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Sharing a vision

Straight Ahead Ministries takes the toughest gang members and shows them the possibility of a new life

James Allen Walker for WORLD

Sharing a vision
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LYNN, Mass.-Some white frame houses in Lynn, Mass., 15 miles north of Boston, are rundown, but the rot inside is worse. Although Lynn's population is only 90,000, its crime statistics could be those of a city much larger. Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and MS-13 wage brutal gang wars on its streets. Lynn is home to the third-largest Cambodian population in the nation, and some who escaped the killing fields remain unassimilated.

Lynn, though, is getting safer. Gang impact is down 60 percent in the last five years, and in-the-know Lynn residents say a Christian organization, Straight Ahead Ministries, has helped enormously by reconciling gang members and juvenile offenders with each other and rehabilitating them to the world at large.

In some ways, Straight Ahead is a throwback to an earlier era, when the church was the largest provider of social services. The ministry works closely with government organizations, combining personal relationships with meticulous case management, tracking youths over years, never giving up. "No governmental organization has a vision for the city," Lynn director Claire Sullivan says. "God's church has a vision, and our collaborative partners in government are sharing our vision."

Sullivan, a small woman with gray hair, seems like an unlikely choice to be straightening out Lynn's toughest gangbangers, but her raw energy helped her to lead five other Straight Ahead staffers into more than 700 individual youth contacts last year. They met kids looking for trouble in juvenile facilities. They met them on the streets, on the playgrounds, and on the basketball courts.

More juvenile offenders are discharged into Lynn than in any other city in Massachusetts, bar Boston. From the moment they hit the streets, Straight Ahead goes to work: "As soon as someone gets out of jail, they need a Massachusetts ID, they need a Social Security card, they need housing money," Sullivan says.

Straight Ahead staffers typically pick up released offenders at the prison gates and work with them immediately to set up a four-week plan that provides an alternative to crime. They make the rounds of social services offices and get teens enrolled in GED programs or community colleges. They meet families and friends, and keep checking back over the weeks and months that follow. No government agency coordinates prisoner release this way, so Straight Ahead does it. "We are the re-entry program for the city of Lynn," Sullivan says.

But all that work is meaningless without the Christian message behind it. Straight Ahead runs Bible studies in juvenile facilities and plugs ex-prisoners into weekly small groups. For kids with a wealth of experience with government bureaucrats, Christian love makes all the difference. "In Boston they've got tons of programs, but right here they're genuine," Jamal Latimer, 22, says. "They rock with you. . . . They've seen my record but they've never judged me. They want to see you do good and they don't want nothing in return."

Francisco Paulino was, and is, a scary man. Only 21, Paulino was a leader in Lynn's Crips-affiliated gangs. He describes his former life as "running around, trying to make money, get guns, and put fear into the enemy." It's easy to see why he was so successful: He's built like a cement truck. But when he met Sullivan in a juvenile facility, he realized that he didn't have to live life that way: "I started to realize that there's life to choose instead of death."

The turning point was a three-day Straight Ahead gang reconciliation seminar that took place in the juvenile facilities. Prison guards with Dobermans lined the halls, expecting the room to explode when lifelong sworn enemies gathered together. Instead, "People opened their hearts and cried in front of their enemies," Paulino says: "People had intended to fight, but if they wanted to fight, God changed their heart."

When Paulino stepped out of the facility, having decided to leave gang life behind, he felt overwhelmed: "I felt like turning around and stepping back." But Straight Ahead's re-entry program got him on his feet and enrolled in a community college. "It gets harder for me," Paulino says. "Because my life was much simpler then. I didn't have to worry, there was no pressure on me. My life means a lot to me now; before it didn't."

Straight Ahead's Lynn program is part of a larger ministry that runs Bible studies at over 40 juvenile facilities across Massachusetts, with local offices in Lynn and Worcester. Straight Ahead also helps others across the country to set up their own juvenile offender ministries: It now has affiliates across New England and in 11 other states.

Although program details vary in each location, national director Scott Larson notes that the principles of changing lives remain the same. "They have to feel the consequences of their current path," he says. "At some point they burn out on it and it's no longer fun. They have to see that a different future is possible."

Sokhan Prak first learned about this when he was 14. He had joined the Crips two years before and never felt he had a choice about it: "It was either that or be a nobody. And I wanted to be somebody." At 14 he was serving time in a Boston juvenile facility after being an accomplice in a robbery. Then he met Sullivan, who planted the seed that another life might be possible.

The seed was dormant for a time. When Prak got out, he returned to the gang and lived with one foot in it and one foot out. A Crip in good standing, he hung out with his friends but also did odd jobs at the Straight Ahead office and experienced a different kind of love. Eight months ago he was shot on the street and the choice became clear: At Straight Ahead "were the people who loved me. They visited me in the hospital. I lay there looking at the ceiling a lot, and I didn't know what was going to happen."

When Prak walked out of the hospital, he left the gang behind for good. Now he works for Straight Ahead, answering phones, running the ministry's screen printing business, and trying to help the next kid make the right decision before it's too late: "God took the blinders off. Now my life brings joy." Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the Northeast regional finalists. To view a video profile of Straight Ahead Ministries and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit WORLDmag.com/compassion.

Straight Ahead Ministries Factbox

Location: Lynn, Mass. Founded: 1991 Mission: Juvenile rehabilitation, gang reconciliation Size: Seven staff members in national office, six in Lynn office handling 700 youth contacts per year. Budget: National annual budget of $1.6 million; separate Lynn annual budget of $300,000 website: www.straightahead.org

Daniel Olasky

Daniel is a former WORLD contributor.


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