Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.

Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. -- Romans 13: 1-6

A tiger rarely changes his stripes, especially when that tiger is a man killer. But on those few occasions that I know of in which a really bad gang member truly changes his lifestyle and becomes a peaceful law abiding citizen, I must credit faith.

Unfortunately for every "true conversion," there are scores of "jail house" conversions that fail to last.

There are several major Christian churches made up almost entirely of church members with long histories of gang, biker, and prison backgrounds. These gangster churches often promote notorious "ex-bangers" into positions of authority with little time spent observing and testing the validity of these conversions.

A true conversion requires a complete change. If you are a converted hooker, you should no longer dress like a hooker, frequent hooker hangouts, continue to talk like a hooker, and continue to socialize with your Johns. Just because a gang member once answered an altar call and publicly proclaimed himself a Christian does not mean he has truly changed his life. Too many of these "ex-gang bangers" still walk like ducks, talk like ducks, wear bright yellow feathers, and swim with other ducks.

Our society is so desperately desirous of seeing a gangster turn his life around that we often accept and promote anyone who claims a conversion without checking for proof. As a result these supposed converts are appointed as youth counselors, ministers, and administrators in churches over good people who were never gangsters. This is a formula for scandal.

A fiery Christian preacher once argued with me that all gang members need to change their life is Jesus. "If they had Jesus they would not be gangsters," he said. What that preacher didn't realize is that most gang members do believe in Jesus and God. 

They just believe more in their gang. When it becomes a choice between God or gang, the gang member will, in the overwhelming number of instances, choose his gang over God.

Have you ever attend a gang member's funeral? They are often huge ritualistic religious events with gospel groups, preachers, and elaborate graveside services all invoking God's name. 

This shouldn't surprise you. Many gang members claim to be religious. They wear crosses and rosaries and even tattoo these symbols on their bodies. Despite such professions of faith, gang members find no contradiction in shooting heroin into an arm with a tattoo of Our Lady of Guadalupe or shooting someone because he flashed a rival gang sign.

I was once attending a youth conference in San Pedro as a youth minister for my Catholic parish. I was asked to do the opening invocation. During my invocation I prayed against the sin of gangs and prayed for the 600 or so people killed in gang assaults every year in Los Angeles. Afterward several Catholic nuns scolded me for suggesting that the gang lifestyle was sinful or offensive to God.

I was stunned. Committing criminal acts for the furtherance of a gang is obviously sinful in the Judeo-Christian definition of "sinful." Unless the gang members recognize this and repent, there can be no Christian conversion. "But they go to church, baptize their babies and even donate money to the church," some might say. So do the Sicilian Mafia members they imitate.
Some churches are even being perverted and used by gang members to hide their continued criminal activity. Well meaning but naive clergy are unwittingly being used to protect predatory gangs and protect unrepentant gang members.

These religious leaders are codependent coddlers of wolves who continue to prey on their flocks. I have noticed that the same clergy who see themselves as advocates for the poor gang members often neglect their other parishioners and especially the victims of gang crimes among their flocks.

Gang advocate clergy often openly encourages non-cooperation with police in criminal investigations. They withhold information (outside that protected as privileged) on suspects and criminal cases. They do not alert law enforcement when they know or suspect gang fights or drive-by shootings might occur. They counsel victims to forgive perpetrators and not to be desirous of criminal prosecution.

In the 1990s, several Los Angeles activist clergy solicited complaints from Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and 18th Street gang members against LAPD gang units. They conducted classes in church facilities to help the gangs overwhelm the Los Angeles authorities with written complaints, especially against LAPD Rampart Division gang cops. Perhaps this might be justified if the complaints had any true merit, but almost every one of the complaints proved unfounded.

Why aren't these clergy using their energy and faith to advocate on behalf of the millions of people injured by gang drug dealing, and gang-related car theft, burglary, robbery, rape and assault? Who is the advocate of the children, wives, widows, and mothers of murdered young men? Who is the advocate of the innocent children killed or injured in gang crossfires?
Next time you confront a religious leader who starts spouting scripture to protect some criminal gang member refer him or her to the Bible and the verses I quoted above (Romans 13: 1-6).

Faith-based rehabilitation programs have the best success record that I have seen in my three decades dealing with gangs. However many false programs are also embedded in religious institutions.  Faith-based programs and their activist leaders cannot be untouchable sacred cows, they must be investigated and closely monitored for any susceptibility to corruption or criminal activity.


Richard Valdemar
Richard Valdemar

Sergeant (Ret.)

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

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