NEW YORK — Amy Williams, a half-black, half-Irish youth ministry leader born in Maine, was living in North Carolina when she decided to pack her bags and find a new home in Chicago's Puerto Rican-dominated Humboldt Park, the neighborhood otherwise known as the motherland, or birthplace of the notorious Latin Kings street gang.
But Williams, a certified gang intervention specialist who founded the platform A Hope Dealer for her ministry work, said the decision to move was not so much hers as it was God's.
The transition to a new home came after what Williams said was God speaking to her frustrations about a burden she felt to reach young people in the streets. At the time, she was a youth pastor at her church in North Carolina and was mentoring kids, but that just wasn't enough.
"I was a youth pastor for years and wanted to be out on the street," Williams told The Christian Post during the Urban Youth Works Institute's RELOAD event on Sept. 12. "I was still loving and mentoring those kinds of young people but I wasn't...full-time pursuing it. But I wanted to."
"I thought I had the backing of the church to do it. I had the backing of the pastor, but I just couldn't get anybody to join me. So I became extremely frustrated because I wanted a youth ministry that would hit the streets with me. A youth ministry that cared more about that kind of stuff," she added. "Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. So when I finally said, 'OK, God, what would you have me to do?' That's when He was like, 'I need you to move into a gang neighborhood.' And from there it was just full-on, 24/7."
Before she knew it, "I'm in the middle of a gang war trying to help kids — how did that happen? From Young Life to gang life," she mused. But Williams "loves it," and does not think it a coincidence that her calling also hits close to home.
"I also have a younger brother, when I was in college, out of college, who was a Crip out in Los Angeles. Best friend in the entire world," Williams told CP. "So I think that when I look at young people, I'm always like, 'That's like my baby brother…' I just think it's full circle, you know as well to say, 'Well, I felt like I couldn't save my baby brother and I couldn't be of any worth or value to him. Maybe I can to the young people God brings into my life. And I love it. I love it."
Williams' love, or at least her excitement and passion for her ministry, is obvious in conversations and during presentations when she's teaching others best practices for working with youth who are affiliated with gang culture or who could not care less about Jesus.
During her presentation at the Urban Youth Workers Institute's RELOAD gathering in Brooklyn, Williams laid out her description of "outreach," which she defined as a "privileged opportunity to introduce Jesus Christ, intentionally demonstrate His love and passionately share the news of hope to young people who have not heard this Good News." Outreach is a continual process that demands passion and consistency, she added. "Outreach isn't an event. It's a lifestyle."
William also challenged her listeners when she touched on the "domesticated" or more celebratory aspects of Jesus with which some Christians identify.
"We as people of color and people that work in under-resourced communities, we can relate and understand more to the Jesus of suffering than we can the Jesus of celebration," said Williams.
She added, "We can relate to the Jesus that is with us in our pain, with us in our darkness, with us in our struggle…not always the Jesus that's...on a [fluffy] cloud."
Churches tend to avoid getting messy with the Jesus of the struggle, she said.
To do meaningful youth ministry, especially among young people in challenging situations or for whom Jesus is the farthest thing from their minds, one has to be available, Williams added. She pointed to churches that restrict heir availability to just Sundays.
Another asset for ministry is resourcefulness. "You should know what's going on in your community and who to call," she explained.
Success, especially in her ministry, is not measured by numbers but by transformation. "That takes a lot of time, and it might just be one person," said Williams, who also shared that success for her is sometimes knowing that one of "her guys" passed a drug test and has been staying clean.
Williams also warned against focusing too much on the behavior that some young people exhibit, and to instead try to develop genuine relationships with them and get to the root, or cause of their behavior.
"You can't judge a book by it's cover but you can't judge it by the first chapter either," she cautioned.
"How do you want the rest of the story to look?" she asked.
At the end of the day, Williams said, everything should be about getting youth, like her gang members, "to come to themselves, like the prodigal son."
Williams, involved in youth ministry for 21 years, started her work with Young Life, a nonprofit organization whose mission since its 1939 founding by a Presbyterian youth leader has been "to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in their faith."
For the past 12 years, however, Williams has been heading up her own ministry in Chicago's Humboldt Park, where she presents herself as a "hope dealer," and a light in what has become a very dark place.
Chicago, the country's most populous city (with 2.7 million people), is home to hundreds of gangs, has been hemorrhaging with violence for decades and, depending in which part of the "most segregated city in America" one lives, vastly affected by dozens of permanent school closures and a steady unemployment rate.
While last year saw a total of 269 murders, at least 325 such cases already have been recorded this year, according to statistics complied through Sept. 6 by the Chicago Police Department. While there were 1,400 total shooting incidents last year, the Chicagoland metro area has already seen 1,652 such cases.
Take a look at the Chicago Tribune's "Crime in Chicagoland" chart, which records 2,133 shooting victims through Sept. 17, and one can't miss that the predomimnant victims in the last 30 days (and overall) have been males in their 20s and 30s, with several teenagers included. Among the 20 shooting incidents recorded on Sept. 13 alone, at least five of them occurred in Humboldt Park, the neighborhood that Williams calls home. But some of the victims of gun violence are gang members, taken out by other gangbangers.
Not everyone Williams works with is in a gang, though, and if they are in a gang, that does not mean that they are necessarily violent or actively committing crimes, she explained to CP. Those distinctions speak to some of the biggest misconceptions Williams believes people have about the kind of inner-city or urban youth with whom she works.
"Not all of them kill. Not all of them fight," said Williams. "A lot of them just want to be around a community of people that care for them. It's just a family. They just smoke weed with them. They just hang out on the block. They might sell drugs, but they're not going around killing, shooting, robbing…the whole nine. Probably about 65 percent of the young people I hang around with are not violent. They're just lonely. They're alone."
Another misconception, according to Williams, is that these young people don't' have anything of value to contribute. Williams says she tells her young people all the time, "'The violence that is happening in Chicago, you guys are the answer to it. You have the answer.'" But they insist, she said, that no one is listening to them.
"The fact is, young people want to talk. And young people need to be heard, and we're not listening to them simply because we already have that perception of them," said Williams.
"As I develop programs, as I develop ministries that help others, the first thing I say is, 'Listen to the young people.' If I start a gang ministry, guess what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna hit the street, I'm gonna ask gang leaders and I'm gonna ask the kids, 'What do you want? What do you need? What's lacking?'" she explained.
"So the misconception that they ain't got nothing to say, that they're just stupid, they're just high all the time… No. If you knew some of their stories, you would understand why they joined a gang. If you knew their pain and the darkness, you would get it and understand it," said Williams.
Williams knows her calling requires endurance and a self-less attitude. People do not change overnight, and it really is not her job to get people to change. After all, she said, "It isn't about me." Neither is the work about behavior modification or simply coming up with "programs," she explained.
"Well, what it really comes down to is consistency and being present. So the only way I can really, really develop trust with my guys is that I'm always there. They're used to people coming and going, coming and going. They're used to dads abandoning them. They're used to friends getting locked up or dying. They're used to people not being around for any length of time. That's just the reality of their life.
"So the best way for me to show Christ is to show them that the way God pursues me, is the way that I'm gonna pursue [them]. In the sense of, 'I'm here, I'm available, you're gonna see me. You are who you are and I am fully accepting of that, of who you are and where you are.' That for me has been the first thing, developing that level of trust," said Williams.
Although there are churches in Chicago, of all sizes, trying to address the city's needs, not enough congregations are on the same page, according to Williams. But then again, urban ministry is hard work, she noted.
"What I have found with the work that I do is that gang ministry is very trendy, until you do it. People love saying 'I work with gang members.' But then they come for six weeks and no gang member has opened up to them and they're like, 'I'm good. I'm done.' So there's this thing about the stick–to–itiveness of doing urban ministry," said Williams.
"It's hard, it's messy, we don't have resources, we have to be extra creative, we might not get paid… But what is your motive though for wanting to do it? What is your commitment that you're willing to give to it? I don't know if a lot of people want to sacrifice that, and it makes me sad," she added. "Because I think if we had more of that, and we took better care of our urban leaders, too (financially, with self-care and through accountability), we could just change our cities. Most people don't sign up for this."
The bottom line for Williams when it comes to getting her message across, is to remind others "to start seeing young people the way that God seems them."
"People always ask, 'Why were you called… why are you working with…?' I don't know how I got here," she said early in the conversation. "I just know that I had a heart and a passion ... my entire life for the underdog, for young people that our society considers worthless or useless. I'm just drawn to those kind of young people to remind them, 'No, you have value. You have worth.'
"So what better group of young people than those that are in gangs or those that are in some of the darkest periods of their life and have seen darkness and participated in darkness, to be able to be a light in that kind of darkness and let them know that they do have value, they do have worth and they were God's brilliant idea."