Back when I did prison ministry, we used to have this crazy old white dude who would come in to talk with the boys. He had a ministry working with gangs on the streets of Chicago. He had occasionally even managed to bring high up people representing large, dangerous gangs together to reach agreements which would reduce the levels of conflict, and therefore the levels of violence between them.
Youth for Christ, a national organization which includes Campus Life, City Life, and Juvenile Justice Mission, provided funding for his ministry by employing him between 1982 through 2008. Which is a really long, long time to be a youth minister. Most burnout within their first decade.
At the time I was involved with prison ministry, crime had just reached a 20 year high, and the problem was most acute in urban areas like Chicago with high density, segregated housing. There were some places that police avoided patrolling out of fear of being targeted by violence, so his ability to develop relationships and gain trust among the gangs was the subject of a lot of interest.
He was invited to speak to kids in prisons all over Northern Illinois and served as a youth chaplain for the Cook County Sheriff’s department. He made sure that at every step along the path a vulnerable kid was taking, he was there to tell them about Christ’s love.
The man’s name was Gordon and he looked like a comedy version of a used car sales man. Wore ill fitting and mismatched business clothes. Had a BAD comb over. He was in his late fifties when I met him. But I was 18 at the time, so he could have been my grandpa. If my grandpa were a used car sales man in the early 80s. Gordon had a way of talking that was slightly disjointed, but jokey enough that he kept his audience engaged. He came off as a bit of a fool, really.
But it was all very deliberate. He told us that his whole deal was to get these threatening gang members to view him as someone not to be concerned with. That way he could move freely, making connections with kids before they got involved in gangs. Some he could help before the streets got them. Some would go on to have positions of influence in their gangs that allowed him to bring them to the negotiating table.
Everytime I saw him talk, he would pick out kids he knew and speak with them. If the kid had done something good, he would tell us about it along with some words of affirmation. It was clear that he was the real deal. He got these kids and they responded to him. This was a man they trusted and wanted to follow.
Which was something these kids needed desperately. Very few of them had fathers around. And I can’t tell you how many of them were introduced to gangs, crime and partying by the uncles they had been told to view as role models. These were the second and third generation of fatherless kids in communities where traditional families had all but disappeared.
Which was why Gordon’s less than impressive appearance and manner didn’t bother these kids. (Some of whom got in trouble dealing drugs so they could buy cool clothes. It’s not like appearances were less important to them than they are to any teenager.) The fact that he appeared so comfortable just being himself around them spoke volumes to these kids.
If there’s anything kids growing up in bad homes and bad neighborhoods understand it’s fear. You can’t be a child in a neighborhood where it’s completely normal to see someone murdered in front of you and not know fear. You also can’t be a child in a neighborhood where everyone is afraid of everyone else and not recognize fear when you see it.
And all of them had seen how dangerous scared people are. All you had to do was raise the suspicion that you might be a danger to a drug dealer and it wouldn’t matter that you were 10, your life was in danger. So these kids can smell fear.
The true predators among them knew how to use it as a tool for their own purposes and as a justification for responding with full force to any potential threat they encountered. The thing about predators is that they are made. If you can stop a kid’s descent before they’ve just stopped giving a damn, you can stop him from becoming a predator. Gordon knew that.
In fact, although I heard his spiel nearly a dozen times, there’s only one part of it that I remember. He would share that he was often asked whether he was ever scared walking around neighborhoods ambulances refused to even enter at certain times of day. Not to mention sitting down with dangerous men who would normally shoot each other on site and asking them to listen to each other.
He said he would alway laugh and respond, “no. Not really.” When they’d express shock he would tell him what one of the most dangerous gang leaders in the city of Chicago once told him, “aint nobody gonna waste a bullet on an old white dude like you. Besides, we know you’re just here trying to help.”
A couple of years ago Gordon Mclean was unexpectedly reunited with one of the lost boys he had helped stay out of a gang. It was in the newspapers and everything although most people didn’t recognize the importance of the story. It started when Mclean solicited a male prostitute in a park who recognized him as the man who used to rape him years earlier. So he turned him in.
In the months that followed, others came forward with accusations of physical and sexual abuse at this man’s hands. Youth for Christ, of course, fired him upon his arrest. No information has been released about what Youth for Christ might have known and when. Perhaps none of the boys complained because they were too busy being destroyed to get help. Apparently no one has found it worthwhile to investigate, though. There is an ongoing lawsuit which might force an investigation once money’s on the line.
Now, let me tell you the weird thing which lead me to share this story. I missed the news that this man was using his work for the church to provide cover for him to indulge his dark desires. Neither his arrest nor the lawsuit ever showed up in my facebook feed or anything. But what did show up on my facebook feed today was a discussion about some comments billionaire Mark Cuban made regarding crossing the street when a kid in a hoodie is approaching. Which, while not an uber PC idea, is something a lot of people understand just from a safety prespective. I saw one comment about how it’s silly to expect people to put aside their reasonable fear of crime in order to avoid hurting some teen boy’s feelings. I left a response and then thought maybe I would write a post based on it.
I just wanted to share the story about a white dude who knew he didn’t need to be afraid. I went to check the spelling of Gordon’s name. And, I found this story. Which is all we really need know about our fear and how serving it hurts others.
The church sent a pedophile willing to face down dangerous drug dealers in the name of Christ. Meanwhile we’re not even willing to risk saying hi to a kid in a hoodie on the street. And that right there is as clear a picture of the problem as can be imagined. So I guess I’ll just end my post with the comment I left on facebook:
If we are going agree that for safety’s sake it is acceptable to do something’s which could hurt vulnerable people, we need to own that we view our lives as more valuable than other people’s lives. There are good kids struggling in those neighborhoods, who face a much higher chance of being hurt by a black thug than you or I do and are working with no margin of error. One immature act. One smart word to an authority figure. One moment of not being able to take the pressure you’re under and losing control. And it’s over for these kids. That’s all it takes to lose any chance at a normal life. And because our own safety and our own possessions and our own lives are so much more important to us than theirs are, we think it’s OK to join in with those trying to kick them off the edge into the abyss. Just as long as we feel safe, it’s perfectly understandable that we would not even view it as a reasonable concern to worry about the people we may have to hurt to do it, right? Keeping ourselves safe makes it OK to hurt people, just so long as I don’t actually put my hands on them. Right? We suck.