Gangs And Spirituality: Global Pespectives

Author: Ross Deuchar
Publisher: Cham, SWIT: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 267p.
Reviewer: Andrew Johnson | March 2019

It is often said that joining a street gang will lead young men to one of two destinations: prison or the morgue. Ross Deuchar’s book, Gangs and Spirituality contributes to an emerging body of literature which presents another destination for men who join gangs, namely spiritual awakening.

In a multi-faith study, Deuchar collected qualitative data among ex-gang members, chaplains and outreach workers on three continents. The book relies on this diverse data set to argue that though gangs are in essence hyper-local groups, the role of spirituality in leaving gangs and reshaping ex-members’ identity is a global phenomenon. Gangs and Spirituality is a compelling book that should be read by not only scholars and practitioners, but by anyone interested in gangs, the religious lives of the marginalized, gang disengagement and masculinity.

One of the strengths of the book is the international data set compiled through fieldwork in Los Angeles, Denmark, Scotland and Hong Kong. Gangs and Spirituality may lack the sense of place offered in Flores’ (2014) work in Los Angeles, Brenneman’s (2011) study in Central America or Densley’s (2013) research in London, but the global scope of the study reveals a connection between spirituality and gang disengagement that transcends a particular faith, a particular gang, or any one city’s cultural context.

In the early chapters, Deuchar introduces street gangs as a response to poverty, social marginalization and personal trauma. He situates his study in a body of research that points to a shared set of macro and micro trends which push and pull young men into gang membership. Understanding gangs as a global phenomenon is important for Duechar’s work because it suggests that the gang disengagement process may also share commonalities throughout the world.

Masculinity is a consistent focus of the research. Based on his work with the ex-gang members involved in Los Angeles’ Homeboy Industries, Deuchar asserts “[l]ocally-dominated forms of hegemonic masculinity focused on toughness and machismo had thus became amplified within the context of street gangs, often as a means of dealing with troubled inner worlds” (p.83). Gangs encourage criminal behavior, but they also impart an understanding of what it means to be a man. Though less visible than a tattoo or an arrest record, hegemonic masculinity is a consequence of gang participation that does not simply disappear when someone decides to leave a gang. One of the most compelling findings of the book is the way spirituality and religious practice are able to transform individual dispositions and understandings of being a man without ex-gang members feeling emasculated in the process.

Much of Deuchar’s fieldwork centers on religion and spirituality’s role in disentangling gang-inspired masculine identities. An ex-gang member working at Homeboy explained how the supportive, therapeutic communities, utilized by Homeboy, which are “soaked” in spiritual practice, can dismantle the tough façades erected during gang participation. “The toughness is just a thick layer…we gotta get under that, expose it for what it is. It is a survival mechanism…Let’s expose the pain, let’s talk about the pain and let’s open up and release it from ourselves. And then your toughness starts to fade away” (p. 106). Deuchar’s participation in these groups and his description of them gives important insight into how these practices, rooted in a shared faith, work in the lives of individuals and small groups.

Los Angeles is home to some of the world’s most famous street gangs, and Homeboy Industries may be the best-known gang intervention in the world. Glasgow on the other hand is not necessarily considered a hotbed of gang research. Yet in important ways, gangs in Glasgow and other northern European cities illustrate how many cities throughout the world have undergone processes which have created conditions conducive for street gangs to grow. Deuchar writes, “[t]he demise of male-dominated heavy industry in Glasgow over the past 40 years and the resulting inequality has led to a crisis of masculinity in socially disadvantaged housing estates” (p.119). He writes about Glasgow, but the same processes have been at work in Detroit, Manchester, São Paulo and many other urban centers around the globe.

In the fieldwork in Scotland and Denmark, Deuchar interviews twenty-six ex-gang members. Family trauma and the role of the prison chaplain take center stage in these interviews. Many young men point to family trauma as a reason that they joined a gang. They spoke of deep wounds, the kinds that do not heal on their own. For ex-gang members inside of prison, the prison chaplain is often involved in the healing process. Here, the multi-faith aspect of the study allows the reader to see that even though the prison chaplains in the book represent different faith traditions, they offer inmates a similar set of resources. Interviewees responded that they appreciate the chaplain for the spiritual guidance, friendship, and the personal and emotional support they offer. Chaplains may not offer complete solutions to all of their issues, but the men framed chaplains as important components of a multi-faceted approach to work through the emotional wounds many of the men incurred in childhood. Though only a chapter is dedicated to the importance of the chaplains in Gangs and Spirituality, it extends recent research (Dubler 2014) which reveal prisons as religiously vibrant and diverse places where captive populations practice many faiths in close proximity to one another.

Deuchar includes Hong Kong as the third region in his study to triangulate his findings. His work in Hong Kong focuses on youth deeply involved with drugs and testing the waters of organized crime. Here the focus is on a street ministry (Hong Kong Christian Society is the pseudonym used) led by a former drug addict turned Protestant minister. The ministry shares much in common with L.A.’s Homeboy Industries, but it is a much smaller organization and is built on an evangelical Protestant understanding of Christianity. Though the theological underpinnings of the ministry are very different than the ideology preached by Hong Kong’s organized crime syndicates, it holds up values it shares with the gang, principally the notions of brotherhood and loyalty, and reinterprets them towards the community living in Hong Kong Christian Society’s residential rehabilitation program. There are many similarities between gangs and churches, and these chapters give a glimpse at how religious groups can repurpose parts of gang ideology towards pro-social ends.

One question I had after reading Gangs and Spirituality was, do converted, religiously committed ex-gang members understand aspects of faith in a way that their co-religionists cannot? Maybe these men understand something about hope, transformation, faith, forgiveness and grace that cannot be learned in a masjid, seminary, yoga class or by reading a book. Deuchar’s work gives a compelling account of how religion can contribute to the lives of gang members, but it also sets the foundation for a future study on how ex-gang members could contribute to religious groups, helping to deepen theology and enrich spiritual practices.

Gangs and Spirituality is a well-researched, important book on the role of religion in gang disengagement, masculinity and personal transformation. The insights it provides on the mechanics of these processes will be of interest to both scholars and practitioners. The book represents a significant contribution to the literature because of the scope of the project and because of the depth and dignity with which Deuchar treats the participants’ lives.

Andrew Johnson, Assistant Professor, School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Metropolitan State University

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