South Bronx conversations for change
Lisa Sharon Harper
May 29, 2007
South Bronx, New York City
"When Derrick L. Boykin, associate minister at Walker Memorial Baptist Church and Northeast Regional Organizer for Bread for the World, learned that Timur Person had been shot dead by New York City police, he was beside himself. The shooting occurred half a block from his church.
"It’s no wonder he was distraught. Person was the fifth man shot by police in a span of three weeks in New York City, and he wanted to do something to stop the violence.
- Nov. 25, 2006, 50 government-issued NYPD shots sliced the night and riddled New Yorkers with unbelief as unarmed Sean Bell lay dying the night before his wedding. Dec. 6, police shot Hasani Omari in the groin and said Omari pulled out a gun during a foot chase.
- Dec. 7, Richard Davenport’s arm was pierced by NYPD ammo. The police said Davenport pulled a gun.
- Dec. 8, Wayne Bolton’s legs were shattered when police shot him below both knees. They said Bolton was armed
- Dec. 13, Timur Person lay dead in a South Bronx hospital. He was shot four times by NYPD fire, at least once in the chest. They said Person was armed. But witnesses said Person’s gun was in his pocket: “He surrendered and they still shot him,” said one person at the scene.
"After months of work to build support, Boykin’s concern has initiated a community response. Among other efforts, the community is organizing study circles to engage a diverse range of people affected by the violence through talk and action to make a difference.
"After the Sean Bell shooting, Boykin attended a Manhattan protest march, but walked away unsatisfied.
"'The march was homogenous,' Boykin says. 'It was primarily African-Americans involved. I began to think: ‘Are there any good, decent Latinos, whites, or Asian-Americans interested in the violence going on throughout our city?’
"Boykin came to the conclusion that something concrete had to be done to stop the violence. And, whatever the tactic, it had to be ethnically inclusive.
"He turned first to his church. He called the Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Bush, Pastor of Walker Memorial Baptist Church (WMBC) of the South Bronx. Bush offered Boykin his blessing to organize the church to action. Poverty-based violence has made an impact on Bush’s congregation, which resides in the poorest congressional district in the United States.
“We have mothers who are forced to watch their sons go to the cemetery very early in life, or to the prison system,” Bush said. “This means there’s a smaller number of young men available for work and marriage and family-building, not to mention a smaller pool of young men available to lead within the church and the community.”
"Determined to do something about the violence, Boykin then turned to his longtime mentor, Joyce Davis, community organizer who successfully addressed issues of housing, education and drugs in the south Bronx in the 1980s. Davis said Boykin could count on her partnership.
"Finally, Boykin called me, executive director of New York Faith & Justice (NYFJ), a budding movement of diverse New York City churches, organizations and individuals committed to following Christ, uniting the church and ending poverty in New York. I said, 'Count us in.'
"Boykin, a board member of NYFJ, catalyzed the nascent faith movement to action. NYFJ offered its partnership to help facilitate the public forum in the South Bronx while organizing a simultaneous Manhattan-based prayer vigil in support of the forum.
"On Jan. 17, approximately 130 people gathered between Manhattan and the South Bronx to pray and to organize.
"In Manhattan, Episcopal, charismatic, evangelical, Catholic, and main line Protestants gathered at All Angels Episcopal Church to pray. They heard testimonies of the effects of violence on South Bronx families and community life and prayed for God’s hand to stop the violence.
"In the South Bronx, members of WMBC and other community members held a panel discussion and community brainstorming time to identify the causes of violence in the South Bronx and to devise a strategy for change. They listed the top challenges as lack of education, economic injustice, lack of a spiritual or moral center, lack of community and psychological trauma.
"'Poverty and violence go together,' said Rev. Wendell Foster, former Bronx councilman and current Pastor of Christ Church in the South Bronx, who served as a forum panelist. 'Unless we wake up and understand we are one people and one country, hell is going to continue to evolve in this country every day.'
"In the end, a core group of forum participants formed a coalition committed to transforming the South Bronx from the inside out.
"Since then, the South Bronx Coalition Against Violence has set in motion a strategy that focuses on community building as its means to revitalize the soul of the South Bronx. The coalition has developed clear initiatives toward this goal, including the development of community/police study circles using the Study Circles Resource Center's discussion guide.
"The study circles are the first joint venture between NYFJ and the South Bronx Coalition Against Violence. As such, the group is taking the first 6 months to gather new coalition members and organize the circles. There have been efforts to include the police of the 44th Precinct, which is located on the same block as WMBC. Cheryl Forbes, a deacon at the church, has initiated a relationship with the 44th Precinct Community Relations officer. Boykin also visited the precinct and was directed to attend the monthly community relations meeting. He was unable to attend due to a funeral that came up at the church which he had to officiate. He plans to attend the next community relations meeting.
"Most recently, Boykin worked with three other members of the Rainbow Push Coalition of New York to co-draft and sign a letter that will be sent to the Police Commissioner of New York City. The letter calls for the improvement of community/police relations. It suggests community/police conversations as a preferred tactic for change.
"'Most of the police officers in our community are not residents in our community,' Bush said. 'So, they do not know what it means to live in a community that is riddled with violence, with very few jobs and few fathers. They cannot identify with the pain we feel and often end up causing more harm than good because they can be very abusive.'
"In fact, in a recent coalition meeting, I led the group through a simulated study circle experience where members shared stories of their perceptions and encounters with the police. Everyone had a story… none were positive. These were all church members.
"Still, the group believes study circles are a good approach for this complex issue. Coalition members believe study circles have the potential to build bridges of understanding between the community and the police. They hope these bridges will lead to changed policing policies that enhance community safety and prosperity.
"Now, as a result of the forum and the coalition’s plan to adopt the study circles strategy, Boykin says, 'The people in the South Bronx understand we can do something about our situation.'
"The next South Bronx Coalition Against Violence meeting is scheduled for Saturday, May 19, 2pm at Walker Memorial Baptist Church. Meanwhile, NY Faith & Justice held a follow-up Prayer Vigil Against Poverty and Violence Thursday, April 26, 7-8:30 pm at All Angels Episcopal Church on the Upper-west side of Manhattan. Rev. Wendell Foster’s Daughter, Bronx Councilwoman Helen Diane Foster, spoke on the importance of people of faith engaging in public life.
"As Rev. Foster, says, 'The church is the only stable organization the Black community has, so it must be integral to the solution of violence in the South Bronx.'"
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