“I was eleven years old when I joined a gang.”
Those were the first words she spoke into the microphone. Five hundred men and women in pressed suits and sequened dresses sat at round tables, stunned and silent. They thought of eleven-year-old sons and daughters back at home, tucked beneath Egyptian cotton sheets and behind locked doors.
Eleven? How does a little girl end up in a gang at eleven?
But that was just the beginning. What followed in the next five minutes was a story of gang activity, drug money, teen pregnancy, and constant fear. But also a story of belonging. Because even when loaded weapons and drugs sit on the kitchen table, at least a gang provides a place to call home.
Saturday night, I emceed the annual Hope House Gala, a fundraiser for an organization that empowers parenting teenage moms to strive for personal and economic self-sufficiency. I guess I’m ignorant, or at least naive. Is teen pregnancy still a crisis?
Yes, it is. According to Hope House’s director, Lisa Steven, 4,000 babies will be born to teen moms in Colorado this year alone. Of those teen moms, only one third will graduate from highschool. Of those, only 1% will graduate from college. The vast majority of teen moms will drop out of school, live well below the poverty level, and, in many cases, become homeless. Their babies along with them.
That’s how an eleven year old becomes a longtime gang member. Because when you don’t have anywhere to go and need a place to belong, you’ll do just about anything to find a family.
I stood to the side of the platform while the now twenty-year-old thriving mom of two told her story. To my right sat my husband. Back at home, my children. Peppered over the city of Denver, countless friends. A couple states away, my parents and a brother. Countless evidences of relationship, vivid reminders that I’m not alone.
And it occurred to me: That’s the difference. That’s the difference between a girl dependent on a gang and girl who can stand up in a filled ballroom and tell her story of salvation.
Relationship is the difference between homelessness and hope. It changes circumstances. Changes outcomes. Changes people.
Hope House does this on a daily basis, through their residential program, mentoring program and career partnership and GED programs. And by making sure each girl hears about the God who adores her.
Even so. Organizations don’t change the world. People do.
The mentor who helped this girl break her ties with the gang. The GED instructor that helped her pass her tests. The career coach who inspired her launch her own business. It took relationship to change the story.
So what does this have to do with you and me?
If you’re living a story you don’t like, if you’re in the middle of a crisis and want to find a way out, one of the best things you can do is to invest in healthy relationship. The temptation is to shrink away, hole up in a corner and isolate. Instead, reach out. Ask for help. Allow yourself to be loved and surrounded and led.
But second (and perhaps even more important), in the living of our own stories we mustn’t ignore a world filled with eleven year olds (and thirty and forty year olds) who are looking for a place to call home. Maybe not a bed or permanent residence, but a meal at your table. A phone call. A card. A conversation. Or maybe simply a kind word and vote of confidence.
In all our organizational agendas and investments, let’s not forget transformation is driven by relationship. Individuals who are desperate for hope, and individuals who love them enough to give them some.
Outside of a spouse, children or family member, who needs a dose of relationship from you?