Last week I wrote passionately about the wonderful night I had at Taylor Playground on May 5. It was a moment to hope for our future. Well, hope took a hit the very next Wednesday. I still have hope, but I found out that hope has strong competition in this city.

There is side of this city that I know very little about – the street gangs. I had no doubt that the gangs were real and active even though personally I’d witnessed little evidence of their existence. I also knew that gangs were busy in Central City.

Just days before our first visit to the playground, a young man was murdered on a Mid-City corner 20-something blocks away. I remember seeing it in the paper and hearing it on the news. This shooting would have an impact on our second visit to the playground (May 12). The victim, shot 30 times, was apparently a member of the gang that controls the area around Taylor Playground.

While I was basking in the glow of the wonderful experience of May 5, people from the neighborhood were planning a get-together. It was a remembrance meal and party to celebrate the deceased — a repast. Parties are often held for good, influential people who die, but they are also common for slain gang members.

When we arrived at Taylor Playground May 12, everything was different than before. The covered basketball court was filled with people – at least 200. Loud rap music pumped from the pavilion. We immediately sensed that this group had not gathered to hear a sermon and eat a meal.

We moved to the other side of the park to set up the meal. I was not fearful and never felt threatened. I did feel deep spiritual darkness hanging in the air. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood …”

Our concerns didn’t stop us from playing with the children. Five minutes into our time there we realized what was happening on the other side of the park. It was a party for the Mid-City murder victim. About half of the kids were wearing “R.I.P.” t-shirts honoring this gang member.

I occasionally see someone wearing an R.I.P. shirt in New Orleans even in Gentilly (the neighborhood where I live). The shirts are usually white with a large photo of the deceased who sometimes carries a gun or is displays lots of “bling.” Slogans like “Rest in Peace,” or “Gone but not forgotten” along with the victim’s name and nickname cover the front. The victim’s birth date is often displayed under the word “Sunrise;” the death date is under “Sunset.”

Many different styles of t-shirts had been printed for this party. All sizes were available, even micro-sized shirts for children as young as two years old. My heart sank as I saw many of the children wearing these shirts – especially the tiny little girl with purple and white ribbons in her hair.

The shirts were fairly comparable to the others I had seen. In the photo the victim had a gun. Above the photo was the typical “Rest in Peace” slogan along with his name and nickname. But I saw several new things – the gang name was the shirt at least three or four times. “Thugged In” and “Thugged Out” replaced “Sunrise” and “Sunset” above the birth and death dates. Chilling.

We still had a good time playing with the kids. Those wearing the R.I.P. t-shirts seemed to enjoy the games and the Bible story just as much as the ones who weren’t there for the repast. I’m glad I went that night to show the love of Christ to these children.

Choosing to do right will be very difficult for these kids who grow up in this neighborhood. They are trapped in an environment were drugs and violent acts pay the bills. Hope has competition – despair, intimidation, pressure and control. Hopelessness is the path of least resistance.

Hope was obscured, but completely hidden. One little girl gave me a reason to hope that night. She came up to me with her hand held high, waiting for a high five. “I need some congratulations,” she said with a huge smile. “I graduated!”

“From kindergarten?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m going to the first grade!” she said.

My prayer is, that against all odds, this little girl and others in Central City will do the right thing one day at a time. I pray that they hold on to hope.

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