Mar 3, 2017

"I was in prison..."

Elementary school.
The youth of La Caramuca are targets of recruitment by gangs.

Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me. Matthew 25:36

There was a time when I worked as a free-lance reporter for a chain of weekly newspapers in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, They would call me when they needed someone to cover an event, usually a school board meeting or other school district activity. I learned a lot about cultural trends influence public education and vice versa.

What comes to mind now is a presentation by a police officer on the problem of gang-related crime in the suburban schools and communities. At that time, everybody knew that gangs from Chicago were traveling up Interstate 94 to recruit new members among the youth of Milwaukee's urban core. The general public was less aware of how the gangs were expanding from the poverty-stricken inner city to the more well-to-do suburbs.

The appeal to inner-city youth might appear easy to understand, the officer said: Easy money, easy sex and constant good times compared to the difficulties of staying in school and/or trying to find work when that meant starting at minimum wage. But what about suburban youth from more comfortable homes and better schools? The answer was that the gangs offered more than access to money, sex and drugs. They also provided youth with a sense of belonging and protection that they could not find at home. As the family instability, absentee parenting and drug abuse of the inner city have spread to more middle-class neighborhoods, so has this emotional appeal of the gangster life. Add in the adolescent need for peer acceptance, and you had the recipe for a problem that could affect children from even the "best families".

As with many other experiences before my time in Venezuela, I have had the opportunity to revisit this issue. Petty crime, alcohol and drug abuse long have been part of the generational cycle of poverty here, much as in inner-city neighborhoods of the USA. But the "humanitarian crisis", as shortage of food, medicine and other basic necessities has been labeled, has created a thriving black market and an environment in which theft is easily justified. The local gangs are becoming more organized and aggressive in their recruitment.

A few weeks ago, two young men who are confirmed members of our mission were arrested with three others for robbery. There was sufficient evidence for them to be faced with possible three- to four-year prison sentences. They were held for several days in the jail in La Caramuca before being moved to Barinas. Luz Maria and I were able to visit them, pray with them and share the story of the thief on the cross, who even in his last moments, found the Lord's forgiveness (Luke 23:39-43).
High school.
We hope to reach students in the high school.

Afterward, we were able to work with their families and find an attorney who negotiated conditional liberty for them this week. The next goal that we hope to achieve is organizing a program that allows to take our young men into the elementary and high schools to talk with other students about avoiding the same predicament in which they found themselves.

But the surrounding community continues to be engulfed in a crime wave in which the criminals often are their own children. We have a man who is helping to remodel our house for better security. He is a honest, hard-working and friendly man. But last week his son was shot and killed by the police while involved in a robbery. We will keep praying for him and his family.

I addressed this issue in my Sexagesima Sunday (February 19) sermon in this way: These two learned in catechism class the 10 Commandments, including, "Do not steal." This is the Law of God that is part of the Word of God. The civil government has the authority and responsibility to maintain that order. So they have suffered the consequences of belittling the Law of God. This is a danger to each of us and we must be prepared for the temptations and pitfalls of this world. When the world says, "This is good" and it is not good, we should not forget the Word of God. However, for those who repent of their sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. God is with us, even in prison. St. Paul was imprisoned, not for his own fault, but for the injustice of the authorities. But, whether the authorities are just or unjust, we must respect them and suffer all because of Christ.

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