Drug-corner ministry

April 20, 2003

SIX YEARS after he launched a 22-church effort to take back troubled corners, the Rev. Willie E. Ray is trying to revive the idea. He wants inner-city churches to confront drug dealers, hold nighttime prayer sessions at corners and renovate vacant buildings into safe houses for kids.

"We want this to be a movement," said the activist, who has organized countless anti-violence demonstrations over the past three decades, including several hand-holding vigils.

Mr. Ray is on the right track. Baltimore's inner-city churches and their ministers should indeed take a more active interest in their neighborhoods. But there is a reason why previous mobilization efforts failed. They were big on symbolism and television coverage, but not organized enough to carry on the fight long term.

If the inner-city churches really want to make a difference, they ought to copy Boston's 9-year-old strategy to prevent youth violence.

Boston's model calls for African-American churches to adopt youth gangs and send mediators and mentors into local courts, schools, juvenile detention centers and the streets.

Other measures include developing specific economic alternatives to the drug economy, building links among the participating inner-city neighborhood churches and downtown and suburban congregations, initiating community crime watches and offering youth groups as structured alternatives to gangs.

In Boston, this church program is part of a wider law-enforcement and community effort that sharply decreased the number of youth killings. But nothing prevents Baltimore from modifying the plan and starting with the church mobilization part. That's what Indianapolis, Memphis and Tulsa have done.

Decades of sporadic church involvement in Baltimore show that candles and songs are not enough to sustain an assault on drugs and crime. Rallies after each tragic incident may comfort mourners, but they come too late to make any difference for the victims. If inner-city churches want to play an effective role in curbing death and violence -- and they should -- they must plan and organize for the long haul.

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