Slide after slide of Virginia youths throwing gang signs and proudly flashing gang tattoos was a new reality that no one attending the forum at the Woodbridge church seemed to want to accept.
The program, "Gangs: Why Here? Why Now? Why Ever?" was presented at the Ebenezer Baptist Church's Family Life Center by the Prince William Committee of 100, a nonpartisan group created to explore the problems, interests and goals of the county.
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At Thursday's meeting, residents came to strategize, listen and learn how they could help eradicate what authorities say is a growing gang menace in their community.
Residents were told that although a strong police presence and tough prosecution of gang offenders are important factors, grass-roots efforts should be underway to reach children through faith-based and social programs designed to keep them from ever joining gangs.
That was the core message repeated many times by state Deputy Attorney General Marla G. Decker of the Public Safety and Enforcement Division, and James O. Towey, an assistant attorney general and director of the Organized Crime Unit in Virginia.
The two guest speakers were on a panel with the Rev. Charles A. Lundy, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and a member of the attorney general's anti-gang task force; the Rev. Jose E. Hoyos, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Dale City; Sgt. Greg Pass, leader of the Prince William County Police Department's gang unit; and George A. Monge, a former gang member who has founded an organization for at-risk youths.
The good news, Decker said, is that Prince William County already has the tools to push out gang members who are moving into the suburbs.
"While you've got a gang problem, and you're suffering from a bleed-over [gang members coming from nearby areas], you've got the ability to stop it before we become L.A.," Decker said. "I want to pass along how fortunate you are. You have one of the best gang units a police department has to offer. You have a faith community with leaders like Pastor Lundy. . . . You are very fortunate. "
The bad news, Decker said, was that those in the community she would most like to reach were not in the audience -- the parents who have to work two jobs to keep food on the table and who leave their children at home unattended. Those children make the perfect candidates for gang recruitment, she said.
"Once they're in the gang, it's very hard to get them out of the gang," Decker said. "The key here is to reach out and catch them before they are exposed to the gang."
That means keeping kids busy, said Lundy, who developed the Family Life Center, a multipurpose building on Telegraph Road, with the intention of providing a variety of activities, including tutoring and athletics, to occupy the youth in his congregation.
"We believe our young people need to be held accountable," Lundy said, adding that the center creates an environment of positive peer pressure. "They are too busy to join gangs."
Hoyos, a community activist who said he has stood toe-to-toe with gang members, encouraged the community not to be intimidated by the growing gang presence in Prince William.
"I don't believe they're terrorists yet, but they will be if we don't pay attention to them," Hoyos told the audience.