New Anticrime Mission: 'Being There'

Ministers of more than 40 black churches in the Boston area take to the streets to offer youths an alternative to gang life

When the Rev. Eugene Rivers began searching for a way help youths on the streets of one of Boston's roughest neighborhoods, he turned to the experts - the crack cocaine dealers who had no trouble attracting Dorchester's teenagers to a life of crime.

The allure, they said, came from a a dealer's ability to offer security and a sense of "family" - things often missing from young lives. At the time, police and church groups had virtually abandoned the streets, giving inner-city kids no one else to turn to.

"We are winning the war on crime because we're there and you're not," they told him. As a young black in Philadelphia, Mr. Rivers had once been a gang member and knew the observation rang true.

That simple statement five years ago has spawned a successful crime-prevention operation in Boston that now links dozens of churches and marks an expanding commitment on the part of black ministers to "be there" for urban youths.

While individual efforts by black clergy to save teens from lives of crime are not unusual, Boston's Ten Point Coalition is lauded for drawing together disparate efforts and fostering innovative approaches to building relationships with teens, such as "adopting" gang members and serving as advocates for minority youths in the courtroom.

"What's impressive is the quality of the relationships that they have with kids and that the work that they're doing has to be done one kid at a time, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time," says Pam Solo, president of the Institute for a Civil Society in Newton, Mass.

The coalition's work also wins praise from Boston residents, the police, and most recently, President Clinton. Riding that wave of support and attention, the coalition's leaders are now going national. They are speaking with black ministers in other cities to create a coalition, "to mobilize 1,000 churches in 40 American cities with the 50 worst ghetto neighborhoods," Rivers says.

Its achievements are easily adaptable to other cities, says Ms. Solo, whose organization is providing a $750,000 seed grant for the National Ten Point Coalition. "What caught our eye is that they've actually made a difference in the lives of the children and families in their neighborhoods," she says.

The program is a sonorous chord amid the drumbeat of hopeless news from the inner city: 7 million young Americans are at risk of failing to achieve productive adult lives, reports the National Research Council's 1995 Panel on High-Risk Youth. The percentage of juveniles in custody who tested positive for illegal drug use has more than tripled in the last seven years in several big cities, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In contrast, the Boston Ten Point Coalition is credited with being one of the key forces behind the city's dramatic drop in youth crime and behind one of the nation's most remarkable crime statistics: no one under the age of 17 has killed or been killed in Boston since June 1995.

"In a number of cases, we could go to [the coalition] and say, could you get out and help us?" says Capt. Robert Dunford, head of the police precinct in Dorchester, where much of the coalition's work is centered. "That paid off in terms of being able to maintain the peace."

The national and local Ten Point Coalitions also represent a renewed commitment by black clergy to step in and do the work they say no one else is doing. "I believe part of why the streets were in the shape they were in is because of lack of concern by the black ministry," says the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, cofounder of the coalition and pastor at the Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass.

A National Ten Point Coalition will "replicate the [Boston] model ... working with local churches to target the most at-risk youth over the next nine years," Rivers says.

The "ten points" in the coalition's name relate to program goals, such as teaching youths to do street ministry, developing grass-roots economic development projects, tapping suburban churches for financial and spiritual support, setting up rape crisis centers, counseling for abusive men, and developing a black and Latino-centric curriculum to be taught in participating churches.

But the focus of most coalition ministers remains on getting out and forming relationships with youths who have fallen through the cracks.

Take Edward Harris. He's a deacon at Union Baptist Church and director of a program called "Positive Edge," begun as a part of the Boston Ten Point Coalition in 1992.

As program leader, he walks the far-flung streets of Cambridge - a city better known for its Harvard students than its hard-luck kids. He also oversees six employees who help teach after-school sessions on ways to handle anger and injustice without resorting to violence.

More than anything, though, what Mr. Harris does is be there. "Life is 24 hours, as the kids say, '24/7,' so our job is 24/7."

He emphasizes that Positive Edge was not created to duplicate services already being provided by the police, Boys and Girls Clubs, city teen centers, or schools. "Our mission is not to reinvent the wheel, just to be the oil that keeps the wheel going," he says.

When riots broke out at a public housing unit a couple years ago, police did not have a Haitian Creole-speaking staffer on the scene, but members from Positive Edge did and they were able to smooth tensions. When a gang fight was rumored at a weekend party, Positive Edge was called. They could go the party to prevent the fight, whereas school officials had no authority beyond school grounds.

What makes the coalition work - and hard to replicate - is the quality of people involved. On a recent afternoon, it was clear Harris connects well with kids. When he talks, he speaks their language. When he listens, he understands.

"Young folks today don't really care how much you know, they care how much you care," he says, decked out in a T-shirt with "Think" on his chest. "All kids want is someone to talk to them in a way they can identify with. They've been talked down to one too many times."

Coalition efforts are not overtly religious. A religious message is conveyed more by a minister's or volunteer's actions than their words, coalition leaders say.

But faith "is important, because our hope is based on a kind of strength and a kind of spiritual activism that lies outside of time and human adulteration," says Mr. Brown. "We say to young people, 'We want you to do the right thing. We want you to understand you can live a positive life and rise above the troubles of the city - and even have a hand in transforming it.' It's ludicrous to think we could do this without faith."

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