The Common Good
March-April 1998

Turning Tragedy Into Triumph

by Jeffrey Brown | March-April 1998

A community responds to violence.

During a funeral in 1992 gang members invaded a church in Boston, shot up the church sanctuary, and eventually stabbed a boy there nearly to death. Some ministers took this as a sign that if the faithful do not go out of the sanctuary to meet the needs of youth in the streets, then our young people would be coming in—with devastating consequences. A group of us took to the streets at night, and in helping drug dealers and gang youth created the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation.

The year we began our work, Boston experienced more than 150 homicides and 1,100 gunshot injuries. Dozens of youth crowded emergency rooms in hospitals every night, screaming in pain. By 1997, however, we experienced a 60 percent reduction in firearm incidents; the city had gone two-and-a-half years without a juvenile homicide.

On December 11 the peace ended when 16-year-old Eric Paulding was shot to death in the Franklin Field section of Dorchester. During the next 24 hours, Boston showed why it has become a national model for crime reduction: partnerships, communication, hard work, and prayer. In the hours following the shooting, we spoke to the mayor, the police commissioner, city and community agencies, and the private sector. All were ready to mobilize against the potential retaliation that loomed ominously. We joined the Paulding family in urging community calm. The police worked swiftly to isolate and pursue suspects. The Franklin Field youth center kept its doors open late into the night during the holiday season, and youth workers were on the street around the clock. Corporations committed themselves to investing capital in the neighborhoods.

Five years ago these actions would not have happened. The killing would have signaled a return to the "Wild West" in Boston. Instead, we struggle to turn this tragedy into a triumph, an opportunity for community healing, and a sign of communal determination to keep building.

THE BOSTON SUCCESS STORY is not a solo act. It is a choir, where police officers talk about jobs and economic parity, clergy talk about law enforcement, social workers talk about the importance of spiritual uplift, and the private sector talks about street-level intervention. It is a choir that harmonizes on the melody of community resurrection.

As activist clergy, we know full well that the urban ills of economic deprivation, political inertia, and social instability have direct connections to the moral and spiritual crisis that we face today. We have carefully built partnerships with city and community agencies, law enforcement, the courts, the private sector—anyone who realized that the crisis of violence that pervaded this town was too large for any single approach.

We must remember that secular philosophy without faith cannot build society. To attempt to do so would be to misread what makes a human being whole. Wholeness comes when the needs of the mind, body, and spirit are met. Civil society must remember that the goal is wholeness, and that a whole community is greater than the sum of non-interacting parts.

We tire of Neanderthal conservatives who seek to eliminate government from our social lives altogether rather than to make it more efficient. We tire also of liberal fundamentalists who persist with a church-state "scold" war, while inner cities go up in smoke. The time has come to recognize the inestimable value of Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement that we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny. The time has come to recognize that societal ills have a moral and spiritual root.

Public policy cannot advance into the 21st century without faith-based communities at the table. It is not about proselytization, but rather about living one's faith, through service, to the least, lost, and left out of society.

JEFFREY BROWN is pastor of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a founder of the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation. This article is adapted from his statement at a Call to Renewal press conference in December.

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