To end violence, clergy should take to streets

Getting Away With Murder

April 30, 1999|By Mark R. Gornik

As our question of the month, we asked readers to submit essays, concerning whether Baltimoreans are complacent about the city's high murder rate and how the community can come together to bring about changes in the courts and police. Below are two responses.

BOSTON is enjoying the most dramatic drop in juvenile crime, specifically juvenile homicide, that the nation has seen in recent times. This holds a lesson for Baltimore and its churches.

While Boston community leaders cite many reasons for the turn around, a coalition of churches was a major catalyst for an overall drop in homicides from 152 in 1990 to 35 in 1998.

The turning point in Boston came in 1992, during a funeral service at Morning Star Baptist Church. Gang-related violence erupted, resulting in two people stabbed and another shot.

In response, a group of clergy formed the ecumenical Ten-Point Coalition. Ministers took to the streets to make their 10-point plan work. It is designed to get at the social problems that cause crime.

They created drop-in centers at churches; walked the streets, talking to gang members; and set up counseling programs.

Ten Point's board president is the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond, who left his job as an emergency room physician to become pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Clergy members cannot do effective work with youth "if not on the street. Kids wouldn't take you seriously."

The clergy members worked with police to help get youths suspected of violent crimes off the street, and, in return, police would refer youths who had not yet committed serious crimes to the ministers for guidance, not jail.

When a problem emerged with one of the youths, police and probation officers and clergy members worked together to try to solve it. If, for example, a youth needed a job, they committed to finding him one.

Notably, this coalition of police and clergy helped to reduce police-community tensions.

Christopher Winship, a Harvard University sociology professor who has studied the group's work, says the key task of the coalition was not the street ministry, but rather the clergy's mediating role between public officials and the community. The clergy members, Mr. Winship argues, provide an "umbrella" of legitimation for appropriate police action. But the clergy still speak out if they suspect police have abused their power.

Today, the 54-church coalition, involving more than 100 clergy members, is not complacent now that the crime rate has dropped.

With broad financial backing, they are now hiring and placing specialized youth workers in more churches.

While Boston's success is not a cookie-cutter solution for Baltimore, a number of implications certainly follow:

* Churches and clergy must be firm believers in the potential of young people. Providing tangible opportunities, such as jobs, is a key way to help develop responsible youths. But clergy members must hit the streets to listen to youths and build relationships.

* The model of clusters of churches working together to save area youths holds lots of promise. Boston has 12 such clusters, with two to eight churches each. A similar approach is eminently doable in Baltimore. Churches have a unique physical presence and moral obligation to do this.

* Change depends upon community-based partnerships, public and private. From providing health care services to improving public safety, it is clear no one group can do it alone.

* More public and private support is needed to expand Baltimore's many effective but under-funded church-related youth programs.

Boston's experience in reducing youth violence is a reminder that churches have something to offer the violent world that teen-agers face everyday in Baltimore. At stake is nothing less than the future of the city itself.

The Rev. Mark R. Gornik is the founding pastor of New Song Community Church in Sandtown in West Baltimore. He is helping to develop a sister congregation in New York's Harlem.

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