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Finding God’s Face in the City


I park my police car under a shade tree at Roberto Clemente Park and watch some elementary school-age boys from the neighborhood playing soccer. It’s a warm August afternoon and seems like a good place to work on the reports I need to complete before the end of my shift.

Jose and Jamie are there in the company of several of their friends. The boys gather around my car as usual, listening to the chatter on the police radio, asking questions, and offering opinions all at the same time. Trying to concentrate on my duties, I give the boys only limited attention. I should have known better. One of them places a garden snake on my shoulder. Turning to answer a question, I notice the snake’s movement and completely lose my professional persona.

The boys erupt in a spontaneous ruckus of laughter and take off running, having accomplished their deviance for the day. They will be back tomorrow, and so will I.


They have an understanding of my presence in their neighborhood, and I must understand them in the context of the neighborhood. They are homeboys, linked to each other by race, ethnicity, social status, and concrete boundaries. Depending on which side of the park they live, they will likely join either the Latin Kings or the Sur Trece, both Latino gangs. In a very short time, they will be defined by donde.

Loosely translated, donde means, where are you from? In other words, what gang do you belong to? Practically speaking, where do you live? What gang is your family affiliated with? What is your gang obligation as defined by your ethnicity or national origin?


We mentally redline neighborhoods tagged with graffiti, neighborhoods where young men use a lexicon of unfamiliar terms and hand signals.

To many of us this social structure seems remote and threatening. We mentally redline neighborhoods tagged with graffiti, neighborhoods where young men use a lexicon of unfamiliar terms and hand signals. Perhaps we pray generically for them without knowing any of the people who live there. We lament how the “old neighborhood” has changed. We go on mission trips to “foreign” countries when neighborhoods 10 miles away are just as foreign.

Gangs have always been part of America’s history. As ethnic groups arrived in this country, they formed societies that offered immigrants social support and maintenance. These social groupings shaped their cities with cultural enrichment, religion, and a sense of pride. Defined by old nationalisms, they frequently competed with each other for their share of the American dream. Unfortunately, the competition between them sometimes played itself out with violence.

Every immigrant comes to America with a dream for secular and or religious freedom, a chance for personal opportunity, or a dream for themselves and their children. But not all immigrants achieve those dreams. Many are socially and economically marginalized. They struggle in the shadows of their communities, recognizing that they are not participating fully in the American experience and depending on each other for safety and companionship.

Social groupings within cities form their own codes for behavior, protection, trust, and self-maintenance. An underground economy fills the void of legitimate economics, and the code of the street replaces the code of the formal legal system. Young gang members learn to survive in an environment where each day they must balance the realities of “the hood” with the expectations of general society, “disney.” For many this has been an ongoing, multigenerational experience.


The reasons for such social isolation are many. But understanding the causes of the factors that have given rise to gangs is not the same as having empathy. Empathy is a gift of God’s grace. It does not require us to understand the formative reasons for social disparity as much as it asks us not to judge the reasons.

Granted, Christians are called to understand and to right the social injustices that surround us. We are called to “do justice” (Micah 6:8). But first, remembering that before Jesus healed he touched, we can begin by asking people how we may help. We can look for the face of God in the face of the person who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, the immigrant without documentation, the person who lives on the street, the person who is locked in prison, the young person who has run away, the person who sells his or her body, the gang member—all known to Jesus as friends.

A sermon preached at my church brought this home to me. The pastor preached from Genesis 32 and 33. In chapter 32, Jacob wrestles with God and realizes that even though he was face to face with God, his life was spared, “So Jacob called the place Peniel.” In chapter 33, Jacob anticipates with angst and fear the inevitable meeting with his brother Esau. Reluctantly Jacob walks ahead. He sees Esau in the distance and prepares for the worst, but to his complete surprise, Esau embraces him. Jacob looks into the rugged, earthy face of Esau and sees once again the face of God: “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” He sees his brother, “Peniel.”

Such is the mosaic of the city. To look and find God’s face in so many situations and hear God’s voice often and unexpectedly is the beginning of addressing social injustice. We must view issues of social injustice through the lens of kinship based on relationships that offer mutual concern and support.

Recently I walked through an area of the county jail and was greeted by an individual I knew who was now an inmate of the jail. His presence, although unexpected, was not altogether a surprise. But what struck me most was the concern and assurance the man showed me. He asked about my wife’s health and told me he was praying for her and my family. Only later did he talk of his own situation. He showed me “Peniel” at a time and place I had not expected to see it.

In the kingdom of God, defined by kinship, perhaps “Peniel” will replace “Donde” as the universal greeting of all our communities.

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