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Clayton church to tackle gangs with awareness workshop
by Kim Mulford, Courier (NJ) Post
January 12, 2008 The Rev. Maurice Sykes has worked in some bad places. Before he was reassigned to St. Michael’s UAME Church in Clayton, he led midnight Bible studies in Camden -- because that’s when people were out on the streets.
That’s not the case in Clayton, where the neighborhood is quiet at 5 p.m.
Since his arrival in 2006, Sykes has listened to people unload their problems. He believes Clayton is no different than any city, except the problems are more subtle.
"The seeds are still there," said Sykes. "There are still people unchurched, still people in crisis, still families in crisis."
Those seeds are sprouting gang activity in a growing number of South Jersey towns. Recently, a state police survey found that 55 percent of South Jersey’s municipalities reported the presence of gang activity. That’s up from 25 percent in 2004.
In most of those municipalities, there were fewer than 50 gang members and the actual estimate was closer to a dozen.
Still, it’s enough to concern the pastor.
"You can’t ignore this," said Sykes, "because . . . gang activity impacts the home, impacts the school and impacts the streets. Sooner or later, it has to impact the church."
Next Friday, St. Michael’s UAME Church will host a gang awareness workshop. It’s free and open to the public. The workshop will be taught by a law enforcement expert from the New Jersey Gang Management Unit of the state attorney general’s office.
The workshop is an overview to give people an idea of what gangs are, how they work and what to do if there is gang activity in the community.
Clayton Police Chief Dennis Marchei said there is no gang problem in his borough at the moment. But he plans to attend the workshop, and he’s bringing along a few of his officers, too.
"It’s certainly interesting enough for us to go," said Marchei.
Lt. Edwin Torres, supervisor of the gang unit for the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission, said gangs are expanding their reach into suburbs and rural areas. Drugs are the No. 1 source of income for gangs, which are involved in mostly street-level sales of marijuana and cocaine.
They recruit in places like malls and movie theaters. Because the gangster mentality has permeated popular culture, a lot of kids are fascinated by it, he said. His unit has seen children as young as kindergarten mimicking gang activity.
Once they are in, gang members see themselves as walking ghosts, destined for jail or a violent death.
"This isn’t a club for them. It’s become their religion," said Torres. "They’ve been indoctrinated. That’s why we see them recruiting younger and younger."
In Burlington County, 68 percent of the municipalities reported gang activity; 54 percent reported activity in Camden County and 58 percent reported activity in Gloucester County.
What can be done about it?
The Juvenile Justice Commission asks parents to get their kids involved in positive activities.
Sykes believes the answer is strengthening families.
Gangs try to replicate the family structure. They recruit members by offering protection and acceptance. But they don’t offer hope for a better future, Sykes said.
From the church’s viewpoint, only God can do that, said Sykes.
"That’s why we have to keep our doors open," he said. "That’s why we have to accept them where they’re at and minister to them as best we can."
Before solutions can be created, the problems need to be understood.
"There is help out here," said Sykes. "People have got to know that."