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DANA PARSONS / ORANGE COUNTY

A direct way of reaching out to gangs

September 23, 2008|DANA PARSONS

My Rolodex is sprinkled with names of people from the 1990s who wanted to do something about the gang problem in Santa Ana. One was a former F Troop gang member, another was a mother of a gangbanger, another a community activist. I couldn't track down any of them Monday; none of the old phone numbers worked.

But there are new people to talk to.

One of them is Kevin Brown, a former Santa Ana cop and now the pastor of Side-By-Side Church International in Irvine.

If it seems that Brown, 52, is merely the latest in a long line of people tilting at windmills, he disagrees.

The way he sees it, nobody has ever tried it the way he and some like-minded Christians are doing it.

Like walking up to a group of 15 or so gang members on a Santa Ana street at 9 o'clock on a Saturday night. And then telling them that they are loved and their lives are worth saving. And then spending 30 to 45 minutes with them, telling them that one bad decision can send them to prison for years. And then coming back a second Saturday night and a third.

That, Brown says, is how you reach them.

"Get out from your four walls and go into the gang areas where they're at," he says. "When you go fishing, where do you go? You go where the fish are biting. You go at the time they're biting. If I bring a group over at noon on a Saturday, you're not going to catch anything. Because they're not out."

If you surmise that a group of gang members aren't looking for sermons on a Saturday night, Brown agrees. There's virtually no preaching, he says. There's no talk of gangs or turf.

Brown's Christian militia numbers 18 volunteers who wear light-blue jackets with the words "Lives Worth Saving" when they hit the streets. In recent weeks, they've met gang members either en masse or in smaller groups of five or six.

Recruiting faith-based groups into the anti-gang fight, he says, was the brainchild of the Orange County Probation Department. Brown, who was a cop for 23 years before retiring at 50 in 2005, has been a practicing Christian for 17 years.

"I totally know we can reach them," he says early Monday afternoon as we talk in a city park not far from where his group met the gang two nights earlier. "We already are."

And the proof of that is?

"We showed up Saturday night, that was our third Saturday. A guy pulls up in a car, and the shot-caller says, 'We're not selling right now.' They literally stopped selling drugs out of respect for us while we were there."

He's not naive enough to think the selling didn't resume, but the show of respect is a start, Brown says.

While the volunteers were talking to the gang, Brown says, three shots rang out from a nearby alley. "They all ran to the bushes and grabbed their guns," he says of the gang members. "Our team saw it as our opportunity for intervention. As they were putting their guns in their waistbands to go into the alley to finish whatever had started, we were telling them, 'Think. That's what we've been telling you for three weeks -- think. You're 16, 15, 17 years old. If you kill someone, you're going to prison for life. You're never going to get out.' "

All of the gang members, Brown says, stayed put. They even directed members of Brown's group to take cover.

A problem as endemic as gangs won't be fixed by three visits from church volunteers. Indeed, one might ask why the U.S. government commits billions of dollars to restoring Iraqi neighborhoods while many of America's are lawless and awash in fear.

"I don't get too overwhelmed by the task," Brown says. "So long as I keep it in the right perspective. Eighteen people are not going to change the city of Santa Ana, but they could significantly change a 3-square-mile area. If we set ourselves up to succeed, we'll be good. If we set ourselves up to fail, we'll fail."

Brown is hoping for 30 volunteers for the next training session that begins Oct. 21. Anyone who's interested can call him at (714) 321-5701.

Block by block, Brown is optimistic the Christian surge will work.

But with no outright preaching? No nocturnal sermonizing?

For the most part, that's right, Brown says.

"Obviously, there has to be a spiritual repair," he says. "Without a changed heart, you're not going to have a changed life. The way we find effective is through prayer. Very, very seldom will they not allow us to pray for them when we're on the street."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com.

An archive of his recent columns is at latimes.com/parsons.

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