Rogue rosaries and captive crosses

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By David Whitlock

Wearing rosary beads has become fashionable, among gangs. That’s right. Gangs are wearing rosaries - beads grouped in series of tens, attached to a crucifix. For hundreds of years, rosaries have been a helpful means of prayer for many Christians. But the gangs are using them for something other than prayer.

“It’s become part of the look,” said Victor Castro, a detective and school resource officer who leads gang awareness training in Hillsboro, Oregon. “They use it as a reminder of protection.”

Schools have for over a decade banned gang-related clothing, bandanas, and hairstyles. But no one is sure where the trend for wearing rosaries began. “One gang started it — who it was, nobody knows. Another gang saw it and thought it was cool and started using it, too,” says Robert Walker, a former head of the gang identity unit for the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

The rosary beads identify the gang. Red rosary beads are worn by the Bloods; the Crips wear blue, for example. Even the arrangement of the beads on the rosary has significance: it identifies the member’s rank within the gang.

Rosary-wearing gangs would not have created a stir had not Raymond Hosier of Oneida Middle School in Schenectady, New York,  been suspended for wearing his rosary-like crucifix to school.  Civil rights groups rushed to his defense, claiming the school had violated his constitutional rights. Other states — including California, Oregon, Texas, and Virginia — have a no-rosary rule, the object being to protect other students from gangs.

This is by no means the first time people have used religious symbols and paraphernalia for purposes other than that for which they were first intended.  Adolph Hitler, for example, restored the use of the Iron Cross, which had been used by the Prussian army as a military decoration, to prominence. He issued it for military valor and even designed another cross, the War Merit Cross, for non-combatant military recognition. The War Merit Cross appeared on certain Nazi flags. The cross, signifying freedom in Christ’s death and resurrection, was momentarily captive to a political regime, in this case Nazism.

And, equally bizarre, Nazario Moreno Gonzalez, head of a Mexican drug cartel, La Familia Michocana, known for gunning down police and beheading and dismembering its opponents, has penned a book, filled with images of the cross and replete with admonitions to pray the rosary and read the Bible.

This should serve to remind us that what symbolizes exclusion, racism, violence, hate, and even murder to some may connote love, peace, freedom, and spirituality to others. One person wears rosary beads to identify rank and order within a certain gang; another wears them as a reminder of a spiritual presence. One person lifts the cross to condemn; another raises it for freedom. The purpose for which religious symbols are used has everything to do with the behavior that follows. As Christian author Jon M. Sweeney says, in explaining why rosary beads are part of his daily attire, “I carry the prayer beads with me every day in my pocket, along with wallet, business cards, and Palm Pilot. I don’t carry them as a talisman to ward off evil or as a good luck charm. But I do keep them in my pocket precisely so that I will be reminded of them, of my prayers, and of Christ throughout the day.”

Now the question: Why did Raymond Hosier wear rosary beads to school? He says he wears them in memory of his brother who died in a car accident.

“When I wear the rosary beads, my brother’s memory is alive.” His brother, Joey Hosier, was holding the rosary when he died.

So, this has become a civil rights issue and should be considered as such by public institutions, including schools. While schools do have a right and responsibility to protect students from gangs, the best means of evaluating how religious emblems are being used is to look at the behavior of those who claim them. It’s the behavior that should be examined, not the wearing of religious pendants themselves. To do otherwise may prohibit the expression of free speech, guaranteed by the first amendment, and prevent forms of authentic prayer, or at least the admirable devotion to someone or something.

What kind of personal behavior the wearing of or adherence to religious regalia produces will reveal the intent — good or bad — and the devotion, sacred or secular. When praying the rosary results in a spiritual person and when cherishing the old rugged cross produces love for others, the meaning behind the symbol is revealed. As Christians like to sing, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” In the meantime, let the rogue rosaries be and the captive crosses stay.

They only serve to underscore the authenticity of the real thing.

David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., is Pastor of Lebanon Baptist Church in Lebanon, KY. He also teaches in the School of Theology at Campbellsville University, in Campbellsville, KY. You can visit his website at www.davidbwhitlock.com or email him at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.