Innovative Gang Ministry Yielding Life Change
The Gethsemane campus of St. Luke’s UMC is responding to God’s call to bring hope to juvenile gang members, offering them a new family and redeemed identity.
Focusing on Life Change for Gang-Affected Youth
What does ‘boundless compassion” look like? The Gethsemane Campus of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church is located in a southwest Houston neighborhood rich in ethnic diversity and cultures. Rev. Justin Coleman refers to the neighborhood as a “parish,” and says, “We are not serving a congregation, but a parish.”
In learning about the neighborhood and how to best meet its needs, a group of lay and clergy leaders recognized that one of the most underserved populations was a growing number of gang-affected youth. Inspired by Father Greg Boyle’s book Tattoos on the Heart, these leaders felt called to this ministry and reVision was born.
reVision is not in the business of policing gangs, but rather in building relationships with teens and fostering positive peer support. Executive Director of reVision, Charles Rotramel, the founder of Youth Advocates, brings 25 years of experience working with underserved gang-affected youth to this ministry. According to Charles, reVision’s mission is to get young people to see themselves not as gang members, but as members of a vibrant community. “We are focused on their new life which includes a totally new way of dressing, talking, and interacting,” he says.
One year after its inception and eight months after its official launch, the program is growing and new opportunities and partnerships abound:
· St. Luke’s has dedicated space at the Gethsemane Campus for reVision classrooms, support groups and informal recreation providing an environment for relationship building.
· Juvenile Probation officers from the Gang Unit of Southwest Houston have also relocated their offices to St. Luke’s Gethsemane Campus.
· On Monday nights, youth on probation meet their probation officers and volunteers welcome the teens and their families with dinner, support groups and activities for younger siblings. Involvement of the entire family helps reinforce positive and lasting change.
· During the week, outreach workers offer the youth support that may involve anything from working with anger issues to taking the youth shopping for new clothes. According to Charles, “Many of these young men have never played baseball or gone to the Galleria Mall. There is nothing more valuable than introducing them to positive activities that encourage self-esteem and a desire to build healthy relationships.”
These one-on–one relationships are at the core of reVision’s purpose. “Nothing can change for these young men until trust is established between a gang-affected teen and a positive role model,” adds Charles.
reVision is continually evaluating new components for its expanding ministry. Education is a key piece in a youth’s development, but as Chaplain Laralee Dehart says, “these students, as young as 10-years-old, are frustrated by a public education system that is not serving their unique needs.” In response, reVision has recently untaken a pilot project to start offering students the opportunity to go to school on the St. Luke’s Gethsemane Campus. reVision has partnered with The Bridge School to offer online classes in a small group setting so that youth can further their education in a positive, affirming environment. “We are able to give each one a lot of personal attention, customized curriculum and extra help,” says Laralee. The initial eight students are experiencing success in the focused and nurturing school environment, giving reVision the results to proceed with plans to be able to serve more students in the future.
Adding an Education Component
reVision is an emerging 501c3 organization dedicated to building life-changing relationships with gang-affected youth in Southwest Houston. The staff has grown to a total of six dedicated workers including three outreach workers. As the program grows, so does the need for volunteers and financial gifts. Recently St. Martin’s Episcopal Church has come along side St. Luke’s as a full partner, providing both financial and volunteer support to this growing ministry. One of the most committed volunteers is in his 90s! Longtime Gethsemane member Lewis Gammon says, “Being in the trenches with these youngsters, who may have made some bad choices in the past but are now changing their lifestyles and behavior, is indeed very rewarding. They now see me as a friend and show me signs of appreciation.”
“These teens come to us pretty rough around the edges,” adds Justin, “and often make two steps forward and then five steps back, but we are seeing a positive trajectory as we create a new culture for them in Christian community.” Gang clothing has been replaced with reVision t-shirts that give students a sense of belonging with their new church family. Adds Justin, “The fun thing about Monday nights is seeing a core group of students begin stepping up to lead -- by working at the welcome desk to direct visitors to various activities. Their St. Luke’s nametags provide great affirmation and they wear them like badges of honor.”