Unnerved. That’s the best word I can come up with to describe how I felt the day my new friend told us where the mob chapter headquarters was located. No, this isn’t Chicago or New York. It’s New Zealand, a largely peaceful country. With a rather large gang presence. In my neighborhood.
After church that day, we drove by the headquarters house on our way to drop something at the friend’s house. For the first time, I was seeing with eyes wide open what I had blindly walked and driven by dozens of times.
There they were. Around the corner from our bakery and bike store. Across the street from a primary school. A couple of blocks from our church. Half a mile from our house. The Mongrel Mob. Guys standing and sitting out front, apparently keeping guard. Other guys milling around dressed in the tell-tale red and black color-scheme with the Mongrel Mob bulldog logo on their t-shirts and leather jackets. A tall gated fence surrounding the property. Bulldog head statues perched on the top of the fence. MM Waikato stenciled on the gate. Cars coming and going.
There is some discrepancy surrounding the start of the Mongrel Mob. One urban legend says in the early 1960s a judge told a group of men standing in front of him that they “were a bunch of mongrels.” Some say the group was Pakeha (white, European descent). Others say a couple of Maori guys were standing before the judge that day. Either way, the name stuck. By 1962, a group of men in the Hawke’s Bay region on the north island’s central east coast were calling themselves mongrels. By 1970, other loosely affiliated chapters had developed that included many Maori and Polynesian members, all using the name Mongrel Mob or some variation.
New Zealand has several gangs and reputably the highest per capita gang population in the world—as many as 4,000 members with a national population of 4.5 million people. The Mongrel Mob is the largest and quite possibly the most famous with a reputation that has spread far beyond the South Pacific, thanks in part to a portrait project by photographer Jono Rotman. My brother-in-law thoughtfully showed us these pictures before we left for New Zealand. I doubt he actually believed we’d ever cross paths with members of the mob. The images are striking… to say the least.
I haven’t seen mob members down the street from us with extensive face tattoos (although Ta Moko here and here are facial tattoos historically made with a bone chisel and are common in the Maori culture). I also haven’t heard them barking like bulldogs or flashing their gang sign. I am fine with that.
Nearly 10% of all prisoners in New Zealand consider themselves to be members of the Mongrel Mob, but the gang didn’t start out with a penchant for organized crime. The mob was a place of belonging for people who didn’t have a place, people who lived in the margins of society, people who experienced both cultural alienation and economic deprivation. It is not coincidental that rise of the Mongrel Mob paralleled the urbanization of the Maori tribal culture, which caused entire generations of Maori people to struggle with their identity, lose touch with their tribal roots, and flounder in the Westernized mainstream culture.
I have watched the daily routines of the Mongrels play out during my own comings and goings. They have a trampoline and balls in the yard for their kids who also like to ride their scooters in the bakery parking lot. They frequent the corner dairy (convenience store). Their property appears to be well-maintained. There’s always at least two people sitting out front, but sometimes a dozen or more are gathered around in plastic lawn chairs. No one is ever alone.
I’ve asked other people in the community about the mob next door. They respond with comments like… “Oh yeah. They’ve lived there forever. They kind of protect the area—look out for it, you know.”
Kiwis are quick to point out that New Zealand does not have the gun culture that the United States’ reputation carries around the world. Knives are more the mob’s style. Even so, people who mind their own business as they push their tot in a stroller up and down the sidewalk aren’t really in danger. In fact, they could find themselves benefiting from the watchful eyes of the mob members sitting guard on the corner.
I have so many questions. At the most basic level, my questions start with, “What kind of world is this?! How is this playing out so openly in a suburban neighborhood in city of a mere 200,000 people?!?
What in the world really goes on as people come and go from that house? Is it as bad as my imagination could make it out to be? Or is it more like a clubhouse… a big family gathering… every single day?
But then, I realize those are the wrong questions. Those answers don’t really matter. When I stop my fretting, I begin to see them as people whose kids’ heads pop above the fence-line as they jump on the trampoline.
And I wonder… What would have happened if 50+ years ago, the founding mongrels had found belonging in a church community instead of in organized crime?
Where was the church when these young men felt so ostracized from society that they claimed the name ‘Mongrels’ as the only thing they identified with?
What about my neighbors? What extreme levels of marginalization, loneliness, and pain have they experienced that has driven them to find belonging and safety in a gang?
What does it look like for our church—that meets two blocks away— to reach into this community and neighborhood? What does it look like to carry the light of hope to the mob?
And I wonder… what does it mean for all of us to touch the untouchable? To love the unlovable? To refuse to put up walls? To take the gospel to the most broken of situations, the ones deemed hopeless and irredeemable by society?
Maybe the mob lives in your neighborhood. Maybe you haven’t noticed yet. Or maybe they don’t. Either way, there’s still someone who needs the hope of Jesus—someone longing for community, someone crying out for love, someone begging for a place of belonging. Maybe they don’t look like you or talk like you or dress like you or act like you. Maybe they’re dirty or handicapped or just plain frightening looking.
And I wonder… what does it mean for us to be the church in those places, to those people?
We’d love for you to pray with us that the members of our local chapter of the Mongrel Mob will come to know Jesus through the intentional ministry of Crossroads Church.