Throughout our history, the faith community has played a seminal role in setting America’s value base, informing fundamental constitutional beliefs, providing basic services especially in the medical and educational arenas and leading seismic social changes including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement.
No single non-governmental entity is more affected by crime than the faith community. Other than immediate family, two entities – the police and the faith community – are closest to the excruciating pain, disruption and anger caused by violent crime. A clergyman holds a sobbing mother, buries her murdered child while struggling mightily to prevent retaliation by her older son. And in many cities, in the aftermath of a crime, police and clergy are seen working together under the tape.
Erecting Bridges Small, Bridges Large
“Houses of worship build and sustain more social capital – and social capital of more varied forms – than any other type of institution in America…nearly half of America’s stock of social capital is religious or religiously affiliated…religion helps people to internalize an orientation to the public good.” ~ John DiLulio, First Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Services
Faith-based organizations (FBOs) are not only the single largest, most concentrated source of volunteers in the nation, much of which is used to support initiatives that address social needs, but they play an essential connecting role between community concerns and potentially volatile situations and city authorities – mainly police. In short, for America’s law enforcement community, FBOs can serve as an essential resource, quantitatively – the numbers of volunteers – and qualitatively – a trusted communication link.
A Trusted Link
“I have an interfaith advisory council. I don’t have to ask the citizens to trust me; they trust their faith leaders.” ~ Chief Michael Harrison, New Orleans
Religious figures can serve as a powerful calming influence, defusing potentially volatile situations, and even garnering a public show of support for the police. At the same time, they can serve as law enforcement’s most trenchant critics. They can do this on the media; they can do it from the pulpit; they can do it on the street corners, and they can do it at city hall.
But they can do this well only if the trust has been built over time, carefully, consciously, in a planned manner. If police turn to the faith community for help following an officer-involved shooting where no relationship exists, such a response can be characterized as exploitation or, at best a barely-adhering band aid. This invites only suspicion and hostility. Conversely, cities with embedded faith-community/police and mayoral partnerships typically do not experience citizen uprisings after officer-involved shootings. The essentials: Regularly scheduled meetings over months and years, and when an “incident” occurs, speed and full transparency. After a recent shooting, the Reverend Jeffrey Brown formerly head of Boston’s 10-Point Coalition said, “Within 24 hours of the shootings, they [the police] had footage of what happened, and they called together the community, the clergy and the NAACP representatives together to look at the footage. That is the level of transparency that builds trust.”
In 2016, both Charlotte, NC, and Tulsa, OK, reported officer-involved shootings. Charlotte blew. Tulsa did not. Why? On 9/24/16, the New York Times reported that The Reverend Warren Blakney, pastor of one of Tulsa’s largest black churches and president of the local NAACP cited trust in Mayor Bartlett. Blakney said that the mayor, “has worked hard to establish ties with the black community in north Tulsa, attending Sunday services at African-American churches most weekends.”
Start with the Personal
Relationships may eventually have to be formalized, but they usually begin on a much simpler level: the personal. Police have worshipped in local churches and sung in local choirs. Peace Walks in many cities actively involve the police, either as protectors or fellow marchers. Many clergy – “chaplains”- ride with police in Baltimore, often, according to Asst. Chief Mel Russell, “turning the cruiser into an automotive confession box.” Because of chronic stress and the daily stress brought on by policing, San Jose’s Reverend Danny Sanchez has recruited faith communities to pray for individual officers through his “Adopt a Cop” program. Almost 200 officers have signed on. Through Boston’s operation Homefront, cops and clergy visit troubled students from Boston’s public schools. In Stockton, CA, Chief Eric Jones, in efforts to move his department closer to the community, was unable to get anywhere with “town-hall” listening sessions, sessions that often became raucous and accusatory. So he shifted to smaller settings, in living rooms, in community centers and churches. The listening process confirmed and pinpointed many of the trust gaps, and helped to move the police closer to some of its most disenfranchised and suspicious stakeholders.
Move, if Possible, to Larger Programs
Community Renewal International in Shreveport, LA builds large Habitat houses in the town’s most crime-ridden areas. Houses are staffed by people of faith who serve as mentors, tutors, and directors of after-school programs- places of safety and love. Crime has dropped almost 50% in Shreveport’s target areas.
In order to cut down on high recidivism rates, Brooklyn’s then-District Attorney Joe Hynes launched his “Youth and Congregations in Partnership,” which links volunteer mentors from more than 100 churches, mosques and synagogues to certain offenders coming through the courts. According to officials in the DA’s Office, YCIP has cut recidivism significantly. But Hynes’ goal was larger. He aimed to stop the hurt and start the healing. Otherwise, “…those who are hurting will come back to hurt. We’ll pay for it.”
Pastors joined by laity in Portland, OR meet on Mondays to plan for their intervention march on Friday nights. Their target: vulnerable youth in Halladay Park, Portland’s hottest spot. They help young women who are being trafficked, and because of close working relationships with the police, officers will often divert potential arrestees to the interveners. The group, which has been together for six years, reports a 50% reduction in crime in Halliday Park. In gratitude, city leaders in rainy Portland, provide the group with raincoats, vests, jackets and umbrellas.
Call to Social Justice
The faith community has convened, opened its facilities for sports, after school programs and restorative justice. It has mentored and tutored. The faith community can be found in the streets working with a city’s most volatile youth. It has connected positive adults to disconnected youth, and through advisory councils to police and mayors, has linked community pain to city programs and policy.
And it is a voice for social justice, speaking truth to power.
Most faith communities subscribe to distinct but complementary traditions: virtuous living – a relationship with God, righteousness. The other, equally strong, is the call of the prophets to feed the hungry, clothe naked, visit those in prison, and speak out against inequities, speak out for social justice. It is not just prayer and the need for personal forgiveness that drives members of the faith community, but also the need for action. Abraham Heschel, author of “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity” and one of the 20th century’s most brilliant theologians, felt politics and theology were inextricably linked. After the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, Heschel said, “I felt my legs were praying.”
The prophet Isaiah (Chap. 58:11-12) may have captured it best: “And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”