Faith-Based Groups Urged to Help N.Va. Youths Avoid Gangs

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 23, 2006

Drive-by shootings. Machete attacks. Drug deals gone bad. Big-city gang problems for big-city law enforcement? Not if you ask some in Loudoun County.

Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS-13. The Mexican Mafia. South Side Locos. Bloods. Crips. You name the gangs, Northern Virginia has them, and it might not be long before they penetrate deeper into the relatively quiet confines of Loudoun, Leesburg Police Chief Joseph R. Price said this week.

Speaking to a small group of Loudoun religious and community leaders, Price, co-chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, said it's time for local churches and faith-based organizations to get involved in gang prevention. Although gang-related crimes have declined in Northern Virginia recently, the trend is not guaranteed to continue, he said. Faith-based and social service intervention programs could be useful in counteracting gang violence, Price said.

"Gangs are a society problem, not just a law enforcement problem," Price said. "The solution doesn't just reside in people in uniform."

Price was one of four experts who spoke at a seminar Monday in downtown Leesburg on the role of religion and churches in gang prevention. The conference, sponsored by the Religion Newswriters Foundation and the Foundation for American Communications, a national nonprofit educational organization, drew several Loudoun-based religious and social service groups.

In 2002, nearly 600 gang-related crimes were reported in Northern Virginia, according to task force figures. Two years later, the number of gang-related crimes had nearly tripled, to about 1,700, as reported by 11 jurisdictions then represented on the task force. Gang crimes declined by about 17 percent in 2005. The vast majority of crimes involve graffiti.

Nevertheless, local jurisdictions cannot let down their guard, Price said. "Gangs are really never going to go away. It's always going to be there," Price said. "Our job is to create a climate so that there are positive alternatives for our young people who are most likely to fall victim to gangs."

This year, the task force received $2.5 million from the federal government to combat gangs, Price said. Task force members in Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties and nine other Northern Virginia jurisdictions use the money for intervention programs and to investigate local gangs and conduct raids.

Northern Virginia is not like Los Angeles, where gangs control huge swaths of the city, officials said. But with an estimated 3,000 MS-13 members in the rapidly growing region, there's reason for serious concern, said seminar speaker Gaston Espinosa.

Espinosa, an assistant professor of philosophy and religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in California, said gangs typically sprout in urban areas where poverty is endemic and the kind of affluence seen in Loudoun is at best a distant dream. He estimated that about 49 percent of the nation's roughly 731,000 gang members are Latino. Many, he said, come from countries such as El Salvador, where years of civil war have led to an exodus of youths who at one time may have been child soldiers.

"A lot of children who have come north -- many of them legal, many illegal -- they already know how to use weapons. They're comfortable with machine guns and grenades," Espinosa said.

The trick, he said, is to help disadvantaged youths, and immigrants in particular, to be more comfortable in their communities. That's where churches and faith-based groups come in, he said. "You can't just think of gangs as bad people who were born bad," Espinosa said. "Most of the kids in gangs are just like your own kids."

Jennifer Eddy, co-pastor at Elijah Gate Christian Center in Leesburg, agrees. Although her Pentecostal congregation, with 50 members, is small in comparison with some Loudoun congregations, she said hers and other churches can do a lot. Above all, she said, she's concerned about the lack of alternatives for area youths.

The county is short of recreational resources, and community groups -- especially churches -- need to do better at reaching out to at-risk youths to head off gang activity, Eddy said. One way to do that might be for local churches to establish relationships with the growing number of Spanish-speaking congregations in the county, she said.

"This is a wave that's coming at us, and we need to think about how to deal with it," Eddy said.

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