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A better way

(Photo by Gary Fong/Genesis)


A better way

Ministry mentors use relatability to reach hardened hearts

When he was just 12 years old, Viliami Lauti began selling drugs outside a rundown East Oakland liquor store. At first, it was easy money for new tennis shoes and clothes, but soon he became hooked on drugs and the steady flow of cash. By age 24, Lauti was a fixture on the corner of Coolidge Avenue and North MacArthur Boulevard.

Then, two years ago, he began running into Anthony Del Toro, an old high-school friend. They had lost touch after Lauti's expulsion from school. Del Toro, a third-generation Norteño gang member, graduated-but then spent more than three years in the county jail for dealing drugs.

Del Toro was back on the streets-for a different reason. He told Lauti he'd come out of the gang life with the help of Christian-based California Youth Outreach (CYO), where he works as a team leader. Each time Del Toro ran into Lauti, he would encourage him to make the change too. He even asked Lauti to join CYO's outreach team.

At first, Lauti resisted: "I told him I could never be a role model. I told him I was cool with the life I was living. But really, I wasn't cool with it. I carried a gun. I have been shot at. I knew I was either going to die or go to jail for a long time."

Del Toro persisted until Lauti finally went for an interview at CYO. He told his interviewer, "The only job I've ever had is selling drugs," but that wasn't a bar to the program. Soon he was studying the Bible, working with CYO mentors, and attending weekly meetings on topics like leadership, life skills, and accountability. During his training, Lauti realized "no man can serve two masters." He left drugs behind, and more than a year ago went to work as a street outreach worker.

In 1980, ex-gang-member-turned-pastor Tony Ortiz of San Jose founded CYO as a prison ministry. Since then it has expanded into a street outreach and mentoring program operating in five Bay-area cities. In Oakland, more than 20 former gang members and drug dealers regularly walk the streets in blighted neighborhoods, visiting schools, playing pick-up games of basketball, hosting block barbecues, and driving young men to job interviews.

"We know how to talk to our community because we look like our community," says Del Toro, 26, who wears a flat-billed San Jose Sharks hat and a baggy white T-shirt covering his tattooed arms. "We're out there as walking resources, as living proof, that there's a way out."

Kevin Grant is Oakland's coordinator for violence prevention groups under Measure Y, an anti-violence effort twice approved by voters. At least half of Measure Y's violence prevention funds go to CYO and other faith-based organizations. Grant, who grew up in Oakland as an "OG" (original gangster), cycled through 11 federal prisons in 17 years. He says, "A lot of people come into this town with their Harvard degrees and their cookie-cutter approaches, but we've got 500 degrees in street knowledge."

On a sunny Wednesday morning outside Oakland's parole office, Grant energetically greets 30 young men just released from state prisons. He knows many of them by name. Even those he doesn't, he's hugging, high-fiving, and referring to them as his "loved ones."

Inside, wearing a white Oakland A's hat, baggy gray jeans, and an extra-large T-shirt, Grant paces back and forth and tells stories about his time in federal prison, including the time in an Indiana prison when he held his newborn son. Within minutes, the guard said, "Now give him back." Grant didn't see his son again for 17 years. He doesn't want these parolees to suffer like that. He points them to sign-up sheets on tables lining both sides of the room: "Try something different. We've got people who can help you and opportunities for employment. This is your opportunity to get your life together."

Grant calls the work he does a slow dance: "We're working on re-messaging that violence is not the only way. While we're doing that, we're lining up some steady opportunities for them."

Grant's "loved one" approach is one way to fight crime. Some people in Oakland want to pursue "Operation Ceasefire," an approach based on a homicide reduction method developed by New York criminologist David Kennedy. Kennedy emphasizes town-hall-style meetings or "call-ins" between violent perpetrators, community leaders, and police who offer assistance and then present an ultimatum: Stop shooting, or your group will face targeted police response.

Even in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, Kennedy-a professor at New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice-says most violence is the work of "a remarkably small group of criminals. ... If you can affect the behavior of these groups, in a very immediate way it is possible to see results." Operation Ceasefire helped to reduce youth homicide rates in Boston during the 1990s, and sometimes worked in other cities, but it failed completely in Baltimore and elsewhere. Kennedy blames the failures on bureaucratic politics in his 2011 memoir, Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America.

CYO founder Tony Ortiz says Kennedy's Ceasefire model "tries to pump a little fear into gangsters," but what they really need is a change of heart: "Most of these guys, you can't scare them out of violence. You have to earn their respect and show them a better way to live."

Viliami Lauti is modeling that better way. He recently received a message from a young man who had lived with him for two months before disappearing. "Meet me at Wing Stop," the message said. When Lauti showed up, the young man bought him lunch and told him that he had a job. He showed Lauti his check stubs and the car he'd bought: "He wanted to thank me and tell me he was getting his life together."