Girls who have experienced violence often have a more difficult time relating to God and the church. Beliefs about God change, or God begins to fade from their immediate concern. Sometimes they try not to think about religion, because they can't reconcile the violence they have seen with their images of a God who loves them and the world.
Maria, 18, is the secretary of her church, an ethnically diverse congregation in West Dallas. Three years previously, she had been a member of the youth advisory team and president of her youth group when one of her good friends was shot and killed. She talks about the shooting:
"One of my friends, one of the members of the youth group, was murdered about three years ago...Tim. He was shot. He was the vice-president of the youth group and in charge with me. He was in a house and they broke in, and they shot him point blank, so-there was no struggle or anything."
Tim's death was her first real experience of loss due to violence, and it shattered her belief that the world is a safe place. The morals and values her mother instilled in her didn't protect her from losing a friend:
"I've always been and I still am kind of sheltered from everything. My mother is so strict with me, and she's brought me up with morals, and values, and things, and I've always been sheltered from violence and things that are going on. So it was a shock and kind of hard to handle, because that has been the only time I've had to deal with losing a close friend."
In the aftermath of the murder, she felt close to God and alienated from God at the same time:
Maria continues to attend church and to participate in national youth events in her denomination, but God is not currently an important part of Maria's life. Between the time of the murder and my interview with her, God had become more and more distant.
"I'm in this stage, kind of, right now where I feel kind of distant from God. Religion hasn't been that important, hasn't been up there in a long time."
Her problem with God stems from Tim's death and from her realization that violence and cruelty are pervasive in her world:
"I think I kind of don't understand why, if He is such a powerful God, I don't understand why we have so much crime and so much death and things like that. There's so much cruelty in the world, and it seems like things are just getting worse. They're not getting any better and, I think, I don't understand. If He's supposed to be so loving and powerful, then why are so many things going on? So I think that's the only thing I have with God."
She has repeatedly asked adults in the church, including her ministers, to answer her questions. She is not satisfied with any of the explanations given, and is not willing to forget the questions in order to restore a closer relationship with God:
It's up to "someone" to change the world. She has doubts that God will be much use in the process.
* * *
Krystal, a native of New York City, has another theory of violent behavior and who is responsible. She doesn't believe that it is God's responsibility to prevent violence directly. Nevertheless, her perception of God has changed as acquaintances have been killed:
"I know acquaintances more than friends who've been killed through violence, and I think that some of them have changed my perception of God. I began to wonder how you can allow anyone to stay in the position to be in violent states. Because I think a lot of the violence that transpires, at least between young people, comes from a lack of education and a lack of things to do. And I'd like to believe that there are a lot of ways to fix that."
In her mind young people take part in violence when they lack education and/or are bored. The solution to violence involves changing the environment of those youth. She wonders why God doesn't inspire leaders or others to change a situation for young people that is so conducive to violence.
"For those ways [to fix the situation] not to occur, that sort of changes my perception of God: How God can allow, whether it be legislature or people in general, those acts to perpetuate. I'm from New York, so on the nightly news we hear about little kids in crossfires and stuff. And I think that God should...especially since I live in a large city, and a lot of the crime we see has a lot to do with drugs...I wonder...how anyone can allow children to die like that."
She is left puzzled.
* * *
Kim, De Andree, and Vanesia do not have questions about God's justice. They are more concerned with the church, and frustrated that the church has done little to change the dangerous situations in their neighborhoods and at school.
Kim is frustrated that the church seems to be more concerned with its own peace than her safety: "The church could do something about it, but they're scared."
De Andree believes that God is furious with the perpetrators of violence and with the church. God is also, in her view, shamed by the pervasiveness of violence. She wants to encourage "everybody" to take part in working to change their neighborhoods.
"God does not like this--is probably very angry--angry at everybody. I'm serious!! He feels disgraced by it. And everybody would have to suffer just because of some people. Everybody needs to work together."
When asked if the church helps them to stay out of trouble, they respond with giggles and exaggerated wide eyes. Their community leaders have obviously let them know that gangs, drugs, and other kinds of violence are not acceptable: "They just put fear in us so we will know not to do something like that. It would be all over."
The church can help them to stay beyond the reach of perpetrators of violence by encouraging them and standing by them as they resist the temptation to join in. It also provides activities for them to "keep them off the streets."
They believe, however, that the church will not fight to reduce the influence of gangs and violent people in the community, because it is afraid to be involved. They are grateful for any help they can get in their struggles with violence--grateful that the church is a safe place for them--but they are frustrated and confused about the church's unwillingness to take on the real battle.