Much has been said about the recent gang violence in Chattanooga. While a great deal of attention has been given to this issue, relatively little has been said about the true underlying cause of the problem.
I am convinced that for this problem to improve we cannot simply react to each individual situation that arises, but must deal with the root cause.
So what is the cause?
To state it plainly: Gangs are simply substitute families. As the family unit increasingly disintegrates, gang involvement will continually increase. Teens are looking for acceptance and anything that resembles love. When they don't find this at home they go searching elsewhere. Teenagers need accountability and responsibility. When they are not given this at home, they look elsewhere.
Teens need a sense of community. When they can't find that in their homes, they fill that need in other ways. Teens are looking for support. They need to know that someone has got their back and will be there for them. If this need is not met at home, they go searching.
What our city is discovering is that gangs are more than willing to meet these needs. They offer acceptance into a group. They provide a one-sided friendship that at first glance resembles love. Gangs offer responsibility in tasks that prove loyalty to their gang. They also provide accountability in the form of consequences for letting the gang down.
Gangs provide that needed support, and they defend each other. Teens are open to joining gangs because they are not receiving what they need at home. As families crumble, gangs are built.
How can we address the root cause of our gang problem? It would be nice to instantly fix families by creating loving and involved fathers and nurturing mothers. But the sad reality is that this is not a problem that can be fixed in a one-day seminar.
We must understand that the gang problems we see today are the result of the failing family over the past 20 years. While the disintegration of the family unit should be addressed, we also need to address the gang problem that exists today. We must create programs that offer teens what they need. But this is impossible for city leadership to do alone.
What if a group of churches came together to adopt a school; and in so doing created a program for that school that offered acceptance, mentoring, tutoring, love, responsibility and accountability for children and teens? This has been done in other cities, such as Dallas, through a program called The National Church Adopt-A-School Program. This is not the program that must be used, but it proves that programs like these exist and do make a difference.
If teens are joining gangs in search of meeting these core needs, why can churches not help to meet these needs? I am afraid church leaders are too content to sit back and criticize the problem rather than get involved and become part of the solution. Churches need to step up!
The church of which I am pastor is currently discussing ways we can do our part.
Jeremy Wallace is pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church in Chattanooga. He was formerly director of admissions at Tennessee Temple University.