The New York Times, July 26, 2003
By KATIE ZEZIMA
LOWELL, Mass. — Ten young boys, each of whom is in a gang, yet not old enough to shave or drive, fidgeted in their chairs and taunted one other as a yellow-robed monk tried to teach them how to be good students and exemplary Buddhists.
“You need to learn good seating, good talking and good association with your friends,” said the monk, the Venerable Monriath Pinn, handing them a list of Buddhist characteristics of good students.
He soon moved to the next lesson: meditation, done while walking and holding a cup of water. Several of the boys eagerly followed him across the room to try it out while others lagged behind.
Regardless of whether the students like it, learning self-discipline and introspection are the core of this crime-fighting program where the sacred meets the streets in this city of shuttered mills, 30 miles northwest of Boston.
Lowell, a city of 105,000, has had a large influx of Southeast Asians in the past five years, most of them Cambodians who have settled in the Highlands neighborhood. The 2000 census shows that Asians constitute about 17 percent of the population here, a figure officials believe has since grown. The city has also seen a sharp rise in Cambodian gangs, which were virtually unknown here 10 years ago.
Most gang members are boys 12 to 16, Capt. Robert DeMoura of the Lowell Police Department said. They join mostly for protection on the streets, Captain DeMoura said, and a gang is a family of sorts when it is not unusual for parents to work two or three jobs.
Most gang members do not carry guns, and the city’s rate of violent crime has remained relatively steady, Captain DeMoura said, while there has been a steep rise in crimes like car theft, robbery and, most recently, drug use.
The police, the captain said, want to stop the gang members from committing more serious crimes. Their first target, the police decided, would be adolescent runaways, a growing problem amongin Lowell’s Cambodians.
Previous outreach projects had failed, mainly because of the language barrier, Captain DeMoura said, and the department was willing to try anything. So this time, it decided to use religion, citing the strong place it has in Cambodian life and culture.
The police enlisted the help of Chanda Soth, a police project assistant who lives in the gang members’ neighborhood and has strong ties to a Buddhist temple in neighboring town of North Chelmsford, a five-minute drive from here. Ms. Soth also speaks Khmer, and acts as the police translator. The seven monks who live at the temple immediately agreed to a program intended to help the troubled Cambodian youngsters.
So the department recently plucked the names of five young runaways from its records. Ms. Soth and Captain DeMoura met with their parents, assuring them that their boys would be safe and together.
The boys spend two nights each week, more if they want, at the temple. The monks teach them how to improve themselves from the inside out and become better citizens, students and Buddhists. The first meetings were in early June. Five more boys have already been added to the program, and officials hope to enroll as many as 50.
The Venerable Khon Sao, the leader of the monks at the temple and president of the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks, an association of 80 temples nationwide, believes the program is unprecedented among Buddhists in the United States. He said he had received inquiries about it from police departments and temples around the country.
Captain DeMoura said, “This program is definitely not going to reduce the amount of gang violence on the streets today, but our hope is that it will reduce the amount of gang violence tomorrow.”
While three boys intently tried to cross the room with glasses filled with water, boys on the sidelines heckled them. The Venerable Monriath Pinn gave a cup to the smallest boy, 11, who swatted it away and swore under his breath. “Don’t you want to be a good boy?” the monk asked.
All of the boys soon followed the monk across the room, where, silent for the first time, they knelt in front of a shrine to Buddha and clasped their hands in prayer. The monk sounded the gong for three prayers to Buddha. On each chime the boys bowed.
After the monk left, the boys reverted to their street-selves. Wearing Dickies the color of their gangs, they bragged in salty language about brushes with the law and getting jumped in gang initiations. But minutes later they were sneaking chocolates from the monks’ kitchen and rolling on the floor, giggling like children while trying to make a boy shout “uncle.”
None said they would leave a gang any time soon. Were they to quit, they said, not only would other gangs be after them, but also the spurned gang. They get in trouble because there is nothing else to do, they said. But the program has taught them about the importance of education and respect. They know they are here to improve themselves, and all said they would try to stay out of trouble and do well in school, so as not to disappoint Ms. Soth or the monks.
The boys come because the temple is the only place they know where they will be out of trouble.
“We use our anger outside,” one boy said. “When we’re in here, we’re peaceful. It’s the only peaceful place we can find.”
Last month two of the boys took Ms. Soth’s silver BMW for a joy ride and were stopped by the police. One of the boys, Jimmy, 15, spent a week in a youth detention facility. Afterward, he came back to the temple because, he said, he missed it. Jimmy said he realized the value of the program while in detention, where he he said he meditated when “bad thoughts” came into his mind.
Jimmy said it was an honor to be taught by someone of the stature of the Venerable Khon Sao. He is “the only person we’re actually afraid of,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy said he was determined to stay out of trouble, for Ms. Soth’s sake more than anyone else. She forgave him for stealing the car.
Ms. Soth, 30, has become a surrogate sibling to the boys. She takes them to the movies and burger cafes and even sleeps at the temple several nights a week, as the boys often choose to stay there rather than go to their homes.
“I sacrifice all my time,” said Ms. Soth, who says she intends to remain single to better solve social problems. “If they call at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, I answer. I say, `What can I do to save you?’
“But it’s amazing what happens once they build that trust. They’re great kids. They’re troubled kids, but they’re great kids.”