Ten young boys, each of whom is in a gang yet is not old enough to shave or drive, fidgeted in their chairs and taunted each other as a yellow-robed monk tried to teach them how to be good students and exemplary Buddhists.
"You need to learn good seating, good talking and good association with your friends," said the monk, the Venerable Monriath Pinn, handing them a list of Buddhist characteristics of good students. He soon moved to the next lesson: meditation, done while walking and holding a cup of water. Several of the boys eagerly followed him across the room to try it out while others lagged behind.
Regardless of whether the students like it, learning self-discipline and introspection is core of this crime-fighting program where the sacred meets the streets in this city of shuttered mills, 50km northwest of Boston.
The city of 105,000 residents has had a large influx of Southeast Asians in the past five years, most of them Cambodians who have settled in the Highlands neighborhood. The 2000 census shows Asians constitute about 17 percent of the population here, a figure officials believe has since grown. The city has also had a sharp rise in Cambodian gangs, which were virtually unheard of here 10 years ago.
Most of the gang members are boys ages 12 to 16, said Robert DeMoura, a captain with the Lowell Police Department. They join mostly for protection on the streets, DeMoura said; a gang is a family of sorts when it is not unusual for parents to work two or three jobs.
Most gang members do not carry guns, and the city's rate of violent crime has remained relatively steady, DeMoura said, though there has been a steep rise in crimes like car thefts, robberies and, most recently, drug use. The police, the captain said, want to keep the gang members from committing more serious crimes. Their first target, the police decided, would be adolescent runaways, a situation that has become extreme in Lowell's Cambodian population.
Previous outreach projects failed, mainly because of the language barrier, DeMoura said, and the department was willing to try anything. So this time, it decided to use religion, citing the strong place it has in Cambodian life and culture. The police enlisted the help of Chanda Soth, a police project assistant who lives in the gang members' neighborhood and has strong ties to a Buddhist temple in neighboring town of North Chelmsford, a five-minute drive from here. Soth also speaks Khmer and acts as a translator for police. The seven monks who live at the temple immediately agreed to a program aimed at helping the troubled Cambodian youngsters.
Last month the department plucked the names of five young runaways from department records. Soth and DeMoura met with parents of the youngsters, assuring them their children would be somewhere safe, and with the boys, trying to win their trust.
The boys spend two nights each week, more if they want, at the temple. The monks teach them how to improve themselves from the inside out and become better citizens, students and Buddhists. The first meetings took place in early June. Five more boys have already been added to the program, and officials hope to enroll as many as 50.
The Venerable Khon Sao, the leader of the monks here and president of the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks, an association of 80 temples nationwide, said he believed the program was unprecedented among Buddhists in the United States. He said he had received inquiries from police departments and temples around the country.
DeMoura said, "This program is definitely not going to reduce the amount of gang violence on the streets today, but our hope is that it will reduce the amount of gang violence tomorrow."
While three boys intently tried to walk across the room with glasses filled with water, boys on the sidelines heckled them. Pinn gave a cup to the smallest boy, who swatted it away and swore under his breath. "Don't you want to be a good boy?" the monk asked the 11-year-old.
All of the boys soon followed the monk across the room, where, at last completely silent, they knelt in front of a shrine to Buddha and clasped their hands in prayer. The monk sounded the gong for three prayers to Buddha. On each chime the boys, in unison, bowed.
"Nice, very nice," the monk said.
After the monk left, the boys reverted to their streetwise selves. Wearing dickies in the colors of their gangs, they bragged in salty language about brushes with the law and getting jumped in gang initiation. But minutes later they were sneaking chocolates from the monks' kitchen and rolling on the floor.
None of them said they would leave a gang any time soon. Were they to quit, not only would other gangs be after them, but the spurned gang would as well, they said. They get in trouble because there is nothing else to do, they said. But the program has taught them about the importance of education and respect. They know they are here to improve themselves, and all of them said they would try to stay out of trouble and do well in school, so as not to disappoint Soth or the monks.
The boys come because the temple is the only place they know they will be safe and stay out of trouble.
"We use our anger outside," one of the boys said. "When we're in here we're peaceful. It's the only peaceful place we can find."