Like you, I was saddened when I learned of the events of last weekend. The shootings that have left 31 dead were tragic. They have left children without parents, parents without children, friends without friends, and a nation in mourning.
Many reasonable voices have responded by calling for greater gun control and more attention to mental health issues. Others are trying to assign blame to individuals, organizations, entertainment products and people groups.
It is a difficult situation. We are angry. We are hurting. We are scared. We don’t quite know what to do with those emotions. Where can we take them? How can we make sense of actions that are so senseless? Where can we find hope?
As one who has worked with a number of young people with profiles similar to the two individuals who allegedly perpetrated the horrific acts of the weekend, I have seen that the situation is complex, and requires not one answer, but several.
In the One Heart Project, we work with youth in trouble – boys and girls who because of their actions, find themselves in the justice system, serving time in a correctional facility.
The general public tends to think of these youth very narrowly. They’re bad kids, getting what they deserve, and I’m glad they don’t live in my neighborhood.
It’s not quite that simple.
A case in point is Mack, the first young man we ever worked with at One Heart. When I first met Mack, he shared his personal story with me. He was born into poverty and grew up in a home that, for all intents and purposes, lacked both mother and father. By the time he hit middle school, he was responsible for raising himself and his younger sister.
Growing up in a dangerous part of the city, he witnessed his first murder at age 12. Yep, read that again, 12. It happened when his best friend was shot and killed on the playground over a basketball game.
Child Protective Services moved him to multiple homes, from relatives to Foster care, where, in most cases, he was mistreated or abused. By age 15, he decided to take his life into his own hands and lived on the streets, sleeping in abandoned cars and buildings.
He was arrested for robbing a couple on the street. He told me that he knew what he did was wrong, but he didn’t know how else he was going to eat.
Mack served three years at the state maximum-security juvenile facility. He was released at age 19. This past spring, he celebrated the 10-year anniversary of his release.
Today, most people who meet Mack would not have any idea he had ever been in prison. He is a young man with a good heart. He’s a great dad, now raising a precious daughter and committed to, as he told me, laying his own life down, if necessary, so that she never travels the same road he did.
He’s also an actor and was amazing in his role in the ONE HEART movie.
Is he the same person who held up a couple on the street 14 years ago? Biologically, yes. But, in terms of his character, his heart, his soul – not even close.
What produced change?
Hope. Love. Commitment. Forgiveness. Compassion.
Mack was surrounded by a group of people – men, women, kids – of all colors and backgrounds, who believed in him and invested into his life. In this process, Mack gained a better understanding of his value as a human being and that there is a purpose for his life that is unique to him. He also saw that people cared about him and wanted to give him a hand up and help him get on a better pathway. It worked.
As with Mack, the issues with youth in trouble are myriad and we must address them as such. To believe that there is just one solution is to approach this situation like we Americans so often do – focus on treating symptoms rather than addressing the root cause.
I recall a couple of safe school summits we were a part of with congressional members a few years ago. As the students discussed school safety issues, they told us that more metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and safety officers would not make them feel any safer. Rather, they told us that if the heart of the student sitting in the desk next to them could be changed, that would create a safer environment and make them feel safer. In pointing out the heart of the student next to them, these teens were prescient. They understood change had to come at the root. These students suggested that if programs existed to teach students character and values, schools would be safer.
In the emotional discussion about how to stop mass shootings, there has been little conversation, if any, around the gaping void that exists in our culture around virtue, values, character, social and emotional intelligence and faith.
Sadly, as our culture drifts further and further away from any sense of mooring, those engaged at the highest level of the current dialogue pay no attention to these – the very pillars of free societies. Some have determined to remove them from the conversation entirely.
In the face of tragedies that have rocked our nation, why does the conversation not turn back to the underpinnings of our culture? Why are we comfortable in having walked away from the very things that heretofore have kept us grounded?
For those who insist removing guns will solve the problem of violence, one can point to the Southern California man who killed 6 in a knife attack this week. Banning guns would not have stopped that crime, nor would banning knives. Evil finds a way.
This is not a political statement about guns or knives. It is a plea for us to stop pointing fingers and assigning blame and actually get to the work of creating change. Change that will only happen if we are willing to confront the true issue and do the hard work of addressing the root cause.
Think about it. For youth today who have been incubated in a valueless society, where the sanctity of life is devalued and there are no absolutes, can we really expect them to care enough about themselves and others to not pull the trigger?
When we worked with incarcerated youth at Riker’s Island prison, one of our fascinating discoveries was when the youth there told us they had never heard of common value words like Integrity, Responsibility and the like. Or they never knew what these terms meant. Or they had never seen anyone around them actually live these values out.
This values illiteracy is destroying us from within. It’s not racism, white supremacy or hate speech that are killing us. It’s what’s producing them.
The Ten Commandments have been removed from public display in an effort to push God out of our culture. Left without God, the human response is to become one’s own god. And, rather than a God who fashioned man in His own image, we are left with man (acting as his own god) trying to conform others to his own image: I am supreme. I will rule myself and I demand you live by my rules; do what I want you to do, speak like I want you to speak.
The fact that 31 people were murdered last weekend is tragic. The fact that we are now experiencing an epidemic of evil that has seen more than 100,000 murdered on our city streets in the past 15 years is mind-numbing.
Killing, violence, hatred, condemnation, repudiation, humiliation, degradation. We find our culture teetering on the brink of an epic collapse in what is now a postmodern environment.
But we don’t have to give up.
What we’ve seen through the One Heart Project is that when enough people that care unite to make a change, change happens. We’ve seen hundreds of once lost lives changed, hope restored, and futures birthed.
Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
I’m all in to be part of that small group. What about you?