PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT

Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i


Commentary

CHURCH LEADERS SILENT ON TONGAN GANG VIOLENCE

By Richard Wolfgramm

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (Ano Masima News, June 30) Ė "Everybody run, the homecoming queenís gotta gun!" Or so the song goes.

But in an all too real scenario, it wasnít a homecoming queen with a gun, it was worse. This gunman was a fellow Tongan and he had a sawed off shotgun, shooting erratically at moving targets and I just happened to be in the same parking lot of a Mormon church in Salt Lake City, Utah, on a cool Friday night, dodging shotgun blasts while scurrying to my car.

This was supposed to be an evening of socializing and fun but it turned out to be another arena for Tongan vs. Tongan violence, a war that respects no boundaries, even if itís on holy ground.

Just this month, Lopeti Keiaho was gunned down by another Tongan, Sione Kauvaka. Two years ago, a Tongan man, Kautoke Tangitau, was shot by another Tongan man in a Park City nightclub and then stomped by a crowd of other Tongans while he lay dying. And before that, a Tongan woman, Salote ĎOtutaha, was jumped and attacked by other Tongan women on her front doorstep and ended up bleeding to death in her sisterís arms from a stab wound to the chest.

Coincidentally, I just attended a meeting earlier this month with the Director of the Office of Pacific Island Affairs, Fotu Katoa, and the Pacific Island Advisory Council, in response to the rise in gun violence amongst Pacific Island gangs, specifically Tongans shooting other Tongans. We learned at this meeting that there have been six separate incidents of gang related shootings within the last four months.

In attendance were various Pacific Island community groups, concerned community members and law enforcement officers from Salt Lake City, West Valley City and even as far as Park City.

We all tried to dissect the - why do our kids join gangs? Lack of parental involvement? Is it a classic case of a kid gone wild? Is it a cultural identity issue? Is it the disconnection between the parents and the child? Is it peer pressure? Weíve heard this before.

As each group chipped in their two cents, I was tapping my pen nervously and scratching my head, because I was just about to drop a bombshell: where are the representatives from the LDS Tongan Stakes?

Thereís no other way to sugarcoat this disturbing fact: most Tongan gang members in Utah are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Another glaring truth: most incarcerated Tongans in our state prison and jail are also LDS kids. Weíve always known this, yet we donít talk about it and itís about time.

Some will argue this might be because LDS Tongans form the majority of the Tongan population. True, however, what is being done by their church leaders to tackle the gang problem within their LDS community? And why the curious silence from LDS Stake leaders in addressing the ever-growing problem of LDS youth involved in gangs?

The problem has grown out of control that even church leaders from the Tongan Methodist churches are afraid for their congregation due to two recent shootings at their church events, not involving their kids - but the LDS kids who come and loiter in their church parking lot, drunk and belligerent. "Itís always the Mamonga (Mormon) kids," said one member who wished to remain anonymous.

Iíve been shocked at the casual knowledge amongst the church members of gangbangers amidst the flock of sheep who come to pray and worship faithfully every Sunday. I remember watching in horror a fist fight amongst LDS Tongans at Temple Square on General Conference Sunday several years ago.

Iíve never heard a sound plan to tackle the ever growing gang problems of LDS kids from the Stake leaders. Hey, the message of "go to church, pray, pay tithing, read your scriptures" isnít a realistic solution. Itís broken.

At the meeting, two hours later, with no tangible solutions in sight, we realized another ugly truth: our gang problem is huge and cannot be solved in a meeting room, nor can it be solved with us.

Clearly, solving our gang problem requires that we all must do our part. We canít rely on the school system, law enforcement agencies, the courts and the church to solve it for us - we all must work together.

On that note, I hope that at the next meeting, we will see Tongan LDS church leaders across the table, addressing the epidemic of LDS kids who continue to join gangs and bring their gang wars to community social functions, endangering the lives of many others.

I have created a list of things Iíd never thought Iíd see: on the top of that list is "evading shotgun blasts at a parking lot of a church."

What a sad reflection, not only of our Tongan LDS community, but the Tongan community overall.

Richard Wolfgramm is publisher of Ano Masima News.

July 29, 2005

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