Throughout the nation’s history, the faith community has played a catalytic and sometimes central role in the nation’s most seismic changes – abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote and the Civil Rights Movement led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The faith community is again called into the breach, positioning itself between a yawning gap of mistrust between the police and the community.
On Jan. 12, the Department of Justice, along with roughly 35 faith-based leaders from across the nation, held a “Community of Practice” (Learning Community) conference call. The theme: “Enhancing faith community/law enforcement communication in an era of mistrust.”
The call was hosted by the Center of the White House Faith-based & Neighborhood Partnerships Office at the Department of Justice, an Office focusing on issues important to the community and to the current administration. Kevin Norton, a new hire, and Policy Advisor for the Faith-based office, Buki Baruwa, Presidential Management Fellow, and David Curtiss, intern, currently coordinate the Office’s work on behalf of the Justice Department.
I chaired the session which featured three speakers, who launched a fascinating, in-depth discussion. They included: Pastor Gregory Sanders, The Rock Christian Fellowship and President, Long Beach Ministerial Alliance, Long Beach, CA.; Pastor Danny Sanchez, City Peace Project, San Jose, CA and Lt. Col. Mel Russell, Baltimore Police Department (Russell , too, is ordained).
While each speaker’s faith took them in different directions, all shared common principles:
- The faith community’s position is in the middle, where efforts to reconcile can generate criticism from both sides
- The work begins with the personal, not the institutional
- The work must begin with a firm commitment to mutual transparency, constant communication and willingness to tackle the most sensitive issues, and that each must be held accountable
- All seemed based on the implicit and sometimes explicit theological underpinnings: we are all children of God, each of us needing forgiveness, each pledged to reconciliation leading to the creation of the beloved community
Pastor Gregory Sanders opened by quoting from Joshua 5:13. “When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man stood before him with his drawn sword in his hand; and Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” In this, Sanders spotlighted his motivational core – the faith community’s central role is to stand the middle, casting lots with neither side, while striving to forge bonds between each.
Sanders is trusted. Monthly he shares thoughts with Police Academy Students, advises on hiring, and helps the Police Department identify those areas in the city that are “hurting most,” “communities in or on the edge of trouble. He works closely with the Department in crisis situations.
The word “transparency” cropped up most frequently during his presentation. In this he meant full disclosure, a willingness to identify mistakes, “telling it like it is” while working toward solutions. In lay terms, Sanders might be called an “honest broker.” Theologically framed, he is a reconciler.
Pastor Danny Sanchez, founder of The City Peace, winner of President Obama’s Champion of Change Award in 2012 and who was involved in the gang lifestyle, echoed the reconciliation theme, describing its manifestation in three separate programs. Individuals in several parishes throughout the city have, through Adopt a Cop, signed up to pray for individual law enforcement officers. They connect through a web site. Officers can be people of faith, “or of little faith or no faith,” says Sanchez. “The important thing is that the officers know they’re loved and appreciated.”
Pastor Sanchez also created the City Chaplaincy Program. Sanchez the lead chaplain and his team work with police and other community and faith-based organizations to go “under the tape” into the trauma and messiness of families torn apart by homicide. “Services” provided range from prayer to help with rent, food, funeral expenses, and links to counseling and on-going support for the wide-ranging needs of each remaining family member. Through the “Trauma to Triumph” program at Santa Clara County Valley Medical Hospital, Sanchez’s faith-based team, while providing basic services for victimized families, attempts to stop retaliation.
Sanchez also takes kids at risk of gang involvement (as well as some already in gangs) to Police Department headquarters where they meet with police Captain Anthony Mata. . When he first proposed it to them the youth recoiled in horror: “We don’t want to go to jail.” He reassured them that his purpose had little to do with the law. “It has to do with our youth getting to know the officers as people.” Sanchez describes how “the the Captain open up…tells his story…what he was like as a kid…” Then the youth get to explore different areas of the department and sit in the police cars. The Captain provides tips on how to react if approached by an officer and how and where to complain if they feel unjustly treated. Sanchez reports that youth could not believe that the officers, swathed in uniforms, wearing guns were “real people.”
“The City Peace Project steps into the lives of gang-impacted youth, families and communities to provide education, awareness and support, walking with them toward a brighter future,” reads the Project’s mission statement. Danny cites Matthew 5:1 as his theological starting point: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” “Because of this,” notes Danny, “We go where nobody else goes, and we stay.” (see www.thecitypeaceproject.org)
Baltimore’s Lt. Col Russell pointed to a department “needing reform,” but cautioned not to throw out the baby with the bath water. While extremely hopeful for the future and in full support for the Department’s new leadership, he spoke of “little peace among the peacemakers,” and the need to create “police/citizen equity for the co-production of safety.”
Russell pointed to several promising initiatives including: a re-entry initiative “to restore broken lives” through which 105 returning offenders have been placed in jobs; a citywide effort to help the “poor, the widows” and to address the split between the haves and have not’s; police readiness to form personal relationship through such programs as Officer Friendly,” and the mobilization of roughly 2,000 faith-based entities to convey “love, hope and peace in the city’s most broken areas.”
Other than affected families, faith communities across the nation live closest to the pain. First-hand knowledge of that pain combined with a theology of reconciliation means that the faith community will play an increasingly important – if not central – role in helping to effect police/community trust.