God cares about us – gangs in New York
peer pressure, self-esteem
Here’s something to think about. Listen to this.
Michelle sat gazing into her bedroom mirror. A miserable face gazed back. She spent a lot of her time like this, perhaps checking she was really there. For no one at school seemed to notice her, not as much as she wanted anyway. And she didn’t have much in the way of friends.
“You,” she said to her reflection, “could disappear one day and no one would notice.”
She saw a tear squeezing out from under an eyelid so she turned to get a tissue. Her eyes fell on her pop magazine. The new girl group, Blaze, was on the cover. Her favourite was Kim, the one on the left with the big, dangly earrings. Bet she got noticed, thought Michelle.
And then the idea came. Could she do it? Course. She’d have to go the whole way. Hair cut really, really short, big earrings and what else? She looked at the picture again. Long pink socks. They’d look odd with the school uniform, but that was the point.
The teacher would tell her to get back to normal, of course. But…yeah, she could be a bit cheeky, say, “No, why should I?” Yeah, that’d get her noticed. Not so cheeky that Mum would get called in, of course, just enough to build up a bit of a reputation.
Yeah, the new Michelle – Michelle the Cool, Michelle the Star.
Will Michelle’s plan get her more friends? Will it make her happy? Is there a better way?
(You could discuss this or pass on to the main story.)
Our true story today, about Nicky Cruz, is quite different from Michelle’s, but deep down they have a similar problem. It opens in a school…
Nicky just couldn’t stand it any more. If the teacher couldn’t keep order, he’d do it. And he’d do it his way. This other boy in his class was a pain. So Nicky would teach him a lesson. Before anyone could stop him, he’d lifted a chair high in the air and brought it crashing down on the boy’s head.
When the Headteacher threatened to phone the police, Nicky shouted back, “Do it and I’ll kill you.” Then he stormed out of the school.
It was the same wherever he went. He just seemed to boil over. Even when he was young, back home in Puerto Rico, he’d been trouble. His parents couldn’t wait to see the back of him, so when he was fifteen he was pushed on a plane to New York to go and live with his brother Frank.
But just as school couldn’t control him, nor could Frank. Nicky couldn’t stand anyone telling him what to do. So he left.
Now he was on his own, angry with the world, but also lonely and frightened. He wandered the streets, no place to go, no friend to call on, no money to spend. He felt the icy wind come howling down between the rows of skyscrapers, felt it stir up the rotting litter in the streets and throw it at him to torment him. He saw figures slumped in alleys, drunk, asleep…or worse. He glimpsed faces looking down at him from lit windows, then turning away. They weren’t interested in him.
He was shivering now, he needed a room badly. So – he mugged someone in the street for the rent money. Well, if he didn’t help himself, who would? Who cared about Nicky? No one ever has, he thought, no one.
Then one day, while he was just mooching about, he saw them, a group of lads, dancing in the street to music, laughing. They were wearing black jackets with two blood-red Ms on the back. Nicky gazed at them until they shouted over, “This is Mau Mau territory. You don’t belong here. Get lost, man.”
No, no one wanted him.
Then he saw them again, at a party he’d drifted into. The Mau Mau gang. He pleaded to join. The leader told him, “You understand, if you join, it’s for ever. If you try to leave, we’ll kill you. But are you tough enough to be a Mau Mau? There’s a test. Five of us will beat you up. If you survive, you’re in.”
Nicky survived, just. He came round from the beating with a broken nose, blood everywhere. But he was in. That’s what mattered. He belonged.
Over the next few weeks the Mau Maus, and there were over a hundred of them, were involved in murders, robberies and gangland fights. And Nicky was up there at the front, always ready to be more vicious, more reckless than his mates.
After six months he was elected leader of the gang. He’d made it – people noticed him now: now he was more important. “I ain’t afraid of nothing or no one,” he boasted.
But, deep down, he was still the same angry, lonely boy. And he was afraid. Afraid of the scary nightmares he kept getting, afraid of losing his tough reputation, afraid of what he was becoming. All the admiration, all the power, and he still wasn’t happy.
Then he got an invitation to this Christian meeting. All the gangs did. Nicky refused to go, but someone asked, “Why? You afraid?” So he had to go.
To start with, the meeting was like a wild party. Members of different gangs were yelling at each other, some were disco dancing to the organ music, others were laughing or whistling. Then the preacher announced there’d be a collection and that the Mau Maus would come round for the money.
Yeah, thought Nicky, we’ll collect it all right, then we’ll run!
But when they’d collected the money, Nicky told his gang, “We’re taking it to the preacher.”
“What? You crazy, man?” But they knew not to argue, not with Nicky.
As Nicky sat down, he thought, Crazy? Yeah, I was crazy, but before, not now. For he’d just done something right and it felt good, better than all the bad things he’d done. For the preacher had trusted him, that hadn’t happened before.
And in the hush that came over the hall, he listened to the preacher say, “God loves you. He wants to forgive you. He wants to change you.” And Nicky realised that he did want to change. So that night, in front of his mates, Nicky walked to the front to become a Christian, to become the person God made him to be.
And he was changed. When later he was stabbed, he didn’t want to take revenge. And he left the gang. It was dangerous but he did it.
Now he began to use his energy for good, saying to all the gangs he saw on the streets, to the drug addicts, to those at the bottom of the heap, “You can be changed. You’re loved. You can be the person God made you to be.”
He worked with a group which ran a centre where people could come and stay for a while, find someone to talk to, be helped off drugs – a place of safety and friendship. Nicky felt good belonging to a group which helped rather than hurt. Before, he’d just thought about himself – what do people think of me? And he was miserable. Now he was thinking of others. And he was happy.
And he no longer had to show off, to prove he was tough and cool and hard.
For he knew at last that someone cared about him. Now he could be himself.
Time of Reflection
Think for a second: do you ever do things to get noticed? Show off a bit? Get a bit silly? You probably wouldn’t do the things Nicky did, but do you ever pretend that you’re tougher or smarter than you really are? It’s good to remember that God loves us just as we are. We don’t have to pretend to him. Just take a moment to think about this.
Jesus tells us how valuable we are:
“Not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent…So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29,31)
And God tells us that he, at least doesn’t worry too much about the image:
“Man looks at the outward appearance, but I look at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
Thank you, Father, that we’re all important to you, that we don’t have to show off or do silly or bad things to get your attention. Amen
Variations on a Theme
Pupils could create short sketches called, “Look at me, everyone!” about how showing off doesn’t always have the desired effect. Take care that the atmosphere is right for THE STORY.
Alternatively, the story of David’s anointing in 1 Samuel 16 could be acted out, showing how the tall, handsome ones got nowhere.
Run Baby Run, Nicky Cruz, is published by Hodder and Stoughton.
- How old was Nicky when he arrived in New York?
- Why did he run away from school – and his brother?
- How could you recognise a Mau Mau?
- Why did Nicky want to join the gang?
- Even as gang leader he was afraid – of what? (One thing)
- Of what else?
- Why did he go to the Christian meeting?
- Why did he not run off with the collection money?
- How did he prove he was a changed man? (One thing)
- How else did he prove it?