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Rescued from the brink

Assemblies of God ministries turn young people away from gang involvement.

By Scott Harrup

They stood in a loose huddle at the sidewalk memorial — a mass of flowers, personal mementos and empty whiskey bottles left by friends of the fallen young man. About 40 gang members seethed over the recent loss of their companion. A squadron of police on alert just yards away prepared themselves for the inevitable violence of retribution in this Minneapolis war zone.

Then she walked in. A small, blond, energetic woman with her 3-year-old daughter in tow. This was the last place on earth one would think a mother would come, much less bring her child.

"These guys were huge and they were not happy," says Monica DeLaurentis, the woman in question. "You could tell they wondered what I was doing there."

But others nearby knew DeLaurentis as someone who had been reaching out to the gang community in Minneapolis for years with her husband, Chris. "It’s all right," the word went around. "She’s cool. She’s a pastor. She brought these flowers."

DeLaurentis talked with the toughened mourners, then asked them to get into a circle for prayer. Suddenly, 30 walked off. Ten remained and joined her in prayer. The situation completely diffused.

"To this day," DeLaurentis says with a laugh, "I know the police wonder how I broke that mob up."

The DeLaurentises, nationally appointed home missionaries, began the Inner City Church of Minneapolis in 1993 from their home in the heart of the Minneapolis ghetto. They invited their neighbors, some of whom were bootleggers and drug dealers, to come and hear about the love and healing power of Jesus Christ. The resulting church now ministers to more than a thousand people every week. Inner City Christian Ministries has grown to include churches in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Miami, New York City and Chicago.

Monica pastors the newest work in Chicago. Where ministry to gangs in Minneapolis takes place primarily on the street, in Chicago the gangs stake out entire buildings as their own. People in the sprawling apartment complexes remain indoors in fear of gunfire that can erupt without warning.

"We were trying to bring people to the church with a Thanksgiving outreach that offered free turkeys," Monica says, "but no one wanted to take the risk of coming to the church at night."

She broke through the fear barrier by taking some groceries to the apartment of a young woman who was caring for several children. Word of her compassion spread, and 800 people showed up at the outreach. Regular attendance at the church has grown from 6 to 80 adults.

Gangs who visit the ICCM centers are drawn by the love of Christ the DeLaurentises so freely share. While Monica was holding a tent meeting in Minneapolis, gang representatives came and asked for her. One of their members had been shot in the head. He was blind and on life support.

"They wanted me to come to the hospital to pray," she says. "I was the only preacher they knew. So I went to the hospital every day and got to know these drug dealers by praying for their friend. They realized they were welcome at our church and began bringing others. I’ve actually heard people testify, ‘My drug dealer brought me to church and I got saved.’ "

Gangs were once primarily active in America’s major cities; today they are spreading across the country. In 1995 nationally appointed home missionaries David and Kristie Tralongo started the Young Hope ministry in New Britain, Conn. (population 75,000). The Tralongos reach out to teen-agers in the low-income regions of New Britain, which is just south of Hartford, and invite them to a recreation center at a Lutheran church. Kids that come for the basketball, foosball and other activities are invited to Calvary Christian Center (Assemblies of God; Pastor Robert Santeusanio).

"Fourteen kids we had reached just returned from the district youth convention," David says. "They were so pumped about God it carried into the whole church service."

The Tralongos work hard to make a difference in the lives of young teens before they can be lured into the ethnically segregated gangs that are taking control of the area. When David hears that someone is being pulled into a gang’s circle of influence, he goes the extra distance to prevent the connection. He often cruises the streets of New Britain overnight looking for young people on the edge of gang involvement. It has nearly cost him his life.

"I’ve been assaulted and thrown down stairs," he says. "I was shot in the forehead with a high-powered air pistol. But that was only because they didn’t know I was a minister. When they find out, even the most hardened kid has apologized to me. Most kids know me now."

What shocks Tralongo is the complete access he has into teen-agers’ lives. "It’s a good thing, when it’s someone like me," he says. "I can pick up a kid on the street and take him home and tell his parents I’m going to take him to an overnight activity." But many parents show no interest when Tralongo announces his plans. They don’t even ask for a phone number or where their child will be. If someone had decided to pick up their son or daughter for a less noble purpose, no one would have been the wiser.

Gangs often thrive in a prison environment, with young men and women completing their initiation by getting arrested.

"The current leader of one of the biggest gangs in the Hartford area became a member, was promoted and now leads the entire gang, and he was never out of jail during the entire process," Tralongo says. "In response, prison officials are keeping suspected gang members in solitary confinement."

According to Tralongo, a young man of only 15 or 16 will be kept alone in a tiny cell for 23 hours every day. Even a small sentence of six months can be enough to do permanent psychological damage.

"One of the hardest things in my ministry," Tralongo says, "is to reach out to a boy who’s been in solitary for weeks. The anger, the confusion, the mental breakdown. When I come out from a visit like that, it takes me hours to recover."

Assemblies of God outreaches to gangs have a long history. Teen Challenge International is a Home Missions ministry that has redirected countless lives from drug addiction and gang involvement. Phil Cookes administrates Los Angeles County Teen Challenge.

"We claimed by faith the property we now use and we believed God would give it to us," Cookes says. In 1987, they approached the city council with their plan to create a resident men’s ministry center and a daytime youth center in a building overrun by gangs.

Cookes still remembers the hostility he faced. "One council member just hollered at me, ‘What makes you think you can control these people on this property if the police and their own families can’t?’ " The meeting’s tone, however, completely turned around as people from the community took the mike at the public hearing and told how Teen Challenge had helped them. But Cookes couldn’t shake the original question. " ‘God,’ I prayed, ‘just how are we going to control these kids when we open?’ "

God’s answer was a sign, the literal kind painted on a large board. "It still hangs outside our entrance," Cookes says.

"These are neutral grounds," the sign begins, with a phrase well-known in the prisons and on the streets, "guarded by angels through direct command of the Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, there will be no drugs, no alcohol, no cursing, fighting, gambling or tobacco allowed."

The sign has hung in plain view while thousands of young people over the years have come to enjoy the games, rallies, homework assistance and other outreaches Cookes and his staff and volunteers oversee. The landlord of 400 apartments at the back of the property requested another entrance on that side of the lot so kids could safely enter without walking around the block. L.A. County Teen Challenge became a magnet to troubled kids and teens. Even the 1992 riots couldn’t keep them away.

"This neighborhood had buildings burning and looters with truckloads of stolen goods," Cookes says. "It was total chaos, and we had the parents of our Teen Challenge residents calling us. I let most of the men leave. And still, in the middle of all that madness, the kids were lining up at the gates wanting to know why we weren’t open."

Frank Jimenez opened a center for youth outreach at Orange County Teen Challenge in Santa Ana, Calif. His reputation has spread among local law enforcement so that he and his teams are invited to talk to young people on parole and under house arrest.

"One of our biggest successes is our annual winter camp," Jimenez says. "This year was our sixth one and we took about 85 young people into the mountains for a three-day retreat. A number of them were hard-core kids the local police asked us to include. About a vanload of this year’s attendees are now going to church with us each week."

Gabriel Carranza is an alumnus of the 1998 camp. He accepted Christ, but struggled when the retreat was over and he had to go home to his gang-entangled family.

"Two of my uncles are long-time members," Carranza says. "I kept getting drawn in."

When he was arrested again in 2000 on methamphetamine charges, his future looked grim.

"I called Frank Jimenez and told him I needed help," he says. "I’ve been with Teen Challenge since September 21. Christ now helps me deal with my problems. I realize there is more in me than gang and drug issues. I’m dealing with my anger and unforgiveness, my lack of trust."

There is a common denominator among Monica DeLaurentis, David Tralongo, Phil Cookes and Frank Jimenez: their own darkened past living on the streets of America. Monica was an 85-pound junkie who was nearly run over by an enraged drug dealer. David oversaw a local drug ring for organized crime. Phil and Frank both came out of deep involvement in gangs. But each of them firmly believes that anyone can reach out to a gang member.

"It only takes minimal effort," Monica says. "These people are trapped and lost. They think life holds nothing for them. I can promise them that life will make sense."

"The relationships you establish are so precious," David says.

"There are no throwaway kids," Frank says. "I never give up. Somebody didn’t give up on me. Someday, somehow, someway, God will get hold of these kids."

"I tell the young volunteers who come here," Phil says, "that they don’t need a Teen Challenge testimony. If you grew up in the church and you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, you have a testimony. You have what the world is looking for. You have the peace of the Lord. The way to reach a gang member is the way you reach anybody else — one on one."

Scott Harrup is general editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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