“The church should be on the frontlines to bring peace to violent neighborhoods.”
It seems like an obvious statement rooted in the Word. But when church leaders are killed in gang crossfires, church folks also adopt the code of the streets, “No snitchin.’”
“No snitchin’” is a troubling concept that says, “Why cooperate with police if it means I could be shot and killed out of retaliation? Better to just let “street justice” handle it.”
It’s a big challenge faced by Eugene Schneeberg, director of the Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships for the U.S. Department of Justice. Schneeberg (pronounced “Shnay Bor”) travels the country to encourage people of faith to fight crime, particularly gang violence. A native of Boston’s tough Roxbury section where he escaped gang violence, Schneeberg brought his message to Newport News, VA, where at least two church leaders were recently shot and killed in the city’s predominantly black and poor Southeast neighborhood. Invited by U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, Schneeberg spoke at Gethsemane Baptist Church to a group that consisted of about 30 city officials, law enforcement, and members of the clergy.
Violent crime in Newport News has decreased from 2012 to 2013, but the killing of two deacons this year has alarmed the faith community in particular. In January 71-year-old Joseph Henry Williams Jr., a deacon, was fatally shot by a stray bullet. He was caught in the crossfire between two gunmen. In April, Clinton Stonewall Jackson Sr., a 79-year-old deacon was shot to death in his car. Police say the shooter was inside of Jackson’s vehicle. Both shootings are believed to be gang-related.
Before joining the Justice Department, Schneeberg, who is an ordained minister, worked with a faith-based group in Massachusetts that focused on preventing gang violence. He told the Newport News gathering in February that he can help the church learn how to calm gang violence and get grants to fund its efforts. He touted his agency’s website for having a wealth information to assist faith-based organizations.
Schneeberg credited pastors who, instead of focusing on erecting lavish sanctuaries, build facilities that can be used by the community at large. Churches can start after school programs and advocate for prison reentry programs, he said. Churches must build bridges between the community and government officials. But mainly, church folks have to get out of the pews and into the streets to show love to young people, particularly gangbangers, he said.
“Gangs are just groups of boys trying to teach each other how to be men,” Schneeberg said, adding that he never met his own father. “If dads are not there or if there are not healthy men in the community, gangs become the next logical step.”
If young people don’t find love in a healthy way, they’ll fall for its counterfeit in unhealthy places, Schneeberg said.
“Churches can provide a neutral place where clashing teens and gangs can resolve issues,” he said. “Without a safe place they are constantly in ‘protect your turf’ mode.”
And it is this “mode” that typically leads to senseless random shootings and murders of innocent people, like the deacons in Newport News.
The church leaders were attentive to Schneeberg’s strong pitch. Pastor Beverly Ashburn of Friendship Baptist Church in Newport News asked the question on most people’s minds: How can local churches get involved without becoming targets of violence? In other words, how can the church avoid being labeled as “snitches” and the consequences that comes with that?
Schneeberg suggested churches do community events that make them highly visible, such as prayer walks.
“Presence brings crime reduction and the more visible you are the less likely they are to victimize you,” he said. The approach has worked in cities such as Lynn, MA, Fort Myers, Fl., and Baltimore, where gang violence has declined, he said.
After the meeting, Ashburn, who gave the invocation at Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s inauguration in January, said she believes churches need special training to minister specifically to gang members.
“I think you have to have training and be knowledgeable of what is the right approach,” she said. “Even though our intent may be good, a lot of people are dead because of what they simply didn’t know how to do.”
The Rev. Dr. Dwight Riddick, Sr. pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church is also a member of the city’s task force that is addressing a strategic plan to fight gangs.
“We’ve always had communication (with the city), but it has not been clear in terms of what the church’s role is,” Riddick said. “Many churches are doing a lot of things. The question is whether what we are doing is effective. We want what we do to have impact and that most importantly lives would be changed.”