The Catholic Church has an obligation to enter the battleground on the nation’s streets to help eliminate gang violence, Bishop Richard Garcia of the Monterey Diocese told an audience at Saint Mary’s College on December 1.
Garcia, affectionately known as the “bishop of the people,” described the path his diocese has taken in steering young people away from the streets. There were 29 homicides in Salinas alone during his first year at the diocese and he saw first-hand how the deaths had a far-reaching impact on his community.
“The battleground affects not only the members of the gangs but all in our community,” Garcia said in his lecture, which was sponsored by the Henning Institute. “The ‘us versus them’ mentality tears apart our communities and allows the culture of death to infiltrate the youngest and most innocent in our society.”
Many of those who join gangs in his county are young men of Hispanic descent and many are baptized and have an affinity toward the Catholic Church. Garcia believes the Church can emphasize faith and action among the youth by giving them alternative outlets and working with community organizations.
The diocese has combined its efforts with COPA (Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action) to reach out to those most susceptible to joining gangs. Together they helped to set up an after-school sports program, which provides an alternate path to acceptance and camaraderie, the principal reasons young people join gangs today. He has also worked with local law enforcement to create an open relationship with the communities by developing Neighborhood Watch programs.
He spreads the message of the importance of education and strong family ties in helping young people to avoid gang life. For those young people who do not have healthy home lives, the Church needs to play an even more vital role in their lives, he says.
“We have to do something as the Church…to help our people, lead our people and love our people,” Garcia said. “We must walk with our people and make a change.”
By Kathryn Geraghty ’12
Photo by Emily Kratz '15