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According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, "approximately 1.4 million gang members belonging to more than 33,000 gangs were criminally active in the U.S. as of April, 2011." This statistic is especially apparent in Memphis, where rates of violent crime among youth continue to remain high. Many of these violent crimes involving youth are gang-related, with the Shelby County Sheriff's department reporting the identification of 8,400 gang members involved in 182 gangs and gang sets within Shelby County.

Joe Hunter Fights Gangs With Ministry, Respect and Love

National Vital Statistics System, Mortality

It seems that we can’t go a week without a murder in Memphis, and so far this year, more than 140 people have died.  According to the National Center for Health Statistics, homicide is the second leading cause of death for teenagers.  And for young black male teens, it is the leading cause. In Memphis, agencies across the city strive to put a halt to the violence.  And in North Frayser, Joe Hunter provides guidance to troubled youth after school and during times of darkness. 

It’s not uncommon for Hunter to get a call in the wee hours of the night.  He heads Gospel at New Generation or GANG, Inc. at the North Frayser Community Center.   “Usually, by the time you see it on television,” Hunter explains.  “I’ve already received the call before the police or even the media because the person that got shot is probably connected to me.  Because I go and make relationship with all of ‘em.”

Hunter says he reluctantly started doing this work, and he started out by meeting gang leaders, but this isn’t Hunter’s first foray into the world of gangs.  Several decades ago, Hunter terrorized the streets of Detroit as a young gangster, which might explain why this preacher of streets can reach these kids.    Hunter doesn’t claim he can reach all gang members, but he says, “If you can get one gang member not to commit a murder, you’ve succeeded greatly.”

Hunter’s work doesn’t only occur at the community center; he goes where the gang members are: into schools, homes, hospitals and funerals.  And when you see him with the young people at his center, you see the respect and love.  And many come back just to check in.  Junior, not his real name, is one of Hunter’s converts.  I’m not using Junior’s real name to protect his identity.  Junior is 22 and is now in his third year of college.  He says he met Hunter at Trezevant High School, and rival gang members were out to kill Junior.

At that time, Junior was affiliated with one of the warring gangs in Frayser, the Gangster Disciples.  Hunter is real with the young people, and tries to provide guidance that many don’t have.  It could be as simple as “look someone in the eye when you shake their hand” or helping them navigate their way out of a world riddled with violence, drugs and money. 

Junior says, Hunter knew that he was determined.  “I won’t back down from nobody,” Junior says. “He liked it.  And when we talked he tried to tell me to calm down and try to be more of a man, a productive man to society and the community.”

Hunter finds himself in dicey situations, but he says he’s not afraid because he knows these guys and he understands their culture.  One Sunday night last summer, two teens were shot.  Hunter says he got calls from both sides, Fam and Gangster Disciple. 

“The other night what happened is Fam jumped a queen of the Gangster Disciples.”  Hunter continues, “And stabbed her.  When you jump on a queen of the Gangster Disciples then all of her underlings are going to come to her aid, and that’s what happened.  And they went back to retaliate in this crowd of Fam, which I’m told that the 15-year-old and the 13-year old are new recruits and are being recruited by Fam.”

Hunter says the teens were set-outs, or pawns. “They shoot in the crowd and hit the two,” Hunter says.  “I always say to these set-outs, when the drive by comes the boy who recruited you knows that they shot at somebody last night, so he knows the purple car that turns the corner.  You don’t.  So as the 15-year-old and 13-year-old, they didn’t know that a queen of the GD’s had been jumped by Fam, and any car turning the corner could be shooting at us.  Thirteen and 15-year-olds don’t know that.  But the boys in the middle of the crowd, know that.  So you on the outside, if anything happens.  I don’t get hit.  You get hit.  And that’s what happened,” Hunter explains.

One of the boys was taken to LeBonheur and released, and the other was brought home.  Still, gang violence isn’t isolated to North Memphis.  It’s just where much of it occurs.

“I mean this thing has stretched so far that until even out in the county in $400,000 homes, you got nice kids with plasma TV screens on their bedroom walls.  The reason I know this is because I’ve been called to their houses and they wanna be a gang member.”

He says, “And they’re calling out gang names.  And they have false knowledge of gangs.  But they wanna be one.  And they’re willing to give up their $400,000 home, the swimming pool and the plasma TV?  And I try to show them, ‘Dude, you don’t want that.’  I even took some of them with me to North Memphis.  Let me show you what they do in the organization you say you wanna be in.  ‘Cause it ain’t rolling like that out here, son.  And your momma and your step-daddy needs to put an end to it.  Not just because you live out here, but because that stuff will destroy your life.”

Phelan Wyrick, a senior policy advisor for the Department of Justice, says even a year of involvement in gangs can negatively impact one’s life, disrupting education, reducing chances for job advancement, not to mention the impact on family life. 

Hunter says the best way to keep young people away from gang life is to be involved in their lives and make sure to keep them busy – because gang activities – meetings, running drugs and planning robberies takes a lot of time.

Production assistance by Elizabeth Hollingsworth

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