Two weeks ago, we had perhaps one of the most intense weeks in the history of our Joe’s Community. The combination of devastating lows, met then by miraculous highs left me rejoicing in God’s presence with us, but thinking that I never really have liked roller coaster rides too much. I’d much rather a leisurely stroll along a bubbling brook in a green pasture. But then again . . . if life was always in the pasture I’d miss the adrenaline rush of seeing God move.

I’ve been given a few days “off” by the wonderful people at Joe’s, and I’m using this time to write. I’ll be posting a series of stories from our intense week. Maybe you’ll enjoy the ride with me.

I was serving coffee and sitting and chatting with folks, amid the lately crowded coffee shop. The 110+ degree heat of this Oklahoma summer brings in all those who live outdoors or have no air conditioners in their homes. Joe’s provides a cool place to be and a meal or three-a-day for some of these folks.  I was “hanging out” listening to the chatter when all of a sudden, near the front of the shop, chaos erupted. Young men with fists clenched and chests arched shouted cuss words and vile names. Instantly the lines were drawn. Around the room guys stood, fists also raised; they quickly moved to their respective sides to defend their “brother.”

I jumped from my seat and ran toward the commotion shouting “No! We’re not gonna do this! Stop!” Their shouting continued, as they tried to explain to me: “He called me Punk! He called me Bitch!” “No one calls my brother a Punk!” “I’ll beat the shit out of him!” I began asking questions of the one so many of them were pointing at.  He wouldn’t answer, but started dialing on his cell phone. “I’m calling the police!” I appealed to him, “Don’t call the police. We can work this out. Tell me what happened.”  He jumped up and charged out the front door.  Several of the guys took off after him, followed by me hollering, “Stop! No!”

I chased down the one on the phone, asking him again to not call the police. Some of the guys raced off behind Joe’s into the neighborhood, as a police car pulled up into the parking lot.

The policeman stepped out of his car, and the young man who had called breathlessly rattled his complaint. “These guys are gonna beat me! They threatened to hit me! I didn’t do nothing to them, but they’re gonna kill me! Some of them are Juggalos and some of them are Crips. They’re gonna kill me!”

The policeman looked at me, so I started in: “It’s okay, Officer. These boys are all stressed out. It’s so hot. Many of them are living in tents. They can’t sleep at night. They are angry and hot and tired. I think we can work this out.”

He looked around a bit, surveying the situation, and then said, “So you don’t need me?” I told him, No, I didn’t think so. I think we can work it out.  He responded, “Okay,” with that raised inflection at the end that says, “I’m not so sure, but okay.”

He got back in his car and drove away. The young man, with terror in his eyes began insisting, “They’re gonna kill me. They’ll come to my trailer tonight while I’m sleeping and kill me.” I asked him why. “They’re accusing me of texting one of their girlfriends.”  I assured him that we would not let that happen, that I would talk with all the guys, and no one was going to kill him. Inside I was praying, “Oh, Jesus.”

I told him he probably ought to get on home, and take a break from Joe’s for the rest of the day to give the guys a chance to calm down. I would let him know when it was safe to come back. He headed down the street, periodically looking back over his shoulder.

When I turned around to head back to the shop, here came a pack of guys toward me. As they approached I said, “Boys, we gotta talk about this.” They came up in a semi-circle around me, fingers pointing and bodies posturing. They all began to speak at once: “He was disrespectful to you. You told him not to call the police and he did it anyway. He was disrespecting this place and disrespecting you.” I breathed a sigh of relief. They were not angry at me . . . and inside I smiled that they were trying to deflect their violence onto someone else.

Then they started tattling their tales to me, “He did thus and such,” and “I told him thus and such,” and “He threatened thus and such.”  Then it got to the heart of the matter (for them): “He called me a punk!” and “Nobody calls my boy a punk!” “I’ll kill anyone who calls any of my people a punk!” (Some of them bear the tattooed evidence of their kills.)

So I began to ask them, “Are you in a gang?” “Who of you is a Juggalo?” “Who is a Crip?” They started nodding, raising their hands and acknowledging their different affiliations. I said, “Okay. I don’t understand a lot about gangs, but one thing I know is that you guys feel like your gang is your family, right?”

“Yeah. We are family. I would die for my boys. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with my people.”

I began to explain to them, “I don’t understand what it means to be a Juggalo or a Crip, and I can’t stop you from doing whatever you’re gonna do when you’re away from here. But here at Joe’s WE are a family.  You know how you guys have got each other’s backs?” They all nodded. “WE here at Joe’s have got each other’s backs.  Not the Juggalos have the Juggalos’ backs, and the Crips have the Crips’ backs, but WE the family of people who hang out at Joe’s—WE have each other’s backs.  I guess I’m saying if you hang out at Joe’s, you’ve joined a new gang.”

One of them piped up, “It’s the Joe’s Gang!” Another one laughed and said, “Maybe we should call it the Jesus Gang!”  We all laughed.

I went on to explain that the young man they had all threatened is a part of our Gang. They again started tattling, “But he…” I told them I understood, but that this particular man has not been in prison like they have. I pointed out to them that he doesn’t understand Gang or Prison culture. In fact, this young man has spent his whole life in Special Education classes and mental institutions. He doesn’t understand what he said and how offensive it was to them. This is exactly the kind of outcast that Jesus told us to love as we love ourselves.

The whole time I was speaking, they were all hanging their heads and nodding quietly. Then I asked them to consider him part of our Family. I could see them looking at each other, mulling over what I had said.

Finally one spoke up and said, “We understand, Miss Jamie, and we’re sorry. It won’t happen again.” Another said, “I’m sorry we disrespected you and your place here, Miss Jamie.” “We’ll be nice to him.” “He doesn’t understand, but there won’t be any violence from us again, Miss Jamie.”

I thanked them all, and each one of them gave me a hug as they headed back into Joe’s.

In about 20 minutes, here came the two most violent culprits of the conflict: one was a young man who had only been out of prison for two weeks; the other had been hanging out at Joe’s for about a year. Both are homeless. They were dripping with sweat from their race through the neighborhood in the over 100 degree temperature. With heads hung low, they both said, “Miss Jamie, I’m sorry. That won’t happen again. We really appreciate all you do for us here. If it weren’t for you and this place, we wouldn’t have anything to eat. We’d be out in the heat all day.  We won’t disrespect you or this place again.”

I shared with them the Community that is Joe’s, and what it means to be part of the Joe’s Family.  With eyes wide, the new guy responded, “I’ve been gang-bangin’ for most of my life. The gang is all I know.” Smiling, I said, “Well, then how ‘bout you join the Joe’s Gang, and let us have your back?” He grinned and replied, “Sounds good to me.”

Later in the week I heard from Mary. She is the sister of our dear friend, Sam, who passed away a couple of years ago. Sam came to know Jesus through Joe’s Addiction, and we miss him terribly. He was such a bringer of joy. Mary sent a package with pictures of Sam for us to hang on our memorial wall and a gift. She said is was something that Sam had given to her, but now she knew that it belonged at Joe’s. What I pulled from the box was a sculpture of seven people, arms linked around one another’s shoulders, forming a circle. In the center of the circle sits a candle. What a perfect symbol of the Joe’s Gang. The Jesus Gang. The Community of the King, as we like to call it at Joe’s. We set it in a prominent place to remind us all that we belong to each other; we take care of each other. We’ve got each other’s backs.