Pastor diverts youth from gangs
By Mary Stamp
Knowing his ministry is with people who are broken, Pastor Shon Davis of Jesus Is the Answer (JITA) City Church in Spokane likens himself to a potter picking up clay pieces that fall off a pot to form a new pot.
A focus of his ministry is outreach to gangs on the streets and talking with youth in schools, mentoring them to manage their anger so they develop goals and see opportunities beyond their neighborhoods, gangs and drugs.
He knows from lived experience that being in gangs is a pathway leading to prison or death.
He understands the emotional trauma of angry young men caught up in the gang culture. He left home in Compton, Calif., at age 12, and lived on the streets or in friends' homes. He quickly learned how to survive and become part of "the lucrative infrastructure" within the culture of drug dealing.
That lifestyle was contrary to that of his parents who met in Hawaii during World War II and settled in California to raise their eight children in a disciplined Christian life. Even so, they lost two sons to gang violence.
His oldest brother was an original member of the Crips gang as it began to form in 1969.
Shon's father told him not to bring that lifestyle into his home and gave him an ultimatum. Shon chose to leave. As a teen, his identity and respect came from his success as a hustler, knowing the many ways of making money.
At 13, he was shot in the back and could have been killed or paralyzed from the wound. Even that did not deter him from the gang lifestyle and drug trafficking. Eventually he was back in the hospital from another gunshot wound.
In 1988, when he was 21, Shon said he was "turned from gangs through the saving grace of Jesus Christ." At that time, his second oldest brother was in the hospital dying, shot by a bullet intended for him. He wrestled with continuing the cycle of revenge and violence but, sitting alone on a pier in Long Beach, he cried in grief and anger: "God why did you let this happen?"
Shon was startled by fish splashing and jumping out of the water toward him. He felt as though God was answering, his cry through a small still voice and said, "because I will make you a fisher of men."
"God came into my heart and opened my eyes to see the harm I caused. I gave my life to become God's servant and influence gang members to change their lives," Shon said. "Many were drawn to me, because they knew my prior lifestyle and were inspired by how my life had changed."
Though it was not hard for him to transition, many who want to leave gangs are threatened because they know too much about a gang's criminal infrastructure.
"God got my attention by stripping me of material things I had, so I could see I needed him," said Shon. "It was humbling."
Adept in business—from previously buying, selling, marketing, transporting and financing drugs—Shon entered California State University at Dominguez Hills to study business. Despite his gang involvement, he had focused on graduating from high school, which he did in 1984. At 22, he began college and worked at an office furniture manufacturing company in Torrance.
After graduating in 1991, he began theology studies at the Los Angeles branch of Aenon Bible College, completing them online in 1996 after relocating to Spokane.
In 1994, the furniture company opened a Post Falls branch. Shon expected to help train employees and return, but God had other plans, eventually establishing him in pastoral ministry in Spokane.
In California, he had spent six years as an elder and then as an assistant pastor, gaining insight on working with people.
"I know broken people may not stay fixed. It's part of our humanity. So I have learned how to spend time praying for, giving grace to and and not giving up on them if they go back to harmful ways," he said. "God gives me patience to continue working with them in spite of setbacks. It's my passion because I know what Christ's love has done for me.
"Jesus changed my life. If he could change me, he could change anyone," he said. "That's why the name of my church is, 'Jesus is the answer.'"
Shon started Jesus Is The Answer Church, holding worship and Bible studies in the basement of his house in January 1995.
That year, Rich Lane, former pastor at Central United Methodist Church, invited Shon to use the church gym for free for his youth outreach program, "God's Gym," a safe haven for kids to hang out, play volleyball and basketball, have meals and connect with safe adults, sometimes until 2 a.m.
The program became Project Hope in 2000, when Shon connected with Patrick and Connie Copeland-Malone at Salem Lutheran in West Central Spokane. Part of the program, Jobs Not Jails, involved youth in community gardens and landscaping to divert them from crime. That is now River City Youth Ops.
Shon now mentors youth through a new nonprofit, Mentoring Today's Youth, a program Jesus Is The Answer Church started in 2015.
That year, he began partnering with Spokane Public Schools (SPS) to bring Mentoring Today's Youth on campuses to move teens from a life of gangs and to see themselves graduating and living productive lives. He now supervises a team of eight mentors who work on contract with SPS to mentor students. He introduced a 10-week social emotional learning (SEL) program for high school and middle school students.
The mentoring includes Young Men Achieving Destiny (YMAD) and Ladies Investing in Noble Choices (LINC). YMAD challenges youth to find the root of their anger, addressing "why" instead of "what" and guiding them into making better, healthier choices, he said.
"In the last quarter, we served 83 students," he said.
"In Mentoring Today's Youth, we provide supports for young women and men, and offer family services. We are committed to intervention and prevention," he said.
Youth come to the daily after-school program to play volleyball and basketball. They also join weekly small group conversations on life issues. Daily meetings at schools are based on learning social-emotional skills.
"It's important for schools to help students learn how to process their emotions, not just react with punitive disciplines of suspensions that isolate them with no tools for recovery," Shon said.
The mentoring helps youth develop an identity through caring, so they believe in themselves, set goals and have a vision for their lives. They visit colleges and are exposed to career opportunities to motivate them to believe they finish high school, go to college or a trade school and to care about their own future.
"When we provide these supports in schools, we do not proselytize, but practice our faith through genuine love and care. Some parents, seeing what we do for their sons and daughters, ask why we care and have started to attend church," Shon said.
"Gangs are still an issue in Spokane," he said, inviting people to look beyond individual issues to see the bigger picture of systems and economic disparities caused by structural racism.
Forms of redlining still isolate people in impoverished neighborhoods with lower-quality education that excludes them from attaining better jobs and buying homes in better areas, he said.
Both through schools and the church, Shon seeks to keep people of color out of prisons.
In 1999, JITA Church, whose members are of diverse races, bought a church building at 1803 E. Desmet. Its ministry within and beyond its walls is to build discipleship, Christian character, values and principles.
Inside the walls, there is worship at 10 a.m. Sunday, a Tuesday ministry leadership class, a Wednesday evening Bible study and a Thursday evening faith-based substance abuse 12-step recovery program.
"Faith, forgiveness, love and grace play a crucial role in substance abuse recovery. We come alongside people and work with them at their pace," Shon said, "but, as with other drug programs in Spokane, recidivism is high."
With insurance cutting coverage for treatment, it is more challenging to assist people through the lengthy process treatment requires, he said.
The church budget and some state grants cover salaries and materials for a staff of five for the recovery program.
Since 1999, JITA has had a food bank, serving neighbors one Saturday a month. Members go door-to-door to tell neighbors when they can pick up food boxes. They serve about 75 families each month. Youth in the mentoring program set up Friday evenings and carry food boxes to cars on Saturdays.
In 2013, JITA helped the Spokane Police Department form the Police Activities League (PAL) as a bridge between police, gangs and youth of color. It has offered basketball, baseball and football. It has served hundreds of youth three days a week from June through August as PAL moved between Liberty Park, Cannon Park and Northeast Spokane. It has helped police build healthy relationships with youth, he said.
In COVID, JITA offered online worship on Facebook at jitacitychurch. It still does that. Shon knows from feedback it has a wide outreach online: "Our message continues to resonate through our community that, no matter what your problems are, Jesus Is The Answer," he said.