CITÉ SOLEIL, HAITI — The gangsters bow their heads in prayer, eyes shut. "Jingle Bells" sounds from a cellphone but goes unanswered. They shift positions and clasp hands - loose gold watches clinking, big gold chest medallions swaying, shiny leather shoes shuffling - and mumble "Amen."
Tom Hagan, a Catholic priest in a baseball cap, takes it in and grins. "God must be going: 'Whoa! Is that who I think it is down there sending up prayer?'" he jokes. One gang member, Moses, who understands English, laughs out loud. Then he puts on his dark sunglasses and scowls.
For most outsiders, Cité Soleil is a no man's land. Gang violence originating here is blamed for at least 800 dead in the capital of Port-au-Prince so far this year. United Nations forces seldom dare enter. They say the square-mile slum is a base for the kidnappings, rapes, arson, and extortions that are terrorizing the city in the lead-up to elections in November.
Most international aid organizations pulled out of Cité Soleil more than a year ago. "To go in there you basically need commando-style operations," says Damian Onses-Cardona, spokesman for the 8,000-strong UN peacekeeping force.
And then, there is "Father Tom," who visits what is arguably the poorest, most dangerous piece of property in the Western Hemisphere almost daily - with no armed escort. He's accompanied by his two right-hand men - Nelson Jin Liphete and Jonas Fleuriah - and his dog, Douglas.
The name of this slum, resting on Port-au-Prince's beachfront, ironically, means "City of the Sun." But it's a place where shacks are built on mounds of garbage, where entrepreneurs make patties out of mud - spiced with bouillon cubes - to sell as food, pigs slosh around in the sewage, and fires burn in abandoned concrete structures. Ten years ago, half a million people lived there. Today, no one knows. It's a place often described as having no roots, no tomorrow, and no hope.
Or, very little.
A Philadelphia native who spent seven years as Princeton University's chaplain, Father Tom started coming to Haiti in 1986 to do small projects with college students. A few years later, he started "Hands Together," a nonprofit Catholic development and relief organization (handstogether.org). He moved to Haiti in 1995. Today, working with a $500,000 per year budget in Cité Soleil, he operates a primary school with seven locations, which includes health clinics and feeding centers for students and the elderly.
"Father Tom gives us needed inspiration," says Sen. Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio, a fundraiser and stalwart of Hands Together. The organization has named its Cité Soleil schools in honor of DeWine's daughter, Becky, who died in a car crash.
Almost daily, Father Tom steers his battered Isuzu four-wheel drive truck past gang checkpoints to inspect the programs, encourage the teachers, scoop up half-naked children in the streets to tell them to go to classes - and meet with the gang leaders.
Soleil 17, Soleil 24, Boston, Belcourt. These are the names of some of the most notorious gangs in the slum. Once or twice a week their leaders, about two dozen men in their mid-20s, screech up in Jeeps - reggae tunes blaring, their security guys with machine guns in the back - to the gate of one of the Hands Together schools and politely greet Father Tom and his staff.
The gangsters then saunter through the school building, passing by crowded classrooms of children doing their ABCs. On the rooftop, overlooking the Caribbean on one side and a sea of squalid shacks on the other, they sit down on low school benches and turn their attention to the business of the day.
The priest hands out bottles of Coca Cola and Sprite - which they open up with their teeth. He feeds them rice and beans. And he updates them on Hands Together's planned activities - a new house-building initiative, an extra nurse for the clinic, a pilot literacy program to start - here and there, quietly, he throws in some sermonizing.
"We want our clinic workers to be safe," he begins. "It will be impossible to feed people without your help. You should be proud of yourselves - proud of what you do for your community," he tells the men, in what might charitably be described as a Philadelphia dialect of Creole.
Critics say Father Tom treats killers as community leaders. "We would be foolish to think we can steer clear of them," he explains. "The gangs are the law here, and so you need to have a relationship with them. You can't work as if in a vacuum."
The last time UN troops entered Cité Soleil was in early July, looking for a top gang leader named Emmanuel "Dread" Wilmer. Mr. Wilmer and other gang members were killed in the ensuing five-hour battle. So, too, were civilians, charges Amaral Duclona, the gangster who has taken Wilmer's place, a pudgy young man with curly hair and a surprisingly shy look in his eyes.
"There are no real police in Haiti today," says Mr. Duclona, who leads the Belcourt gang. "The police have been corrupted by the rich and they all hate us because we are Aristide followers," he says referring to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ousted in 2004. All efforts to "get something out of this life," he complains to Father Tom, "...are being blocked by those who hate us and those who don't hear us."
"I hear you," says Father Tom, and moves on. "I have a dream that we will get together next week and make a joint proclamation of nonviolence," he says. "I understand you can't just throw your weapons out.... But I think a proclamation of nonviolence would be a good idea," he suggests. "What do you think?"
A few of the gangsters seem to be listening. One claps. The majority look bored. Evans Jean, leader of the Boston gang, a lithe man with two gold front teeth, who is rumored to have beheaded a man last month, gets up to talk on his mobile phone.
"Sure it's different from Princeton," says Father Tom, reinventing the meaning of understatement. "But not as different as you might think." Young people have a lot in common, he insists, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes: People are intrinsically good. People have senses of humor and people want to see the beauty in life.
In fact, muses Father Tom, sometimes those with the vantage point of a garbage dump manage to see more beauty around them than those in ivory towers. "People at the Ivy Leagues sometimes take themselves too seriously," he says, pointing out that during his time at Princeton there were several suicides. "Here, I have not seen anyone give up and kill themselves.
"I believe you have many things in common with those you think are your enemies, those you call the bourgeoisie," Father Tom tells the gangsters. "If you look into their hearts and minds they have the same sadness and frustrations you do. They don't know you, right. But you don't know them, either." He "begs," them, he says, "to see good in people and take responsibility," for their actions.
Does the message get through? The priest shrugs. He is the first to admit it's an everyday struggle. A dozen Hands Together staff members have been murdered over the years. Eight students in his schools have also died violently, including one hacked to death with a machete. The 2-year-old daughter of his assistant Jin Liphete was shot to death by gunmen who came looking for her father when he wasn't home.
Mr. Liphete used to live in Cité Soleil. When he made enough money, he moved out, never thinking he would come back.
"It's a job, first of all," he says, explaining the motivation to work for Hands Together. "And also," he admits, "When you see Father Tom doing so much for the people, and he's not even from here ... it gets you thinking," he says.
"This is my country sinking," concludes Liphete, as the gangsters get up and slap each other high-fives before heading out. "So, I'm thinking: Maybe I should do something too."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.