The man behind the ‘Boston Miracle’

REV. RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

The Reverend Eugene Rivers knows a thing or two about rough neighbourhoods. Seventeen years ago, he moved from the pleasant groves of Harvard academe to fight the gangs on their own turf.


Reverend Eugene Rivers

A quadruple homicide 10 days ago at 43 Bourneside St. — four young men, ages 19 to 22, shot and killed in a makeshift basement rap recording studio — was the worst multiple killing here in 10 years. The murder total is up this year in Boston (71 to date), which is an unwelcome departure from an otherwise positive trend. The "Boston Miracle" has been praised far and wide for reducing youth violence, and the man most responsible for that miracle, the Reverend Eugene Rivers, will be in Toronto next month to speak to police, clergy and community leaders on how to battle a growing culture of youth violence in Toronto's rough neighbourhoods.

Rev. Rivers knows a thing or two about rough neighbourhoods. Seventeen years ago, he moved from the pleasant groves of Harvard academe to fight the gangs on their own turf. It's not a long drive from Cambridge, Mass., to the Dorchester "Four Corners" neighbourhood where he now lives, but he realized that you can't do it from a distance.

When "the Rev" first arrived, he met "a sassy, smartass, tough-talking, gunslinging mother-shut-your-mouth," as he has described Selvin Brown. Touring Rivers through the local crackhouses, Brown explained why the gangs owned the streets: "I'm there when Johnny goes out for a loaf of bread for mama. I'm there when he walks to school in the morning and walks home at night. I'm there, you're not. I win, you lose. It's all about being there."

"That lesson really changed how we looked at things," said Rivers. "We knew from that moment on that for every Selvin there had to be two of us."

Then in 1992, at a funeral for a young murder victim at the Morning Star Baptist Church, a gang chased a kid into the church, beating and stabbing him in front of the astonished mourners. It was a turning point, a wake-up call. After Canada's own funeral shooting on Nov. 18 at Toronto West Seventh-day Adventist Church, is it any wonder that the call went out to Rivers?


Rivers led a coalition of black ministers who preached tough love to their own community, and challenged the (largely) white Boston Police Department to move policing from racial confrontation to community prevention.


Rivers led a coalition of black ministers who preached tough love to their own community, and challenged the (largely) white Boston Police Department to move policing from racial confrontation to community prevention. Every Wednesday morning, neighbourhood clergy meet with police, probation officers and school principals to identify what is politely called "atrisk" youth. Then teams of clergy, social services personnel and police make home visits, and see what needs to be done: food, clothes, sneakers, after-school programs, court advocacy, literacy training, counseling, a foster home, a job. And the fact that it is all led by clergy puts a moral focus at the centre: responsibility and self-control are the best policing of all.

It works. In 1990, there were 152 murders in Boston. In 1998, there were just 34. Even given the upsurge in violence in 2005, there are still only half as many murders as in 1990.

The Ella J. Baker House is at the heart of the "Boston Miracle." A sprawling, grand Victorian home, Rev. Rivers transformed it from a crackhouse (he has a flare for the dramatic) into the principal "safe haven" on the streets of Four Corners. Kids drop in after school to do homework, take part in various programs, or just to hang out.

Jimmy, the youth director who knows the 'hood from the inside, is wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt and has the dreadlocks to match. He explains to me that helping the Baker House kids is not for the faint of heart. They are teenagers who don't have two parents at home, and may well be raised by their 40-something grandmothers.

There is one boy who was failing until Baker House found him, and now he gets straight A's. His academic success is all the more impressive considering that he lives on a gang block, and wears a bulletproof vest under his baggy urban clothes as he walks to the Baker House. Stray bullets are just as lethal as intended ones.

Then there are the middle-school students in the girls' program, who are encouraged, as one might expect, not to become mothers before they finish high school. But this is sex education of a rather more robust kind — they are told how to resist the exploitative advances of high school men (boys?) who would pressure them into prostitution. Saving kids in an environment of high school pimps and middle school hookers is a miracle pure and simple, no need for the quotation marks.

Miracles depend on your perspective. Jimmy told me that he was happy in his work, and a lucky man: "I got to 30 without catching a bad one." A bad one — a fatal shot.

Those are the streets of Boston, and perhaps before long the streets of Toronto. Jimmy, the Reverend Rivers and their colleagues believe they have to know the streets from the inside out if they are to save them.

As for the latest killings, Rev. Rivers knows 43 Bourneside St. all too well. He lives next door.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "The man behind the ‘Boston Miracle’." National Post, (Canada) December 22, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.



We Need a ‘Toronto Miracle’
   REV. RAYMOND DE SOUZA

 

The Boxing Day gunfight on Yonge Street might provoke a constructive conversation on the culture of gang violence. And it is necessary to speak frankly about what is the principal cause of the violence — a gang culture that has put down roots in Toronto.

It is difficult to speak about culture, because culture is linked closely to the combustible issue of race. But all the talk about handgun bans and youth centres and job training programs will remain only talk if the elephant in the room — too many teenage boys joining criminal gangs — is ignored. Therein lies a challenge to the community authorities (police, politicians) and the community itself.

The community authorities did not acquit themselves well in the immediate aftermath of the gunfight. Talk about how Toronto has "lost its innocence" — from the police spokesman none less — was troubling. In a year when there have been 78 homicides, 52 of them gun killings, including two other shootings on the very same street earlier this year, what are we to make of the "lost innocence" talk? How does that sound in the neighbourhoods where young black men have been killed all year long? Is innocence only lost when a white teenage girl is killed near the Eaton's Centre, and not when young black men are killed near daycare centers, as happened last week, or on the steps of a church, as happened last month?

Community policing, which always gets a lot of attention in the aftermath of a gunfight, requires both the community and the police to work together. Everybody knows that gun violence is a product of the gang culture, and the gang culture has it principal — though not exclusive — roots in the city's black population. But the black community at large is going to find it hard to work with a police force that speaks only of a loss of innocence when young white girls are killed while shopping.


A debased culture cannot be fought except by a superior culture. Gang culture is debased, built around the principles of might-makes-right, a perverse code of honour and routine brutality. A culture of noble manliness, built upon taking responsibility for others, protecting the weak and honouring one's commitments, is the remedy for gang culture.


Nevertheless, the principal action in combating the gang culture must come from within the communities from which men are drawn to gangs. In Toronto, those communities have both a geographical profile (the tough neighbourhoods of Jane-Finch and Parkdale, for example) and a cultural profile (young blacks). Despite the Boxing Day gunfight, most of the violence takes place within those profiles, and so it is in their self-interest to aggressively combat the gang culture.

Last week, I wrote in these pages about my visit to the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston, the centre of that city's gang violence problem. Since the early 1990s, a co-operative program of black clergymen, police, social services and school officials have produced what has been called the "Boston Miracle," a reduction in homicides of over 50 percent.

It has required a change in police tactics, and more co-operation between various government agencies. But it has been primarily a cultural offensive, supported by government action. Young men join gangs for various reasons, but largely because the culture around them offers them few other models of what men can do. The initiatives in Boston are spearheaded by the Revered Eugene Rivers, who will be in Toronto early next month to work with local clergy and police. His strategy is simple. He puts black men out on the streets, meeting the kids where they are, and inviting them into a network of youth centers, after-school programs, job training and mentorship. The goal is to put in front of the teenagers models of strong black manhood.

A debased culture cannot be fought except by a superior culture. Gang culture is debased, built around the principles of might-makes-right, a perverse code of honour and routine brutality. A culture of noble manliness, built upon taking responsibility for others, protecting the weak and honouring one's commitments, is the remedy for gang culture.

That's why it is better to speak of a cultural problem, rather than a racial one. Toronto's black community — like Boston's — is a community that has a gang culture within it; it is not entirely given over to gangs. It has also a culture of noble manliness, and it is those reserves which need to be tapped to combat the corrosive effects of the gang culture.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "We Need a 'Toronto Miracle'." National Post, (Canada) December 29, 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2005 National Post
 


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