Springdale parish taking action against gang shootings

Two deadly gang shootings in Springdale during March and April shocked the community and the parish of St. Raphael Catholic Church in Springdale.
Two deadly gang shootings in Springdale during March and April shocked the community and the parish of St. Raphael Catholic Church in Springdale.

ROGERS — Two gang-related shooting deaths occurring in Springdale this spring proved that no small town is immune from the nationwide trend of increasing gang activity.

Last spring two fatalities received statewide attention when two young men, both purported members of area gangs in Springdale, were murdered. Fabian Rodriguez, 18, was shot and killed at his apartment complex March 13 by Hector Ramos, 17, who is being charged as an adult in connection with the death of Rodriguez.

Jimmy Rodriguez, 20, unrelated to Fabian, was also fatally shot in a drive-by incident April 11. In both cases, the suspects included minors, one being 13 years old.

These events were difficult for the community to swallow, but even more bitter for members of St. Raphael Church because the congregation had to bury both young men.

“When the two shootings happened I stood along with many other community leaders and with our mayor at a press conference,” said Father John Connell, pastor at St. Raphael Church, recalling the violence and the parish’s role in addressing the problem.

“No one or no agency can combat this violence on their own,” he said. “It will take the entire community, working together to end this threat to our community. The police, schools, churches, community organizations and the families all have to work together and hopefully the steps that all of us are doing will reap some benefits down the road.”

Both victims were parishioners but not active. Father Connell provided grief counseling to both families.

Meeting the needs of a parish with more 22,000 registered members is challenging, but Father Connell said the parish is working to put into place measures that could prevent this in the future.

“We are bringing in experts such as police officers and counselors to talk to kids during religious education time to show them the dangers of gang life,” he said. “Secondly, with the parents we are holding mandatory monthly meetings to bring in the same experts to help them to be aware of signs that their child may be part of a gang and help them take back their families.”

Additionally, the parish sponsors a soccer league for children and preteens. Games are played every night in the summer until dark on the church grounds.

“Hopefully our support of this league will help young children not yet exposed to this violence know there is a better alternative,” Father Connell added.

For those living in the community, admitting and addressing the problem are equally important steps in the healing process. In Springdale, with 69,800 residents, community and church leaders want to inoculate the city and keep the disease from spreading further.

On April 21, a Peace Walk was organized by community members. Participants walked through the neighborhoods where the shootings occurred, stopping to observe a moment of silence where each young man was killed.

Father Alejandro Puello, who served as associate pastor at St. Raphael Church in Springdale for two years and is now associate pastor in Rogers at St. Vincent de Paul, said the problem was not on his radar at first.

“I didn’t know to what extent our children are being influenced,” he said, “but there were things that foreshadowed gang activity, such as prevalent drug use, absenteeism of the father and vandalism, but I didn’t know until this year that it can be gang related.”

Some telling signs that young people are being influenced by gang behavior can be the colors or clothes they might be wearing or even the tattoos they might be getting, said Freddie Villeda, a detective with the criminal investigation department in Springdale for the past two years. Villeda cites other behavioral changes individuals might exhibit, such as not wanting to go to school or to continue with normal activities. Growing up in south central Los Angeles, Villeda, is familiar with gang operations.

“The diversity of northwest Arkansas, with many parents working so many hours and children not having after-school programs can be problematic,” Villeda said. “Parents and adults need to get involved with the lifestyle and understand the kids and what they are going through.”

While city officials and other experts point to poverty, lack of education and unemployment as probable causes, gangs also pose as a way to fill a void for some young people.

“Gangs are seen by many, especially among young men, as a chance to escape their situation,” Father Connell said. “Remove poverty, increase the options for education and increase employment opportunities, gangs become a much less viable alternative because young people find self-esteem and self-worth in what they have accomplished.”

But former gang members, like Jaime Torres, know reform is possible.

Torres was a gang member in California from 1996-2000 when he moved to Rogers and was continuing his gang membership until he had a conversion of sorts. Following a fight with police and some jail time, Torres experienced an encounter with the Lord that brought about a change of heart.

“I didn’t really know how to pray,” said Torres, who now works as the associate director of the diocese’s Office of Faith Formation, “but I talked to Jesus and asked for his help and really felt his presence. I felt like God was hugging me.”

In 2002, Torres began scouring Springdale for gang members and alcoholics and inviting them to get involved in an activity or group that would make them feel included.

His hands-on approach worked.

So much so that in 2003 Torres began Fuerza Transformadora (Transforming Force), a three-day retreat held around the state that meets individuals struggling with addictions and gang membership with practical, hard-hitting advice and testimonies before introducing Jesus.

“We show them how they are and help them identify with a problem. They have to know themselves first before they can go about knowing the Lord,” he said.

The program is held every three months in a different location and has proved helpful for attendees.

“A lot of people don’t want to deal with gang members,” said Torres, who is working with other dioceses to launch his program nationally. “But this is something people need to get involved with. We need to help them, but we have to know why they are doing what they are doing to help them.”

But what can parents do to combat the lure of gangs?

“The easiest tool for gangs is lack of parenting and communication,” Father Puello said. “Parents need to be involved and get their hands dirty. Kids don’t always know what to do and parents need to be there to help form their decisions.”

Villeda, a teacher with the Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock, teaches classes to law enforcement on recognizing and understanding gang-related activity. He will be offering a one-hour parent class in both Spanish and English July 26 at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Rogers to help parents be aware and recognize gang behavior in the area.

Alesia Schaefer

Alesia Schaefer has been a Arkansas Catholic reporter and columnist from Northwest Arkansas for more than 10 years. A member of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers, she works as admissions director and cross country coach at Ozark Catholic Academy in Tontitown.

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