Faith-based ‘violence interrupters’ stop gang shootings with promise of redemption

Faith-based ‘violence interrupters’ stop gang shootings with promise of redemption

A demonstrator heads to an anti-violence protest in Chicago, which has struggled with gun violence for decades, July 7, 2018. Jim Young/AFP via Getty Images)

The July 4 weekend was one of the deadliest in recent U.S. history, with 160 people, including several small children, killed by gun violence in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and beyond.

And the body count keeps rising. Columbus, Ohio, where I teach and study violence prevention, had 13 homicides in the first 26 days of July, according to police data – 46% higher than July 2019. Many shooting victims are from the same Black neighborhoods in cities that have borne the burden of American gun violence for decades.

Urban gun violence is an entrenched but not intractable problem, evidence shows. Since the 1990s community anti-violence initiatives – many of them run out of churches – have reduced crime locally, at least temporarily, by “interrupting” potential violence before it happens.

Man speaks on megaphone in front of crowd


New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams with anti-violence activists in Brooklyn, July 14, 2020. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Preventable violence

One such program is Cure Violence, previously called Chicago CeaseFire. Founded in 1999 with Illinois state funding, CeaseFire employed community members with street credibility – that is, status in their community – to identify those at highest risk of being shot or being a shooter, then intervene in feuds that might otherwise end with fatal gunfire.

Working with churches, schools and community groups like the Boys and Girls Club, CeaseFire also helped gang members and at-risk youth move beyond street life by finishing their studies, finding a job or enrolling in drug and alcohol treatment.

A National Institute of Justice evaluation found that between 1991 and 2006, CeaseFire helped shootings decline 16% to 28% in four of the seven Chicago neighborhoods studied.

Variations of the CeaseFire program run by law enforcement, public health experts and hospitals have also substantially reduced gun violence in Cincinnati, New York, Boston and beyond. However, many of these successful initiatives, including Chicago CeaseFire, were ultimately scaled back or terminated due to a lack of sustained funding.

Restorative justice

That’s what happened to CeaseFire Columbus, an Ohio program modeled after Chicago’s program but with a religious orientation.

Young musicians walking

Teen drummers lead a march to Columbus’s Family Missionary Baptist Church. Deanna Wilkinson

CeaseFire Columbus was run by Ministries for Movement, an anti-violence community organization founded in the deadly summer of 2009. After 20-year-old Dominique Searcy became Columbus’ 52nd murder victim that year, Dominique’s uncle, Cecil Ahad, teamed up with local youth and the former gang leader Dartangnan Hill for a “homicidal pain” march through their community of South Side Columbus.

A local pastor, Frederick LaMarr, offered his Family Missionary Baptist Church to host the group’s anti-violence work, giving rise to Ministries for Movement. In 2010, having studied Columbus’ crime data, I invited the group to implement a local CeaseFire program.

CeaseFire Columbus adopted many of Chicago’s violence interruption tactics, but the guiding philosophy of Pastor LaMarr and Brother Ahad was to meet everyone with compassion and openness, whether they were a grieving mother or a gang member.

To convince high-risk young people to stop killing each other, they used positive motivation – not threats of jail time, as some CeaseFire programs do. Evidence shows young people trapped in a cycle of violence are often willing to drop their guns for the chance of a better life: a high school degree, say, or a job offer in a field of interest.

LaMarr and Ahad also encouraged perpetrators of violence to take responsibility for their actions. Sometimes, that meant turning themselves in to authorities. Other times, it meant making amends through community service.

Ministries for Movement has helped several hundred young Columbus residents escape gangs. My evaluation for The Ohio State University found that between 2011 to 2014, CeaseFire Columbus helped to reduce shootings by 76% in our 40-block target area. For one 27-month period, no one was murdered.

Group photo of people holding anti-violence signs

CeaseFire Columbus in 2012. Courtesy of the Ohio State University

The first homicide after those two years of peace was heartbreaking. The victim, 24-year-old Rondell Brinkley, had been turning his life around with the help of Ministries for Movement. Days before his murder, Brinkley had inspired attendees at a community event with his personal story of change.

Gardening for change

Violence interruption works, but it takes intensive and sustained effort. That can be difficult with a volunteer staff.

CeaseFire Columbus achieved its best results after getting US$125,000 in grants to expand its street outreach, community mobilizing, public health messaging and conflict mediation. Funding came from The Ohio State University, the Ohio attorney general’s office and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.

Ministries for Movement is still active in South Side Columbus: It leads a healing march on the first Sunday of each month, among other activities. But CeaseFire became a casualty of lost funding and city politics. With gun violence quieter in our area but spiking in other parts of Columbus, Ministries for Movement is now sharing its approach with community members and faith leaders in those areas.

It is also trying something new to stop the violence: gardening.

Boy waters plants

An Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability participant. Deanna Wilkinson

In 2015, with Department of Agriculture funding, I worked with Ohio State to launch the Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability program and planted a garden at Pastor LaMarr’s church, replacing the overgrown rusty fence line of an abandoned neighboring house.

Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability helps young people build skills, strengthen social connections and improve health in their communities by growing and selling fresh food. Many of the program’s 300 participants have witnessed gun violence and deaths. Many say they find gardening therapeutic.

Surveys I’ve conducted find that Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability improves participants’ eating habits, problem-solving and leadership skills, persistence and workforce readiness.

“Personally, it has taught me a lot of things: How to eat healthier, how to grow produce,” said Nasir Groce, who is now 13 years old, back in 2017. “It’s taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to.”The Conversation

Deanna Wilkinson, Associate Professor. Department of Human Sciences, The Ohio State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Faith-based ‘violence interrupters’ stop gang shootings with promise of redemption

Faith-based ‘violence interrupters’ stop gang shootings with promise of redemption

A demonstrator heads to an anti-violence protest in Chicago, which has struggled with gun violence for decades, July 7, 2018. Jim Young/AFP via Getty Images)

The July 4 weekend was one of the deadliest in recent U.S. history, with 160 people, including several small children, killed by gun violence in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and beyond.

And the body count keeps rising. Columbus, Ohio, where I teach and study violence prevention, had 13 homicides in the first 26 days of July, according to police data – 46% higher than July 2019. Many shooting victims are from the same Black neighborhoods in cities that have borne the burden of American gun violence for decades.

Urban gun violence is an entrenched but not intractable problem, evidence shows. Since the 1990s community anti-violence initiatives – many of them run out of churches – have reduced crime locally, at least temporarily, by “interrupting” potential violence before it happens.

Man speaks on megaphone in front of crowd


New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams with anti-violence activists in Brooklyn, July 14, 2020. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Preventable violence

One such program is Cure Violence, previously called Chicago CeaseFire. Founded in 1999 with Illinois state funding, CeaseFire employed community members with street credibility – that is, status in their community – to identify those at highest risk of being shot or being a shooter, then intervene in feuds that might otherwise end with fatal gunfire.

Working with churches, schools and community groups like the Boys and Girls Club, CeaseFire also helped gang members and at-risk youth move beyond street life by finishing their studies, finding a job or enrolling in drug and alcohol treatment.

A National Institute of Justice evaluation found that between 1991 and 2006, CeaseFire helped shootings decline 16% to 28% in four of the seven Chicago neighborhoods studied.

Variations of the CeaseFire program run by law enforcement, public health experts and hospitals have also substantially reduced gun violence in Cincinnati, New York, Boston and beyond. However, many of these successful initiatives, including Chicago CeaseFire, were ultimately scaled back or terminated due to a lack of sustained funding.

Restorative justice

That’s what happened to CeaseFire Columbus, an Ohio program modeled after Chicago’s program but with a religious orientation.

Young musicians walking

Teen drummers lead a march to Columbus’s Family Missionary Baptist Church. Deanna Wilkinson

CeaseFire Columbus was run by Ministries for Movement, an anti-violence community organization founded in the deadly summer of 2009. After 20-year-old Dominique Searcy became Columbus’ 52nd murder victim that year, Dominique’s uncle, Cecil Ahad, teamed up with local youth and the former gang leader Dartangnan Hill for a “homicidal pain” march through their community of South Side Columbus.

A local pastor, Frederick LaMarr, offered his Family Missionary Baptist Church to host the group’s anti-violence work, giving rise to Ministries for Movement. In 2010, having studied Columbus’ crime data, I invited the group to implement a local CeaseFire program.

CeaseFire Columbus adopted many of Chicago’s violence interruption tactics, but the guiding philosophy of Pastor LaMarr and Brother Ahad was to meet everyone with compassion and openness, whether they were a grieving mother or a gang member.

To convince high-risk young people to stop killing each other, they used positive motivation – not threats of jail time, as some CeaseFire programs do. Evidence shows young people trapped in a cycle of violence are often willing to drop their guns for the chance of a better life: a high school degree, say, or a job offer in a field of interest.

LaMarr and Ahad also encouraged perpetrators of violence to take responsibility for their actions. Sometimes, that meant turning themselves in to authorities. Other times, it meant making amends through community service.

Ministries for Movement has helped several hundred young Columbus residents escape gangs. My evaluation for The Ohio State University found that between 2011 to 2014, CeaseFire Columbus helped to reduce shootings by 76% in our 40-block target area. For one 27-month period, no one was murdered.

Group photo of people holding anti-violence signs

CeaseFire Columbus in 2012. Courtesy of the Ohio State University

The first homicide after those two years of peace was heartbreaking. The victim, 24-year-old Rondell Brinkley, had been turning his life around with the help of Ministries for Movement. Days before his murder, Brinkley had inspired attendees at a community event with his personal story of change.

Gardening for change

Violence interruption works, but it takes intensive and sustained effort. That can be difficult with a volunteer staff.

CeaseFire Columbus achieved its best results after getting US$125,000 in grants to expand its street outreach, community mobilizing, public health messaging and conflict mediation. Funding came from The Ohio State University, the Ohio attorney general’s office and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.

Ministries for Movement is still active in South Side Columbus: It leads a healing march on the first Sunday of each month, among other activities. But CeaseFire became a casualty of lost funding and city politics. With gun violence quieter in our area but spiking in other parts of Columbus, Ministries for Movement is now sharing its approach with community members and faith leaders in those areas.

It is also trying something new to stop the violence: gardening.

Boy waters plants

An Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability participant. Deanna Wilkinson

In 2015, with Department of Agriculture funding, I worked with Ohio State to launch the Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability program and planted a garden at Pastor LaMarr’s church, replacing the overgrown rusty fence line of an abandoned neighboring house.

Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability helps young people build skills, strengthen social connections and improve health in their communities by growing and selling fresh food. Many of the program’s 300 participants have witnessed gun violence and deaths. Many say they find gardening therapeutic.

Surveys I’ve conducted find that Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability improves participants’ eating habits, problem-solving and leadership skills, persistence and workforce readiness.

“Personally, it has taught me a lot of things: How to eat healthier, how to grow produce,” said Nasir Groce, who is now 13 years old, back in 2017. “It’s taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to.”The Conversation

Deanna Wilkinson, Associate Professor. Department of Human Sciences, The Ohio State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Kendrick Only Half Right About God’s Judgment

Kendrick Only Half Right About God’s Judgment

Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular music stars in the nation today, with multiple songs on his new album charting in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 songs. His single “Humble.” drew praise and critique from all sides of the Black community for its message as a corrective to pride and yet centering the conversation on his own desires as a Black man.

Recently Kendrick Lamar did an interview with hip-hop website DJ Booth, where he shared that one of his major messages in the new album D—. is that God is to be feared in a way that brings reverence and obedience. He shares that in his experience, many churches’ message is hope and forgiveness without talking about God’s requirement for obedience and judgment on sin.

He hopes his album will provoke thought and discussion of the idea that God is gracious and loving, but also a God of wrath and judgment who wants to use suffering to correct and discipline His children. Kendrick states in an email response to DJ Booth’s article:

“Our God is a loving God. Yes. He’s a merciful God. Yes. But he’s even more so a God of DISCIPLE [sic]. OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God. And for every conscious choice of sin, will be corrected through his discipline. Whether physical or mental. Direct or indirect. Through your sufferings, or someone that’s close to [sic] ken. It will be corrected.”

An incomplete articulation of the faith

Kendrick Lamar’s sentiment is spot on; God is both a God of love and a God of obedience, merciful and disciplinary. Kendrick’s feelings about hearing only of God’s hope, blessing, and happiness as a child, leaving him feeling empty, are all too real for many people, including Christians.

The sort of preaching that does not speak to suffering, judgment, and consequences for sin while highlighting only God’s blessing is an incomplete teaching and sharing of Christian faith. A Christianity that pushes consequences and rewards into “the sweet by-and-by” is another incomplete articulation of the faith.

However, Kendrick’s wording is a bit misleading and his implications aren’t in line with what we see revealed in Scripture in light of Christ. Mercy itself means that God chooses not to make us suffer for every conscious choice of sin.

The idea that God would inflict harm on someone close to us for sin suggests belief in curses or divine consequences on whole households that aren’t congruent with what the Old Testament reveals (Jeremiah 31:28–30; Ezekiel 18:1–3) and Jesus teaches (Matthew 16:27).

It is reasonable based on Scripture to say that sin has consequences and that it affects a family, but its effect comes directly from its cause (Romans 6:23, 7:5, James 1:14–16), such as violence causing physical and psychological harm, not indirect through a divine judgment.

It is absolutely true that God disciplines the believer, even in light of grace (Hebrews 12:3–11). But mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:12–14), and the very definition of grace through the death of Jesus Christ is that we do not get what we deserve for our sins (Ephesians 2:4–16).

Got Cheap Grace?

What Kendrick has pointed out for the church is that many people are not hearing the message of consequences for sin that leads us to repentance. We live in a society where sin is seen as tolerable, and forgiveness for sin comes without price.

In addition, suffering in Black communities is often ignored or given a bandage of hope in “our season” instead of confronted with the Gospel of Jesus. Or worse but more commonly, some Christians use “cheap grace” to justify their hypocrisy.

Jesus proclaims life in the midst of death, righteous living and resurrection as acts of resistance to worldliness and death. As a result of seeing Christians who articulate a theology of grace without repentance and that fails to address suffering of Black people, Kendrick is left to find explanation for his reality in the law of Deuteronomy instead of the grace of Christ.

Jesus called for us to be disciples, not simply to be saved. Salvation is a free gift; following Christ is costly. Hope is in Jesus our Savior to redeem us from our suffering, not in ourselves to live righteously enough to end our own suffering.

This faith is lived by the power of the Holy Spirit transforming us by grace, not by works that save us from curses. The church would be wise to hear Kendrick Lamar and others like him as they cry out for understanding and direction that addresses the suffering, immorality, and brokenness they see in the world.

Jesus does not leave us to account for our sin on our own by the power of the law. In love, He gives Christians the Holy Spirit by grace to transform us, make us holy, and empower us to live justly. However, the church must preach the Gospel of Jesus that calls us to repentance and new life, not simply blesses us with no accountability if we are to reach the Kendrick Lamars in our world.

Lil’ Wayne, Lecrae, and Redemption

Lil’ Wayne, Lecrae, and Redemption

Lecrae wins a 2013 Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” (Photo courtesy of Newscom).

Two men.  Both Black. Both Grammy award-winning hip-hop artists.  Two completely different messages.  Within one week both Lil’ Wayne and Lecrae made headlines for their music, but for very different reasons.

Last week, Christian hip-hop artist, Lecrae, won a Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards.  The prestige of music’s highest honor is noteworthy enough, but Lecrae’s achievement as a vocally Christian rapper is rare.

Lil’ Wayne’s Lyrics

In contrast, Lil’ Wayne, one of music’s most popular secular rappers, made news for lyrics that proved too controversial even for him.  Lil’ Wayne makes a featured appearance on the song “Karate Chop” by fellow hip-hop artist, Future.  The offending lyrics show up in the “remix” edition which was leaked a short time ago.  In the song Lil’ Wayne lyric refers to “rough sex and used an obscenity. He indicated he wanted to do as much damage as had been done to Till.

The part of the line that has caused so much controversy is the reference to Emmett Till.  In 1955, Till, just 14 years old, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a White woman.  The tragedy sent ripples across the nation as graphic images of the boy’s mutilated face (his mother had insisted on an open casket to display the brutality) were splashed across newspapers and magazines.  The two White men charged in the crime were both acquitted by an all-White jury.

Wayne’s lyric serves as painful reminder of the importance of Black History month.  Many will miss the offense of Wayne’s reference if they fail to understand the identity and significance of Emmet Till.  The maiming of Till’s memory, however, is just the start.

Wayne’s words speak of doing violence to a woman’s reproductive organs and reveal the misogyny that has become commonplace and even celebrated in much of hip-hop.  His line also reveals the distorted and grotesque picture of manhood – one that defines masculinity in terms of sexual exploits and violence – that he and other hip-hop artists often portray.

In contrast, Lecrae uses his lyrical talents to pen lines like, “Ain’t dope dealin’, ain’t Po pimpin’, talkin’ ‘bout my own folk killin’/ We on that Jesus soul healin” (from the song “Fakin‘”).  Lecrae talks openly about being a Christian and makes it clear his faith drives his art.  An urban evangelist, he hopes to use his talent to penetrate mainstream hip-hop with an alternative message for the listeners.

Lil’ Wayne is not the anti-Christ and Lecrae is not sinless.  Each of these men, like all of us, are sinners. We all have wicked hearts and no one has lived in perfect obedience to God as we were designed to do.  But there is a difference between these two artists.  Redemption.

The Redemption of Culture and All Creation

I can’t make any judgments about Lil’ Wayne’s or Lecrae’s salvation.  I simply see the fruits of each man’s life and art.  Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics seem to be essentially human-centered.  Instead of looking up, his lyrics encourage listeners to look within.  By focusing only on the self, life becomes defined by personal pleasure and material prosperity.  Lecrae’s music encourages people find their identity in God first, and then act in harmony with their status as God’s children.

Scripture teaches that God will make all things new. Heaven will be a complete restoration and not obliteration.  All evil will be dispatched and all that remains will be remade into the new Heaven and the new earth. And it will be recognizable.  Music will be part of the renewed creation. And hip-hop – like sculpture, technology, and language – is part of the human creativity God will redeem.

As believers we must begin working out redemption here and now. Christ calls His followers the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a city on a hill (Mt. 5:13-15).  So, culture-shaping cannot be left to an elite few. Whether a hip-hop artist, a hair stylist, or a health inspector, all Christians must strive to be agents of redemptive change wherever God has placed us.  If we live this way then, in many respects, the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed life should look as stark as the contrast between Lil’ Wayne’s and Lecrae’s lyrics.

Rwanda Redeemed: Faith After Genocide

Rwanda Redeemed: Faith After Genocide

THE LIGHT STILL SHINES: The sun sets over the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Rwanda on July 9, 2011. (HDR photo by Tyler Hutcherson)

Five months after being immersed in the study of the Rwandan genocide, I still don’t know what to say about it.

I went to Rwanda last summer as part of a study abroad program with my university. I visited genocide memorials and saw the remains of victims, heard the testimonies of survivors and watched Rwandans passionately cry out to God in churches.

By the time I got back, my brain was overloaded with stories of genocide — images of machetes, babies slammed against walls, people hiding in cramped spaces praying they wouldn’t be found.

To try to put these stories into words, when I know that any attempt I make could only trivialize what Rwandans experienced, is not possible. It’s a story that cannot be shared lightly, when someone casually asks what Rwanda was like over small talk at lunch. But Rwanda holds a story that must be told—a warning against the dangers of racist stereotypes and propaganda, and proof that a country that has been through devastation can rise again.

This week, the Christianity Today story I reported in Kigali, Rwanda, went online. It’s about the charismatic movement in post-genocide Rwanda, a surge of emotionally expressive worship for catharsis, a turning toward God for healing.

During the month I spent in Rwanda and the weeks I struggled to write about it, I wondered how Rwandan Christians could still have such strong faith after surviving genocide, how anyone could believe in God after their family was brutally massacred in a church.

I poured out my questions in a post for UrbanFaith, and was comforted by the insights readers shared. Five months later, I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have some more thoughts.

Why did Christians commit genocide?

It deeply disturbs me that professing Christians took part in the Rwandan genocide. How could someone who identifies as Christian hate another race or ethnicity so much that they’d think of them as inyenzi (cockroaches) instead of children of God, that they’d believe it was their right to rape and murder them? How could some priests lure people into churches with false promises of sanctuary before opening their doors to murderers—or, in one case, sending in a bulldozer?

I don’t know the answer to that, but to ask this question without considering why the genocide happened in the first place is too simple of an approach. Genocide never would have happened if it hadn’t been for colonialism. The concepts of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnicities didn’t even exist before then; the names originally referred to social class. It was the colonial government that sorted people into ethnic groups, literally measuring Rwandans and issuing them Hutu or Tutsi ID cards.

Through racist European eyes, the Tutsi were intellectually superior, better fit to rule, taller, and lighter-skinned, supposedly because they had European ancestry going back to the biblical Ham, son of Noah.

NEVER FORGET: Pictures of those killed during the 1994 genocide are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali. Donated by survivors, the images honor the 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus who died. (Photo by RADU SIGHETI/RTR/Newscom)

The colonial government and the Catholic Church favored the Tutsi, turning Rwanda into a breeding ground for ethnic resentment. Decades of tensions eventually grew into a genocidal environment under an extremist Hutu regime. Rampant propaganda portrayed Tutsi as “cockroaches,” or enemies set on destroying the country who had to be crushed.

Genocide doesn’t come from nowhere; it’s foreshadowed by ethnic dehumanization — the kind of ideology that will latch on to anything that could lend it power, especially the most powerful of all, religion.

This history by no means justifies what happened in Rwanda, but it does show us the horrifying consequences when people don’t stand up to racism and injustice.

How can Rwandans trust God after genocide?

When I watched Rwandans worship, I couldn’t help but think that you don’t see this kind of dedication in the United States. Some members of a church I visited prayed there for hours every day. How could people who survived such trauma come to God every day and submit their lives to Him without hesitation? And how could they trust Him enough to forgive the people once bent on eliminating their ethnicity?

In the aftermath of genocide, powerful stories of reconciliation between the perpetrators and their surviving victims have emerged. Not only have many Rwandans forgiven, but some have invited the people who killed their family back into their lives—living as neighbors once again, or even becoming family (one woman adopted her son’s killer).

As Bishop John Rucyahana of Prison Fellowship Rwanda told me over the phone, forgiveness is a crucial part of the healing process. Prison Fellowship Rwanda organizes reconciliation programs and works with perpetrators of the genocide to help them repent and ask for forgiveness.

“Those who are forgiving are not forgiving for the sake of the perpetrators only,” Rucyahana said. “They need to free their own selves. Anger, bitterness, the desire to revenge, it’s like keeping our feelings in a container. When you forgive, you feel whole.”

Being in Rwanda is like living in a world of contradictions. Massacres happened on the ground where I stood, and yet when you’re there, you cannot help but stand in awe of the stunning natural beauty.  Rwandan Christians survived horrors beyond any nightmare, and yet they have found the strength to forgive their enemies and passionately worship their Creator.

Before, I asked how Rwandan Christians could possibly trust God, let alone believe in his existence, after surviving genocide. But now, I wonder if they trust because they’ve been through hell and back, and they know Who conquers in the end.