Taking the church to the streets reduces Boston's homicide rate

August 05, 1998|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- WHEN THE Rev. Eugene Rivers, who left the mean streets of his poor Philadelphia neighborhood to go to Harvard, decided to go to the streets of Boston's rough Dorchester neighborhood as a minister, he received an important lesson from a tough local drug dealer.

As Mr. Rivers tells the story, the drug dealer, named Selvin Brown, took the reverend on a tour of the poor black neighborhood's crack houses and drug hustlers.

Mr. Rivers, himself a former gangbanger in the poor Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up, was impressed by the sophistication of this lucrative industry, asked how the church ever lost such bright young minds as Mr. Brown's and why it continues to lose so many bright, promising children to the streets.

Being there

Mr. Brown's reply, which Mr. Rivers repeats almost everywhere he goes, was, "I'm there when Johnny goes out for a loaf of bread for Mama. I'm there, you're not. When he needs a new pair of gym shoes, I'm there, you're not. When he simply needs somebody to talk to, to unload what's on his mind, I'm there and you're not. I win, you lose."

Yes, Mr. Rivers decided, it's all about being there.

What happened next resulted in the most dramatic drop in juvenile crime, particularly juvenile homicide, that America has seen in modern times.

It also shows how some really obvious remedies to serious problems can be uncovered by good old-fashioned common-sense.

Mr. Rivers, a Pentecostal, organized other local ministers to get out of their churches and get back to the streets. They got together with the mayor, probation officers and Boston police commanders.

So they made a deal. As Mr. Rivers put it, they "de-racialized" crime fighting in Boston. Instead of cops sweeping black youths off the streets en masse and black leaders battling the police, the two sides found ways to cooperate.

Contrary to the classic Boys' Town slogan, Mr. Rivers believes there are some boys too "bad" to be helped and who therefore belong in jail. But he believes most can be saved, if only they have someone to give them help and guidance.

So the ministers made a deal. They would cooperate with the police to find juveniles suspected of serious crimes, if the police would help the ministers save those whose crimes were not yet serious.

"We said to the police, we'll make a deal," Mr. Rivers recalled. "Instead of you sweeping up 10 youths off the street, we'll give you one, but let us keep nine."

Dismal home lives

Probation officers also got out from behind their desks and returned to the streets where their job descriptions said they were supposed to be. They enforced curfews, not by throwing kids into custody, but by taking them home, where the officers discovered that, for many of them, home life was worse than the streets.

Ten years later, juvenile violence in Boston has dropped to only two juvenile deaths in the past three years.

And Mr. Rivers is one of the most famous preachers in America. He was the cover feature of the June 1 Newsweek, over the headline "God Vs. Gangs: What's the Hottest Idea in Crime Fighting? The Power of Religion." And, recently, Mr. Rivers came to the White House to help President Clinton announce $2.2 million in grants to faith-based anti-crime programs in 16 cities.

Obviously, the Boston approach has become a national model, and for good reason. The single statistic, that Boston has dropped to only one juvenile homicide per year from more than a hundred per year, stops people in their tracks nationwide and makes them want to try something like it in their own towns.

But, upon examination, the Boston approach offers something for everyone to like and to dislike.

Conservatives have tried to make a poster child of Mr. Rivers because he urges residents to help police in arresting dangerous criminals. But it takes more than a get-tough approach to reduce crime. It also takes money and manpower to tackle the social roots of criminal behavior.

A key tool

On the other side of the political spectrum, despite Mr. Clinton's support, many liberals still chafe at the notion of public money being used to cooperate with churches.

Yet, the church also has been too long overlooked as a valuable civic institution that fills the gap between government and the private business sector.

In most ghettoes, the church is the only institution left to counter the effects of liquor stores, drug dealers and street hustlers.

Among black Americans, the church has been a center of social and political activism and an incubator for black culture for as long as there have been black people in America.

Earlier generations of church leaders organized the civil rights movement. Perhaps Mr. Rivers and other ministers like him signal the beginning of a new chapter in black liberation.

Working alone, there's not much the police, government, business, the media or the churches can do to save our young people. But, as Mr. Rivers has said, working together, there's no limit to what we can do.

First, we've got to be there for them.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/05/98

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