Out of God's Hands
Can a model car save a kid from the mean streets of Phoenix?
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Isaac Avila, 11, focuses all his attention and an overused paintbrush on the underside of a '61 Ranchero Custom. Satisfied with the paint job, he sorts through dozens of plastic pieces in the box, taking them out, matching them up. Gluing some together, putting others back, poring over the instructions. Back to the paint. Now back to the box.
Clearly, this kid's in heaven.
Or, at least, church.
Avila is one of about 40 kids participating in "Downtown Urban Community Kids" (DUCK), an after-school program sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church at Fourth Avenue and Monroe Street in Phoenix.
DUCK is enough to make compassionate conservatives and maybe even some compassionate liberals ecstatic.
Funded almost entirely through private donations, DUCK recruits children from the Matthew Henson projects just south of downtown Phoenix at Ninth Street and Buckeye, one of the most depressed, dangerous neighborhoods in town. To qualify, a kid's parents can't make more than $6,000 a year; many kids come from Spanish-speaking households where both parents work, increasing the need for both after-school supervision and help with homework.
DUCK offers both, and more, including free transportation to and from the projects. Unlike after-school programs that might keep kids busy with kickball, DUCK offers a multifaceted, enriching program: homework sessions, journal writing, organized sports, self-esteem training, choir, field trips, one-on-one mentoring with church members -- and, yes, model building.
This is Isaac Avila's third year in the program. A quiet boy in an Orlando basketball jersey and shin-grazing, baggy white shorts accessorized with a pager and a hoop through one ear, the sixth-grader says he wasn't going to come back this fall -- he could be hanging out at home, "just playing around" -- until he heard there were going to be models.
"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for models," Avila says, gluing a round knob onto a carburetor.
John Heeringa, one of Avila's instructors, confirms that once the cars are done, it's on to model planes, and even a field trip to Luke Air Force Base. Then model rockets, and a visit to the planetarium at the Arizona Science Center.
In Isaac Avila's vernacular, that's tight, dude. But for the DUCK staff, it's a carrot.
"It's not the program that's important, it's the relationships we build," says Steve Keller, First Presbyterian's executive director.
DUCK is a smash hit. Keller says the fall program filled up in 20 minutes. He's hoping to expand to 100 kids by December. But that won't begin to fill the need in the Matthew Henson projects, let alone the rest of the Valley.
Who will fill in the gaps? In 1994, the Republican Revolution swept America, decimating governmental social programs and pushing the task of caring for kids like Isaac Avila toward private entities, including faith-based organizations. Presidential front-runner George W. Bush has upped the ante, promising he'll offer financial incentives to churches who take on the job.
That's as it should be, says Jay Heiler, who served as chief of staff and criminal justice adviser to Governor J. Fife Symington III, and is a big fan of Bush's philosophy.
"Faith-based organizations are exactly what should be getting involved, exactly where the involvement ought to come from in terms of reaching down into the grittiest places in our communities and trying to help families and young people there," Heiler says. "The government is always going to struggle, trying to fill that bill. . . . It is not a function that government can perform efficiently or with the compassion that people hope for when they form government programs to do these things. What's hoped for is compassion, what ends up being produced is bureaucracy and confusion."
Heiler believes church involvement will increase if incentives are made available.
"You gotta have resources to do anything," he says. "Even Mother Teresa needed resources."
But it would take an awful lot of those resources to close the gap that exists here in metropolitan Phoenix. Whatever the reason, the reality is that for the most part, local faith-based organizations have not stepped up to the plate.
National organizations like Teen Challenge (a religious, gang/drug intervention program) and MatchPoint (a religious youth mentoring program) have chapters in the Valley. Valley Interfaith Project, a local multidenominational organization, has successfully encouraged its members to fight for government funding for kids' programs, and to start their own.
But such efforts are an aberration. This summer, New Times surveyed 310 churches and other religious institutions in the 10 Maricopa County zip codes with the highest incidence of juvenile crime (1998 figures) and found fewer than a dozen organized after-school programs for neighborhood kids -- or other programs specifically targeting at-risk children from the area -- run by local churches.
Sure, there are programs for kids who already belong to the religious institution. (Or who are willing to join.) St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chandler and Temple Chai in Phoenix (the only synagogue in the area surveyed) have youth groups for their members. The Korean American Bible Presbyterian Church focuses on Korean-American youth. The Muslim Community Mosque in Phoenix offers classes in its liturgy.
But there's very little designed to get kids off the street -- unless it's into a pew. South Mountain Community Church in Phoenix used to have a program for neighborhood kids, but it was discontinued when the pastor fell ill.
And the reply from South Phoenix Church of Christ? "No, the only thing we have that meets here is the parole board."
The response from religious institutions in blighted areas is that they don't have enough resources to care for their own flocks, let alone the wayward neighbors. Or they're scared of the kids. Or they don't believe in social programs.
"We're not interested in the social aspect of it, because then you're just putting a Band-Aid on a greater problem," says Pastor Steve Brazell, of The Door, a church near 55th Avenue and Glendale in Glendale.
Brazell has a booming voice -- the product of Arizona State University's broadcast journalism department -- but he barely needs it to fill his small sanctuary. Like First Presbyterian, The Door is near a rough neighborhood. But unlike First Presbyterian, The Door is not open for aggressive outreach to its neighbors -- unless they're ready to be saved.
"One of the problems with the church in our generation is they've become too social," Brazell says. ". . . In other words, we're going to feed people, we're going to give them a place to live, we're going to educate them at church schools.
"We're going to take care of their social needs but not their spiritual needs. When you die, it won't matter where you went to school. It won't matter what neighborhood you lived in. None of that stuff will matter, how much you had or didn't have, whether you had clothes, whether you had food.
"These are all noble programs. The problem is, they don't address the greatest need, the man's soul and where he's going to spend eternity."
Brazell says his church does not exclude gang members or at-risk kids, but he doesn't go looking for them, either.
"Everybody's at risk, and the gospel is not more for one group than another," he says. "Gang members need the gospel, but so do businessmen."
Todd Anderson served as youth pastor at Mesa First Assembly of God for about four years, and during that time sat on the City of Mesa's Gang Prevention Steering Committee. (Anderson left last month to help start a new church in north Scottsdale.)
Anderson has tried to reach out to kids outside his church. Although he's not a big fan of punk rock, he helped organize The Rage, a Christian rock concert held in Phoenix last month.
But Anderson readily concedes that the faith-based community in the Valley is failing to serve the needs of at-risk youth.
"I'll be the first to admit, I don't think it has done what it can do, and the reason why is stereotypes, and unfortunately, churches usually are the last to react to major social issues. Gang activity, homosexuality, things of that nature, things that they don't want to touch. They're like a Pandora's box. Once they open it, how are they going to deal with 'em?
"Do we want teenagers -- 14-, 15-, 17-year-olds -- in our Sunday morning services, wearing a beret or wearing the long chains? Do we want that? I say, 'Yeah, I want it.' Unfortunately, a lot of people don't."
Valley Interfaith Project is out to change that notion.
Founded in the mid-'80s by members of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, VIP has fought for years to shake the image that it's only a Catholic organization. In fact, it has dozens of members from many denominations, including, for the first time this year, a synagogue, Temple Beth Israel in Scottsdale.
VIP is supported by member institutions, who pay dues on a sliding scale depending on their budget. Over the years, the group has been very effective -- most notably in fighting for increased funding for after-school and summer jobs programs for kids at the City of Phoenix.
Marcie Escobedo, a founding member of VIP and a longtime parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in south central Phoenix, recalls that she first got involved as an activist in the '70s, after her marriage broke up.
"I was raised Catholic, and I think it was when I got divorced that I started to want to look for something, I didn't know what, but I felt there had to be some sort of change in my life," she says. Escobedo, who worked for the City of Phoenix, recalls running an errand at work, for a Christmas adoption program, and encountering poverty she never imagined existed outside Mexico.
She visited a family at Seventh Street and Buckeye, who lived in cardboard boxes, with a dirt lot as their floor. Pails for toilets.
"That was a real reality check for me," she says.
Escobedo joined some community organizations, including the "human development board" at the Diocese. Part of her responsibility was to survey local parishes.
"We found out that people did not see social justice as part of the ministry," she says.
The feeling was that the people inside the church were good people. "The people outside of that were not good people, and that's where the stereotyping begins."
This revelation (nothing new, the Catholic Church has fought over social justice issues for centuries) led to brainstorming sessions and conventions and, ultimately, to Valley Interfaith Project.
A key component of VIP is leadership training; another is reestablishing relationships in neighborhoods; another: never try to do it alone.
"You don't ever go alone, because if you go alone, you don't have much power," says Vangie Moreno, a VIP member who has lobbied the city council. She says VIP also incorporated training for parents into its program, which she found invaluable.
And the iron rule: "Don't do for others what they can do for themselves."
The first neighborhood to use VIP in organizing was south central Phoenix, at the behest of Marcie Escobedo. (She says she was just one of many community members, including the late Father Doug Nohava, of St. Catherine's, who contributed to the effort.)
In 1990 -- with gang violence at its peak in south central Phoenix -- St. Catherine's became home to an after-school program that drew kids from all over the area. The police agreed to step up enforcement.
And Marcie Escobedo's neighborhood became the first in metropolitan Phoenix to have a Drug-Free School Zone. Now they're all over the Valley.
"JESUS IS COMING. LOOK BUSY."
-- bumper sticker on the office wall at Epworth United Methodist Church
The way Betty Evans remembers it, a few years back some coordinators from Valley Interfaith Project started meeting with congregants at Epworth Church.
(The church is located at 59th Avenue and Glendale in Phoenix, 85033, in the zip code identified as having the highest juvenile crime rate in Maricopa County last year.)
"The question they asked was, 'What would you like to see this church do? And what is your vision for this church?'
"Well, people started out with, 'I think we need to repave the parking lot.' You know, as we look back on it, sort of insignificant things. Things that we needed to do and have since done, but that was not what they were really after, so they kept prodding until they finally got us around to, 'We'd like to make this church significant to the neighborhood around the church.'"
And so they decided to start an after-school program for the neighborhood school children.
It's been a "godsend," says Patricia Allison, principal at John F. Long Elementary School. Like others in the Cartwright School District, John F. Long doesn't have a gymnasium. More than 70 percent of the kids qualify for the federal government's free and reduced lunch program. Many come from Spanish-speaking households where both parents work.
And until 1997, when Epworth opened its doors, there was no free after-school program in the area.
Evans, who had recently retired from her job as a first-grade teacher, worked with other church volunteers and VIP to get the program up and running. They secured $15,000 in annual funding from Phoenix Parks and Recreation, and later another $10,000 from Maricopa County. That pays for a small part-time staff. The school buses the kids to and from John F. Long. Church members volunteer with the kids and donate snacks.
Local businesses have donated computers and even the materials to build a basketball court. Homework comes first, Evans says -- still sounding every bit the first-grade teacher.
Aside from homework and games, Evans says, the program aims to build self-esteem.
"We teach them how to get along with people and to feel like there's a place where they belong, so that they don't feel like they have to belong to a gang. I've read that that's what they're looking for in gangs, is a place where they belong and feel like people care about them. We want them to know we care about them, too."
Principal Allison praises Epworth's efforts.
"These kids that are at such an impressionable age, this very young age, are not on the street, are not hanging out at their apartments and just waiting for something to happen because mom and dad are at work. They're at the church where people do care about them, they listen to them, they work with them," she says, adding, "The kids that do this just absolutely love it and can't wait to be there."
Betty Evans is asked: What about Steve Brazell, the pastor at a neighbor church, who believes social programs like this one are merely a Band-Aid, in lieu of prayer?
She laughs. "We pray for this program all the time and all the people in it. It's not a Band-Aid for prayer, it just tells us who to pray for.
"I feel like Christ told us to go out and help take care of people and do what he did. . . . He helped people a lot, and I feel like we are doing what he would want us to do."
Because of space constraints, the Epworth Church can only accommodate 90 students. There's a long waiting list. Patricia Allison is certain most of her 1,100 kids could benefit from such a program.
Few of the churches contacted in this summer's survey have after-school programs for at-risk kids, but many have youth groups that church representatives say are open to everyone.
Reaching out to the kids who really need the help is the tough part.
Mesa's Todd Anderson says he's had some luck in getting through to "wanna-be" gang members.
"We've been very successful in getting kids that were -- maybe not necessarily kids that were in gangs, because they're already committed, but getting kids that are toying with the idea of being involved with gangs."
The youth group provides a shelter of sorts, and friendship to the kids who need it, Anderson says.
"We offer, if you would, a gang -- a good gang."
But once a kid is in thick with a gang, intervention is all but impossible, Anderson says. He does mention one congregant -- we'll call her Marguerita -- a 15-year-old high school sophomore from the East Valley who had been heavily involved with some gang activity, but recently left that for God.
"She is out of that [gang] environment now, and has developed a new circle of friends," Anderson says.
Well, sort of.
Marguerita is a pretty girl with heavily lined lips and eyes. She agreed to meet at a McDonald's in Mesa -- along with her mother -- as long as her name is not used and the gang she hung around not identified.
Marguerita says that until a few weeks ago, she lived a double life, attending church and school, but also running with one of the "deepest" gangs in the Valley -- carrying up to a pound of marijuana or cocaine at a time, communicating with her boyfriend in jail, making herself and her family a target for the lowriders who cruised past their house, silently threatening a drive-by shooting.
Then she left town for three weeks, to stay with an aunt, and had an epiphany while attending church. Marguerita says she's done with gangs for good, although she continues to maintain some of her associations.
On paper, Marguerita's always been the model child with the model background.
She comes from a middle-class family; her parents are still married. She has done well in school and has attended church her entire life. Her mother describes her as a kind, giving girl who cares about her family and wants to protect her friends.
The trouble began as early as second grade, Marguerita says, pushing aside her half-eaten burger and fries.
"I lived in a really good neighborhood, but right across the street is a ghetto, and I met my friends there from school, they were in my school. I started hanging out with them."
She was popular, a tomboy, Marguerita recalls.
Ironically, Marguerita first learned about gangs while hanging out at a local Boys and Girls Club -- an organization designed to deter kids from such activity.
A friend died in what Marguerita describes as a gang-related shooting, and that, she says, is when things really turned around for her -- for the worse. She was only 9. (She says the friend was much older.)
"[That's] the reason why I started hating life and hating authority -- and God put authority here to rule us, so that's why I hated it even more. . . . Shot in front of me. I saw him die.
". . . I started slipping away. I mean, I was fine at home. I acted all like, oh, this perfect person."
Her mother recalls, "During this whole time, she went through a missionette program. From the age of 3 until she was age 14. . . . She continued to do Scriptures, and do reports and essays, go every Wednesday until she graduated from this missionette program, but like she said, she was leading this double life.
". . . She was a good actress."
Away from home, with her friends, "I started lying. I started dressing different -- lots more makeup. I started experimenting with things -- "
"A lot of different things. I guess the more I got into it, the more I was in it, but I was never really in-in-in the gang. I just got stuff for people and they'd give it to me to give to other people -- "
Marguerita was scared to officially join the gang -- partly because she says she would have had to have sex with at least 10 members, as part of the initiation -- but also because she feared for her family's safety.
"I couldn't let my family know, let alone let my family get hurt. Because when you get involved in a gang, you involve your parents, you don't just involve yourself."
Despite the act, Marguerita's parents knew she was involved. But all their best attempts failed, her mother says.
"I despised God, after a while," Marguerita recalls. "Every time someone tried to help me, every time it would get to me. I'd like walk out. After a while, I had two voices in my head, going through my head, back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes you're so weak that you can't do anything about it. You cannot do anything about it. It's like drug addiction."
Was it fun, hanging out with the gang, handling all those drugs, taking risks?
"Yeah, it was fun, but if you got caught or if you got in trouble -- your heart is just pumping, pumping, pumping. You're like, 'Oh my God.'"
At one point, Marguerita says, she wanted to move in with her boyfriend, who lives in the projects (when he's not in jail) and is a member of a multigenerational gang.
"The projects are family. They're more or less together. But it's violent, you know? . . . Helicopters always going around. I loved that. I loved that. It was mysterious and it was fun. Acting, you know? And when you're in that environment, you feel safe, proud and tall. Nothing can put me down, I'm sooooo cool.
". . . I look back and I'm sad, because I loved doing those things. I loved the attention. It felt like being in Hollywood, only your own world. Everything was fine, cool dancing."
But can't she dance with her new church friends?
"We don't have any rules," Marguerita says of her gang friends, making it obvious her allegiance is still split. "They do. We don't have a limit. They do have a limit, at church. We're free to speak our mind, whatever is on our mind, we're free. At church, you can't do that."
And yet, Marguerita says, she's made up her mind that it will be all church, no gang. Well, almost no gang. She still has a relationship with her boyfriend, and says she's trying to get him out.
"His nana and his mother, they go to church. But he can't seem to get back with it. He thinks God has totally turned his back on him and that the devil is right there, has him by the neck. . . . He says he doesn't have any use for the Bible because he read the Bible four times and it's just like another book to him."
So what can help? What, in Marguerita's opinion, can be done to stop gang violence?
Not programs, she says. Not even church.
"They have too much pride. Too much pride. . . . They don't want to go to programs to get help. They don't want you to say, 'Help,' they want you to say, 'Oh, well, any time, I'm here, you can just come talk with me and this church is open to you. Don't be afraid.'
"Don't let them know that you're trying to give them help, because then you make them feel like they're sick, they don't know nothing. And maybe they don't, but to them they do."
Marguerita and her mother recall that Mesa First Assembly made some unsuccessful attempts.
Mom: "They had a church program that was reaching out to gang members, but it was making the youth from our church afraid to go to the youth group."
But Marguerita says it made the gang members uncomfortable, too.
"I'd bring my gang members, you know, to church," she says. "They [the congregants] just intimidated them, totally. They're like, 'I'm never coming back here.'"
In the end, Marguerita says, nothing will help until the gang members want out.
"I think you have to want to change, okay? You can't make somebody change. You can advise them to do things and they'll try. They may try, but they don't really want to leave it. They don't want to really leave the freedom that they have to do whatever they want. . . . They don't realize what's going to happen to them. They're not going to have freedom. They think they're going to run the world. They think they're going to have a choice to either go to heaven or hell, or just stay here on Earth and roam it, by themselves."
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Contact Amy Silverman at 602-229-8443 or her online address: email@example.com
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