According to a recent study by researchers at Boston’s Northeastern University, the murder rate of African American teenagers, and particularly young black men, skyrocketed 39 percent since 2000 and 2001. This increase is significantly higher than the rise of homicides overall, which climbed 7.4 percent since 2000-2001. With this dramatic rise in violent crime among African American youth, how should the Christian community respond?
“It just really speaks to the challenges we have in our urban communities,” says Dr. Reggie Blount, assistant professor of formation, youth, and culture at and senior pastor of Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church in Waukegan, Illinois. “Hope really is at the cornerstone of it: the issue of identity, knowing who I am, having a sense of purpose for life, knowing something better. There is a sense in many young people of, ‘Is there anything better? Will I live beyond 18?’ They’ve attended too many funerals; they’re numb to the notion of death and dying.”
Although the murder rate for African American youth has increased, overall crime and murder rates decreased between 2006 and 2007. These numbers are a vast improvement over the 1990s when violence increased drastically. In 1993, 225 out of every 100,000 African Americans ages 14-17 committed homicides. Today that number is 81 out of 100,000, but that’s an increase from 2000, when the number was 66 out of 100,000. The study also revealed that guns were used the most with young African American offenders and are now used in nearly 85 percent of all homicides they commit, matching the levels found in the 1990s.
“The opportunities to aid in lifestyle changes and habits are just not there for this particular demographic,” says Fred Oduyoye, director ofTraining Tour at the in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Recreational and social arenas–you don’t have all the basketball courts, skating rinks, and parks like we used to have. They don’t have anything to do. They’ve got too much time on their hands, and they can’t handle their social situations.”
According to the study, during the last eight years federal funding for youth facilities and prevention programs was cut and redirected to such efforts as homeland security. With nowhere to go, African American youth ended up back on the streets. Many believe this is a reason crime rates for African American youth have shot up since the significant decrease of the late 1990s.
Besides the lack of recreational and social activities, Oduyoye thinks the deterioration of the family setting is another significant factor. “Young people have adopted an independent lifestyle,” Oduyoye explains. “The whole family concept that many of us grew up in is dwindling more and more. They have to learn on their own how to build relationships. The only model is what is in their immediate sight. If there’s crime in their areas, then they’re more apt to be involved in crime.”
Although Oduyoye stresses the importance of programs to keep kids busy, Blount adds that these programs must be based on building relationships with the youth. “Programs for just programs’ sake are not as effective as those ministries that commit themselves to truly being in a relationship with the young people,” says Blount. “If the programs are to just keep them busy and to keep them off the street, then the youth lack a sense of belonging and intimacy.”
Even though it’s important to mentor youth, it is just as important that youth mentors and youth pastors are properly equipped and prepared for the task of mentoring. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and it can be detrimental to the youth.
“You’ve got cases now in leadership where either the quest is so huge, they can’t make a dent, or the behavioral patterns of the ministry leaders have not matured enough personally to be able to manage the conflicts in their own backyards,” says Oduyoye.
Once youth leaders are prepared for mentoring, Blount believes it is important to pastor young people and address their hurts and needs. “We need to take seriously what it means to pastor young people,” says Blount. “We need to develop programs to hear their pains and concerns and anxieties, and speak to them from where God is with them through these. Then when young people are encountering things, they will know they have caring adults they can count on.”
According to Oduyoye, it’s important for youth leaders to be intentional about teaching kids early on about how to be relational savvy and community savvy. “More programs should be put together for kids, and then when they become adults, interpersonal and social skills become natural to them because they learned it early on,” says Oduyoye. “Too many adults don’t know how to be relational, and kids today don’t know where to find the touch points of the community, like the library.”
As people try to find solutions and identify the cause of the rise in homicides among African American youth, it ultimately comes down to being a spiritual issue that Christians need to address. “The church needs to take this seriously and be alarmed by it,” says Blount. “The church needs to recognize the pastoral needs that are there and be mindful of what is at the heart of young people. There is a major void that only God can fill. It’s an opportunity for the church to step in and minister to the hearts of the younger people.”