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Leading Crips to Christ: Bishop K. Donnell Smith

Stanley 'Tookie' Williams Funeral

​Bishop K. Donnell Smith is featured in Link Voices documentary "South Bureau Homicide," which explores the roles of LAPD homicide detectives and a local community's anti-violent crime activists, who together investigate and cope with the violence that plagues parts of South Los Angeles.

Bishop K. Donnell Smith grew up in Mid-City in the '80s, during the height of the gang wars of Los Angeles. He describes himself as being very much a product of his environment, one that was gang infested and lacking resources. 

Smith saw rival gangs go from using their fists in fights to using guns to kill each other. As a member of the Crips Gang, it wasn’t long before the gun violence would reach Smith and in 1991, while walking to his Chevy lowrider, he was shot at numerous times. The bullets flew past him, striking his car.

“When I went to get a weapon to retaliate, there was a bible there [...] and I had an experience with god showing me all the things that I did in my life where I said ‘if you get me out of this or if you get me out of that, I promise I’ll never do it again’ but this time god literally spoke to me and told me I don’t get any more chances,” said Smith. 

Prior to that, Smith had never attended church, nor had his family. He never found the weapon that he was looking for and had no idea how that bible had gotten in his car.

Bishop K. Donnell Smith
Bishop K. Donnell Smith

“When god spoke to me, I gave up everything. I did not retaliate [...] That was on a Saturday night and that next day I went to church and got baptized and gave up my whole street life,” said Smith who would eventually go on to join the ministry.

Smith is the current pastor of Greater Chosen Temple Christian Fellowship in Santa Monica. He moved there recently after spending 7 years as a pastor in the City of Los Angeles. He said his ministry is different from the rest and notes proudly that leading Crips to Christ, Bangers to the Bible and Harlots to Holiness are some of the ideas that fuel his ministry.

“The reason why is because the only people I know is in the street. I don’t know the churchy churchy thing. I don’t know all of the stuff they do in the church. I didn’t grow up in the church,” said Smith.

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Smith was given a chance at redemption when he was able to return to the East Lake Juvenile Hall after spending two years there in 1985 and 1986 for assault with a deadly weapon. He went back in 2005 to minister to the gang members and after an encounter with one gang member, he knew he had found his calling.

“I ministered to this one man with tattoos all over his face. I didn’t think he was going to get it, but he was the main one that pulled me to the corner and asked me to pray with him and when I did that, I knew that that was my calling,” said Smith. 

Smith said that because many of the older and retired gang members know him or know of him, he has often been asked to preach at the funerals of gang members, which he said most other pastors won’t attend.

In 2005, Smith attended the funeral of Stanley 'Tookie' Williams, one of the founders of the Crips Gang, following his execution by the State of California. The funeral was also attended by hundreds of mourners, many of which were active gang members who put aside their rivalries to honor Williams. That day, Smith observed peace amongst Bloods, Crips, black and brown people, said Smith. “There was not one fight, not one argument.”

Inspired by the peace of that day, Smith went on to help found the Southern California Cease Fire Committee, a nonprofit organization that provides gang prevention and intervention services throughout Los Angeles County. Gang interventionists work closely with the Los Angeles Police Department South Bureau’s gang unit to mediate and maintain ceasefire agreements. Through a network of service providers, the Southern California Cease Fire Committee also offers job training and services to the families of the victims of gang violence.

“As I seen the killings as opposed to just fighting, I got into intervention because I wanted to come back to my community to clean what I messed up,” said Smith.

Oftentimes, an argument between two gang members can escalate into a gang war, with many lives lost. In an effort to decrease the violence between rival gangs, Smith has worked alongside a retired gang member who was in the gang that shot at him in 1991.

“We want to let them know that if we can come together, they can come together. We can show them that we can get along as mature adults now,” said Smith.

The gang violence of the ‘90s left communities grappling with the deaths of their loved ones as law enforcement rushed from one homicide scene to another and it wasn’t until the late ‘90s when the violence had subsided and gang intervention and prevention organizations started popping up throughout Los Angeles.

South Bureau: Community

“Shootings and murders have decreased and it has a lot to do with gang prevention and intervention workers. Back then, [the police] automatically looked at us as part of the problem instead of the solution. Now they are giving us the opportunity to go and police our own communities,” said Smith of the collaborative efforts between gang intervention programs and law enforcement.

Smith also works with the City of Los Angeles’ Crisis Response Team which responds to traumatic incidents, including homicides, suicides and serious traffic accidents to provide on-scene crisis intervention at the request of the LAPD and LAFD.

“We get a lot of calls regarding shootings and killings and I see a lot of mothers cry when they’ve lost their child and it is unbearable. I have also seen the effects on the family of the perpetrator because they never could believe that their child could do such a thing and they have just lost their child to prison for life without possibility of parole,” said Smith. “It’s too frequent. They try to protect them but it’s hard. It’s really painful.”

Smith hopes that they will be able to raise more funds for job placement and training programs.

“People always talk about money and say that if people just got jobs they wouldn't be gang banging and it’s true. But a lot of times, organizations like this need more funding for outreach and don't have the money to continue to do it,” said Smith.

Top photo: Funeral services for Stanley 'Tookie' Williams at Bethel A.M.E. Church in South Central Los Angeles. | Ted Soqui/Corbis/Getty Images

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