A home is an island within a community, but society laps its coasts and a corner lot offers more shoreline.
Our fence was tagged.
It also happened a couple of years ago.
I can see it is a pretty tempting target, it's a 70 foot by six foot white cedar canvas just taunting the delinquent artistic within any gang member.
So while I was rolling along highways, byways, and roadless desert lake beds, Brenda was purchasing and applying white primer to cover the artistic attempts of youthful vandals.
When I returned I bought a gallon of paint and did the whole fence along that side.
Brenda was pretty ticked by the whole thing. I was a little more philosophical.
I understand the need to let the world know that I exist, to leave some evidence that I passed this way (is that a motive behind these digital missives?).
I saw some graffiti which surprised me while I was traveling. I was in Yosemite, enjoying the beauty of a tall waterfall, and I saw the marks of a familiar gang on a sign beneath whispering pines.
Isn't that interesting? Even in this beautiful place a youth had hiked up to see a wonder of nature, a wonder of God, and felt compelled to leave the mark of his association.
Graffiti has always been around. It was scratched on cave walls during the paleolithic and it has appeared on public walls ever since.
There are probably a lot of reasons for it. It's at least a statement that "I was here!"
Leaving a mark.
Graffiti runs the gamut from artistic to crude, wishful to rude, political to declarations of love. I was in my classroom a week ago sanding graffiti off some wood along counters.
Making fun of someone who has adopted a new faith who’s god is being crucified.
While I was painting the fence neighbors stopped by, commenting on the hooligans who defaced my nice white fence.
I know they were basically giving me an “attaboy” for keeping up appearances in this small town that is unused to gang activity. I was more concerned about something else.
Gang activity has risen sharply the last few years in this rural community. (For an amusing tale about my attempt at being a hero in the face of gang activity, click this link.) There was an article in the local paper a couple of months ago about a gang fight where a half dozen young men were arrested. I was sad to recognize a couple of former students in those mugshots.
I’ve heard folks say these gang members are illegal aliens. I don’t think so. In my experience they are usually second, third, or fourth generation children of immigrants. They usually haven’t a father at home.
We are doing some creative things in our school to help such children. We have a peace program promoting concepts of cooperation and care with events throughout the year. We have an event at the beginning of the year marking September 11th in our Peace Garden reminding ourselves of the value of seeking peaceful resolution to conflicts. The culmination of the year is a peace prize ceremony modeled after the Nobel Peace Prize.
To help our hispanic students fit in and break up cliques of all sorts in the school we have a series of activities which mixes groups up, gets children to share, support each other.
We do our best to mainstream all children into regular classes, offering a few support classes to help them with language, social, or behavioral challenges they face. In general students are mixed together.
Still... there are students who feel apart from their classmates, who feel the world is out to get them, and they seek out others who feel likewise.
It is sad.
When I see those faces in the paper, or wearing gang-like clothing on the street, I worry about them, say a prayer for them. Funny, when they see me, even when dressed like that, they duck their heads and mumble a polite "Hi, Mr. Greenleaf."
Everyone wants to belong.
I see how people look askance at minorities... Looks of suspicion, distrust. I hear the racist comments of my neighbors who suspect hispanics are behind the ills of our town (all I can do with those ol' biddies is say something indicating I don't agree and leave abruptly). I see the apprehension in the faces of my brown-skinned neighbors when I greet them, they're wondering what I will say or do.
It is easy to feel superior when one is in the majority. It is easy to feel fearful when one is in the minority.
So these youths, these children who sense they are in dangerous territory, sometimes choose to join others. In such groups they can posture and demonstrate their bravado before their peers.
And they are throwing their lives away.
While I paint my fence I feel a little irritation, but I feel greater sorrow. These young men think that they are declaring grand things, carving out a piece of the world as their turf, the territory. The blue paint streaming from their paint cans does more than mark the edge of their gang’s “hood”... it marks the edge of their world, it defines their future, paints a hard edge to their potential, their hopes and dreams.
What a sad situation, this reduction of limitless possibilities to a world of violence and drugs and crime.
What a sorrowful waste of lives, where young men, former children of my classroom, see their best hope is in joining a gang.
It is easy to be frustrated with gangs.
And it is easy to blame minorities for joining gangs.
What is more challenging is recognizing the humanity within the young thug who defaces property, sells drugs, lives in the hazy twilight of civilized life.
But it is what I am called to do.
When I think about the short futures of these young men, who see their lives as shooting stars, momentary flashes in the dark, it makes me sad. They think the best they can achieve is to grasp as much attention and glory as they can through machismo, bravado, and dangerous stupid illegal acts born of anger and desperation.
There are great costs in gang activity. There is the vandalism that home and business owners repair. There is the loss of property. There are the losses associated with drug use. And there is the loss of lives.
There is also the loss of the enjoyment in leading a productive life. The pleasure in knowing and being known by neighbors and community for one’s place there.
There is the eternal loss. There is the loss of not having a relationship with Christ. The loss of not joining in that community, that family.
When I see these young men in the paper, their mugshots held up to public scrutiny as a warning to residents and a caution to those who might emulate them, I feel saddened for their wasted lives.
I say a little prayer.