The recent birth of our newest grandchild taught me a powerful and unexpected lesson: there is a strong link between his joyous arrival into this world and my professional work, helping to stop violence in cities across America by building safe and nurturing communities that don’t produce violence.
In my role as “Senior Consultant” for the Department of Justice’s National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, I’ve recently returned from three “site visits” as part of the federal team. Just before going to Camden, Philadelphia and Minneapolis, I spent three awe-inspiring days with my daughter and her husband as they delivered their first child. Immediately following the federal site visits, my wife and I again journeyed to New York this time seeing a strapping infant unwrapped from his swaddling hospital garb, now lustily nursing.
Named and Claimed
How honored we were to be welcomed into this tribe of doting parents and grandparents so easily identified in New York City’s pulsing streets by stroller pushers. “How old is yours?” I’d ask a stranger. “Three months!” “Our first grandson’s three weeks old,” I’d reply. “He’s already outgrown his first diapers. I’ve got new ones here!” While most New Yorkers don’t break their pace for anything, this tribe stops and shares.
This birth at once so normal, so universal, this child now among New York’s millions. Yet this child is not an undifferentiated part of the universal, but wondrously particular, unique, a child locked in his parents’ eyes, bathed in their love and joy, the world’s only Mitchell Tate. The only one – and on the deepest of levels, Mitch already knows it.
Who is Saying, “You Are Mine?”
Participating Forum cities (15 of them) and their counterparts in the California Cities Violence Prevention Network (13 of them) tasked with producing and implementing a comprehensive plan blending prevention, intervention and enforcement wrestle with the most daunting of issues in their respective city’s highest crime areas. They arrest and enforce, and at the same time attempt to address poverty, unemployment, school retention, teen pregnancy, fractured families, the flood of former inmates returning to already-fragile, mistrusting neighborhoods, and child abuse and domestic violence. Youngsters exposed to chronic violence early in life exhibit persistent fight or flight syndromes – flee the hurt or hurt first before being hurt. Constant alertness cripples the brain, inhibits learning and wrecks the development of trust. “Hot Spot” policing targets blocks, even specific houses. The City of Minneapolis has even included incidences of domestic violence as part of its definition of a “Hot Spot.”
Mentoring, family support, after-school programming, early childhood education, community-oriented policing, job training and street workers attempting to forge relationships with street kids and trying to limit access to the obscene availability of guns are among the many intervention strategies practiced by most of the Forum and Network cities. And most participating cities recognize a truth: the fundamental ache of every human being to belong, to be loved.
“Ceasefire,” an intervention strategy, brings together law enforcement, service providers and the moral voice of the community to confront and try to help a city’s “shot-callers,” those responsible for a disproportionate number of a city’s crimes. During a Ceasefire session I witnessed in Sacramento two years ago, Kathy Jenkins, the community representative, asked one of former inmates – a particularly big, muscled, tattooed guy – to identify himself. “Popeye,” he responded proudly. “No,” persisted Kathy, “your real name, the name your momma gave you.” Popeye shrank visibly. “Kevin” was his whispered response.
Where were we when Kevin’s name became tattered, a source of shame?
Isaiah frames the core of our challenge, to me the very heart both of theology and social policy: “I have called thee by name, thou art mine.” (Isaiah 43.1).
Who is there for each child saying, “Thou art mine,” as my daughter says to our beloved grandson Mitch?
That’s the question as we pursue our mission – to create communities where children are safe and loved.