From Fr. Tom's Journal: Working with Gangs in Cite Soleil

November 8, 2013

The young men of Cite Soleil slum who participate in gang life are actually in many ways good young men. But they are men who are desperately poor and who have little – if any – self-esteem, convinced that they have little value or worth. There is as much as an 80% unemployment rate in Site Solei. There are very few opportunities for them. The majority of them have little or no education. Many of them are humiliated and embarrassed when they are asked to sign their name.

They have not received much love in their short lifetime.

Hands Together has been working in the Site Solei slum since the fall of 1996. In the first early years, we received a great deal of advice to simply ignore the young gang members because any association with these young men would permanently tarnish the reputation of Hands Together.

Fr. Tom in over his head with Project Dismas participants

We were told that they were crazed and very dangerous. There was a very popular documentary called The Ghosts of Site Solei that portrayed them as evil and dangerous gangsters. Their leader Tupac was portrayed as a psychopath who was intent on simply causing violence.

But slowly the staff of Hands Together began to see another side of them. These young "gangsters" would be seen helping the elderly, organizing soccer games for young boys and with a great deal of joy and enthusiasm distributing packages of food to the needy in their communities.


On one particular day back when there was a great deal of political and civil turmoil in Cite Solei after President Aristide left the country -- it was becoming increasingly clear that the very poor of Cite Solei, especially the elderly and the children, were starving. The leader of the gang, along with all gang members and the staff of Hands Together fed over 200,000 people in one day. Hands Together supplied the food and they distributed it all in a very orderly fashion.

As a Catholic priest I began to feel more and more like a father to them. I would listen and talk with them. Many times I would get angry with them -- especially when they would participate in the violence. I would cry with them and I would laugh with them. I would preside at many of their funerals.

The years have gone by and I find myself now in 2013 still having a big space in my heart for all of them. Many of them if not all of them really do not want to participate in violence. They want a job and they crave for a life of normalcy.

Tragically, and I don't know why but through the years many politicians have taken advantage of them often offering them money if they would participate in disrupting a political demonstration and do things that would create instability.

Over the years I have been a fool often accepting their lies or excusing their lives. But, I find myself more than ever loving them and wanting them to change. I pray every day for them and and I ache when they die.