As WKNO continues its series “Gangs in the City,” recruitment into gangs – from the highly organized and established gangs to the more disorganized neighborhood sets – continues on the streets, in schools and through the media. Eva Miller taught at Sheffield High, where many students live in abject poverty. The former English teacher quietly continues her calling – that started 25 years ago. It’s called Knight Life, a ministry that offers young people other options.
Greg Savage grew up in a rough housing project in Memphis called Walter Simmons Estates. He, like many of the young men who spend their Friday nights at Second Presbyterian shooting hoops and gaining strength and direction through scripture, credits Knight Life for helping him become the man he is today.
Savage is 34, married, and works security for a casino in Tunica. Savage says he wasn’t a bad kid when he started going to Knight Life at 15. But still he was skirting trouble – skipping classes and hanging out with what he calls “some bad seeds.”
“Growing up in Walter Simmons, you had a persona that you had to be tough,” Savage says. “Or you had to be, you had to grow up real fast or people would take advantage of you. They were gonna try to rob you. They wanted you to join their gang.”
Then one day, his friend Sylvester, who was in Eva Miller’s tenth grade English class, asked him to come with him to Knight Life.
At first, he went because his friends were there, and then after awhile, the preacher’s message began to sink in.
Today, Joe Hunter, also known as Uncle Joe, leads the ministry. Like a lot of the young people who spend their Friday nights at Knight Life, Joe grew up on some mean streets, and he says, “I’m excited about Jesus, and these folks are going to let me say Jesus. [We’re] in a church. And I can preach my thuggy way with the kids.”
Ever since Hunter’s first Friday night of preaching for Knight Life, he has not looked back. He returns to Second Presbyterian every Friday night that they’re able. Hunter also heads a ministry in North Frayser called G.A.N.G. Inc to help young people escape the grip of gang life and youth violence, an area of the community that’s been specifically targeted by federal, state and local agencies to stop the violence.
Miller says while teaching, she noticed her students needed more guidance, “because I felt they did not know the Bible.” But it was more than that. Miller explains, “I’ve been in Walter Simmons, Getwell Gardens. I’ve been in a lot of the housing projects, so I know what they’re lives were like. I felt drawn to offer them this opportunity.”
At first a community center opened up for them. Then later, they moved to the Mall of Memphis. The ministry has had its challenges. Some churches didn’t want the kids there. Others were afraid. And finally, in 1992, Knight Life found its home at Second Presbyterian.
Back then, Miller would shuttle the kids herself in her car. Now, some of her former Knight Life students give up their Friday nights to pick the young men up in busses and bring them to the center of the city for pizza, ministry and to shoot hoops.
Perhaps Savage says it best, “When we went to Knight Life it was our opportunity for kids to be kids.”
Savage may no longer a kid, but he still prefers to spend his Friday nights at Knight Life with the hope of helping other young men like himself.
Production assistance by Elizabeth Hollingsworth