Among the atoms that long to join molecules

December 12, 1996|By GEORGE F. WILL

BOSTON -- Eugene F. Rivers III thinks of himself as part Jesuit and part Marine and answers to ''Yo, Reverend.''

He answers at all hours because he and his associates, many of them graduates of fine colleges who think of themselves as ''paramedics of civil society,'' find that business is brisk for healers in a neighborhood where there are 15-year-old mothers and 29-year-old grandmothers and many unparented adolescent males. Mr. Rivers says it is ''easier to get into a crack house than a church on Friday night.'' More of the former are open.

A compact 46-year-old intellectual with wire-rimmed glasses and gray-flecked hair, he was not ''called,'' in any traditional sense, to minister to the approximately 62 square blocks of this city's Dorchester section. He just came, fresh from Harvard and full of faith that something like a 1930s settlement house could thrive where almost nothing else did.

Hence the house on Washington Street. Five years ago it was a burned-out shell. Today its interior sparkles, proving the power of paint and enthusiastic occupants. Mr. Rivers' enthusiasm has had to survive defeats, such as Sal.

Life prepared Mr. Rivers to deal with young men like Sal. He had been one. Drawn into Philadelphia gang life at 12, at 14 he was given a .38-caliber revolver and George F. Will

told to kill a member of a rival gang. He did not. He managed to achieve what physicists call ''escape velocity,'' which enables particles to break out of the prison of an orbit and attain their own trajectory. Sal never did.

Sal was a precocious young drug dealer -- his customer lists were computerized -- who expressed his disapproval of Mr. Rivers' arrival in Dorchester by shooting into his home. It was Sal who taunted him, saying, ''When Johnny goes to school in the morning, I'm on the corner and you're not. When he comes home, I'm there, you're not.''

Sal is not there anymore. A drug overdose -- perhaps laced by rivals with battery acid -- killed him just as he seemed to be reaching escape velocity by means of a downtown job Mr. Rivers had arranged.

He and his associates try to be there on the streets when they are not visiting prisons, or buying someone a suit for a court appearance, or soliciting financial support from private sources and political help from government. From government they seek basics -- stop signs, community policing, scissors to slice through red tape that prevents capital, land and buildings from coming together as businesses.

The modesty and practicality of the political agenda testifies to the subordinate place politics takes when in harness with serious religion -- religion unlike the pallid Christianity that gives a slightly stained-glass tint to whatever is the Democratic Party's most recent platform.

The enemy of hope

Mr. Rivers named his son after Malcolm X and his daughter after Sojourner Truth, and is a prolific participant in the polemical exchanges along the Charles River about the primacy of race or class in the urban crisis. Although he considers himself a man of the left, he is mistaken, because he says the crisis can best -- indeed only -- be understood in terms of a third category: secularization, enemy of hope.

His message is not ''Arise ye prisoners of starvation!'' or ''Workers of Dorchester, unite -- you have nothing to lose but your chains!'' Rather, his message is aimed not at categories but at that adolescent girl standing there on the corner at 11 p.m. -- the one holding the hands of a small boy and a small girl who are not her siblings but her children. The message is: We think you are important.

In Scott Turow's new novel ''The Laws of Our Fathers,'' a judge broods about the endless parade of young black defendants before her bench, each ''an atom waiting to be part of a molecule.''

''I've been struck by how often a simple, childish desire for attention accounts for the presence of many of these young people. Most of these kids grow up feeling utterly disregarded -- by fathers who departed, by mothers who are overwhelmed, by teachers with unmanageable classrooms, by a world in which they learn, from the TV set and the rap of the street, they do not count for much. Crime gathers for them, if only momentarily, an impressive audience: the judge who sentences, the lawyer who visits, the cops who hunt them -- even the victim who, for an endless terrified moment on the street, could not discount them.''

Eugene Rivers and his associates comprise an attentive audience, a molecular unit amid one city's dust of individuals, telling as many of them as they can reach, one by one: You count.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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