids who seek refuge from gangs don’t need to cross boundaries to get to a pastor. Most likely, there is a church on their corner—on their gang’s turf.

Much of the effectiveness of WITH lies in the group’s interracial and ecumenical makeup. It is comprised of Catholics and Protestants, African Americans and Hispanics, pastors and civic leaders–each deeply concerned about the future of the city they love. This model of unity is particularly effective when it comes time to do a gang intervention; the teams are always led by one Latino and one African American.

The root of racial tension

“We have to get to the root of racial tension,” says Ross. “Our goal here is to provide academic and sports activities that encourage the individuals to work and learn from one another, thus promoting communication and social skills.”

Tatiana, an African American Lifeline student, says that the approach works. “When I went to public school, there was a big power struggle between us and Latinos. But here at the charter school, we get along. I guess because it is so much smaller, we get to know each other as people, not stereotypes.”
Charmian Gutierrez, who runs the youth program at the Compton Corps, has three children who are half black, half Hispanic. She knows firsthand that racial tensions lie at the root of the gang issue: “I had to take my girls out of the Compton public schools. They weren’t safe.”

Gutierrez says that kids who came here straight from Mexico–with their gang affiliation already established–cause more problems than Hispanic Americans who are recruited from the Compton streets. “The Mexicans are fighting to find their place but the Blacks don’t want to give up the little power they’ve earned,” she explains. Integration attempts help: “Hispanics who take up the hip hop culture are less likely to be in fights with Blacks.”

Alternatives to gangs

Another problem, according to Gutierrez, is that teens in Compton don’t have the entertainment options available in higher income areas such as movie theaters and skate parks. “Boredom is a problem,” says Jose from Lifeline. “When kids get bored, they get into trouble. But it helps that there is stuff to do here at the Community Center like sports.”

Jose’s brother was in a gang and has been in jail for the past three years; his parents are dead so he now lives with an adopted family. Two of the teens say their mothers were in gangs; three in the group currently do not have a mother living at home. Tatiana had a friend who was killed in gang warfare when she was 13.

“It helps to come to a place like this and know that adults care,” Alyeree says. “We don’t always get that at home.”

One last time, the teens nod, silent in their agreement

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