A shot caller is “an individual in a gang or neighborhood who has a high status.” This person “calls the shots” but he doesn’t carry it out – he’s already played that role. Thus, the shot caller is an elevated status. Shot callers are the power brokers on the streets that set the rules for what will and will not happen, who gets hurt and who doesn’t. They have street cred and they earned it. In some ways they have more power than a pastor, the police or any politician. Shot callers come from the community; they built their reputations on the streets. People come to know shot callers for what they do and that’s how they earn the right for people to listen to what they say.
Whenever I’m invited to a city to speak the first thing I do when I arrive is ask someone to drive me around the neighborhood. No meetings. Just riding around to see what the streets can tell me about who calls the shots or who runs the block and the neighborhood. Today, riding to a meeting in L.A., I was able to see the signs and images of who ran the neighborhood without having to speak to anyone.
On every street corner I saw the sides of buildings tagged with the names of gangs. Every now and then I passed a church but the gang graffiti was far more prevalent than the cross. (Not to say that churches in the hood aren’t doing anything, I’m sure many are.) As I passed the images of gang signs and people standing on street corners I started to wonder if any preachers or people in the churches I drove by are considered shot callers in this neighborhood.
How does a pastor become a shot caller? Simply, they have to do it in the same way the gang leaders became shot callers. They have to earn their street cred: put in work on the block and be known first for what they do, and thereby earn the right for people to listen to what they say.
Jesus was a shot caller.
His name rang out on every block he walked. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead. People heard about not only who he was but what he could do. Jesus built his reputation through his actions on the street and people were ready to listen to what he had to say:
The woman had heard about Jesus, so she came up behind him in the crowd and barely touched his clothes.” (Mark 5:7 CEV)
“Jesus became so well-known that Herod the ruler heard about him. Some people thought he was John the Baptist, who had come back to life with the power to work miracles.” (Mark 6:14)
“And when he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish leaders to ask him to come and heal the servant.” (Luke 7:3)
In any urban community where you find a shot caller on the street you can also find a pastor in the pulpit. In some communities there are pastors that have earned the right to be called shot callers on the block. They earn their street cred through their actions outside the church, and their names ring out in streets because they put in the work to help people.
In Chicago, Father Michael Pfleger is a shot caller. As the Pastor of Saint Sabina Church his name is known on the streets because he puts in work in the hood. When Father Mike wanted to deal with the violence on the streets of his neighborhood he didn’t just meet with the police and the Mayor. He also set up meetings with shot callers on the streets, gang leaders and others who had power. Father Mike called on everyone to stop the shooting and killing. From what I’m told, in his neighborhood there have been no murders for months now. He gets to be a part of setting the rules for what happens in his hood because he put in the work.
There are shot caller pastors in urban neighborhoods all across the country. We just need more of them. It doesn’t just have to be the pastor either. Members of churches can earn their reputations on the street by being like Jesus and putting in work on the block.
Our children are dying daily on the streets. We need more leaders willing to earn the right to call the shots so that people will listen to what they have to say. We have to earn our street cred so that people will listen when we say stop the killing, help our children, mentor a child, clean up our hood and make it a true neighborhood once again where people feel safe and proud to call it home. Who’s calling the shots on your block? What can you do to be known as a shot caller for change?
Rev. Romal J. Tune is the Founder & Executive Director of Faith for Change, a coalition of religious institutions united by a desire to improve academic outcomes for underperforming public school students. He is the author of the forthcoming book, God’s Graffiti: God’s Word Written on Your Life due out June 1, 2013.