As the long-suffering residents of Helenvale, Port Elizabeth endure the trauma of yet another surge of deadly gang turf wars on their streets, Christian ministries and churches in the area are working on strategic inteventions to bring much-needed hope and healing to the community.
Over the past fortnight Christian leaders in Helenvale have led prayer walks in hotspots; held small, open-air prayer and outreach meetings; and met together several times to plan a mass street service which is now scheduled to take place on Sunday, April 13. A group of church leaders is also planning to meet face- to-face with gang leaders this week to seek solutions to end the shootings that are holding the community in a grip of fear.
Respect for God, church leaders
Ironically it appears that the gangsters responsible for the violence in the socially and economically depressed Northen Areas suburb have an ingrained respect for God and for church leaders, thereby creating a unique opportunity for the Church to establish peace in the area.
In 2011 the Church played a key role in helping to end an outbreak of gang violence in Helenvale. But people I spoke to say the positive Church engagement in the community largely fizzled out. In the past fortnight 11 people have died in the area as a result of gang violence — one of them 5-year-old Luchen Pieterse, who was killed in crossfire last Sunday (March 30, 2014) while he was flying his kite. There have been 117 gang related deaths in the area over the last two years, with a number of innocent bystanders or witnesses to crimes counted among the fatalities.
Gang activity has been a reality in the Northern Areas of PE for nearly 50 years said Pastor Justin Oliphant, founder of Endangered Species, which has the singular mission of ministering the Gospel of Jesus Christ directly to gang members and youth at risk. He said there has been an increase in the number of gangs competing for territory in which to sell drugs, with some two dozen gangs operating in Helenvale. Most of the shootings in the area are by youth between the ages of 14 – 22, who started out as schoolboy gangs.
“They [the gangsters] used to have running battles in the streets, and their weapons of choice were rocks and sticks — until they graduated to handguns and semi-automatic weapons in late November 2013,” he said.
“My involvement in the current gang war, which has already cost dozens of lives since the beginning of this year, is very covert. One of our facilitators was shot last year (he survived – the bullet penetrated below his right earlobe and exited the back of his neck, millimeters from his spine); we were caught in gang cross fire; we’ve had death threats; we’ve been stalked and warned to back off… hence, it’s not easy speaking out about our successes or challenges. Much of what God is doing through Endangered Species will never be public knowledge,” he said.
He said Endangered Species is currently operating from a three bed-roomed house in Kobus Road, Gelvandale — “in the heart of things”.
“We are renting the house from Uviwe since October 2013. Prior to us moving in, the house was a den of robbers, thugs, tik-addicts and fugitives. We are currently running life skills programs, video production and post-production classes, a small music production studio (for producing positive messages through popular music), computer classes, and a 6 month sewing course.
“God has been faithful. All of what we have managed to develop up to this stage has been through His grace, and with minimal funding and much personal sacrifice.I covet your prayer for the safety of my family, and for the team who works the streets with me. In the meantime we will continue to rebuild the Northern Areas with God’s guidance and through the prompting and protection of His Holy Spirit, and the Grace of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Message of peace and reconciliation
Pastor Victor Jantjies, who leads a church in Helenvale, is one of the organisers of the mass street service on April 13. He said they want to reach out to the community and to the gangsters with a message of peace and reconciliation. They want all stakeholders in the area, including SAPS, and youth and community organisations, to attend the service in order to reassure the community that they are all working together with the churches to control the situation. They also want to stand together as the community and agree with God “to never let these demonic spirits destroy our communities”.
Jantjies said the Church in Helenvale needs to regain and sustain the high visibility in the community that it achieved in 2011 with initiatives like prayer walks and smaller prayer meetings which create opportunities to disciple people on the streets. He said church leaders also need to make more progress in pursuing unity among themselves.
“We need to get our own house in order so that we can go out and unite an already lost and rejected community,” he said.
Church leaders are concerned about the young age of many gangsters and the way they were influenced to join gangs by becoming addicted to drugs. He said most of the gangsters were raised in homes where mothers or relatives were church-going. Their spiritual backgrounds makes it easier “for us to penetrate their hearts and change their minds”.
Pastor Neville Goldman, who is one of the leaders of a Nelson Mandela Bay church initiative to engage in joint action with metro stakeholders to achieve a more just society, said that the church has to address the social and economic challenges in Helenvale that contribute to the problem of gangsterism. The Church needs to address not just the social evils but also the government on the basis of providing much-needed skills training alternatives for children who drop out of school and other key community infrastructure.
“The church’s role now, more than ever, is to continuously leave its buildings and get involved in the communities,” he said.
He said the gangster’s respect for the church presents it with a unique constructive role in dealing with the gang violence problem. He said he was working on setting up a meeting between church leaders and gang leaders this week to seek an end to the shootings.
Calling for a relational approach to community upliftment, modeled on the ministry of Jesus, he said the Church must engage with the lives and challenges of the families that make up the community.
He believed that gangsterism will decline with greater church involvement and visibility in the community. He commended the community work of Endangered Species. He also said that relational ministry to gangsters in prison was proving fruitful with former inmates becoming involved in community work and testifying about Jesus after completing their sentences.
Reeze Telling, co-founder of a ministry called A Fighting Chance (AFC), said a church in Helenvale has asked AFC to facilitate a weekly meeting aimed at empowering drug abusers to break free. He said youngsters who carry out the shootings are trapped in gangsterism because they are hooked on drugs and therefore under the control of the gang leaders who supply their drugs. He said the young people look up to gang leaders in the first place because of a lack of fathers in their lives. He also said there is a problem of the community empowering gangsterism because they are afraid to speak up or because they are being paid to store guns or buying from the drug dealers.
General Dawie Rabie, SAPS Mount Road Cluster Commander and a committed Christian, said police are pursuing various strategies to address the criminal aspects of gang violence and many more resources are being expended towards this purpose.
“As the SAPS we are dealing with the fruit of the problem (the actual shootings, murders, drugs, etc). Other sister departments and NGOs and NPOs are responsible to address the root to the fruit, viz. unemployment, illiteracy, semi literacy, rehabilitation centres, job creation, skills development, housing, etc.” he said.
He said that past Christian initiatives in Helenvale “seemed to have fizzled out and the evil one was given space to reoccupy lost territory”. However he said the killing of a toddler appeared to have woken Christian leaders in Helenvale. He was also pleased to see that the larger church movement in NMB was seeking to take back territory through the Nehemiah Vision.
“I think the Church as a whole, must now have its voice heard but they must also be felt by the affected communities. The lost must see that the Church cares — various ways such as supplying immediate physical needs, care centres for children, drug addicts, elderly, etc. The Church must directly confront gangsters about their deeds and preach the message of salvation and reconciliation to them.”