Ministering to Youth Involved in Gangs

“You, Fr. Stan, would have been a great daddy.” That’s not a statement we priests and Brothers are used to hearing! But that’s exactly what one young man told me. My ministry is counseling youth involved in gangs or who are otherwise considered “at risk” in a difficult and violent area of South Los Angeles, California.

“A shared reality among these Latino and African American youth is called ‘The Father Wound.’” Recently, I was honored to have the work we do with gangs highlighted in an article of American Magazine. “Absent dads who have abandoned their sons and daughters — whether because they are in prison, have been deported or simply were never present in their lives — is the norm in our inner cities. That wound, combined with impoverished living conditions, lack of open space, deteriorating schools and virtually no economic breaks contribute to the children of these absent fathers believing that they will not live long into adulthood. Consequently, ‘belonging’ to a particular neighborhood or gang gives them a sense of acceptance and, in most cases, of survival.”

As the community of Jesus, we are challenged to be an “open door” of mercy and compassion. Sadly, sometimes it feels like there is no ‘mercy’ here. But an unexpected gift came to me when a group of 15-17-year-old young men, all gang affiliated, were informally “hanging out” in his office one afternoon.

They were lamenting and even hostilely blaming their absent fathers for their own anger and lack of hope. The conversation shifted to the kind of fathers they would become. Seemingly out of nowhere, one of them, Luis, a burly and resentful 16-year-old turned to me and asked if I ever had a wife or children. When I responded that my choice has been to be present to those without fathers, Luis replied, “That’s too bad, because you would have been a great daddy.”

The missionary life means entering into and sharing the lives of the people we serve. As much as we hope to make a difference in their lives, we know first-hand what a difference they make in ours. I am grateful for the opportunity to share the lives of these youth who struggle to find themselves and find meaning to their lives amid extremely difficult circumstances. In the midst of what feels dark here sometimes, I believe Luis and the others are becoming an open door to the light as they awaken ‘mercy’ in me.

In the Most Holy Trinity,
Fr. Stan Bosch, S.T.

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