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Street Ministers

In 1990 Boston had 152 killings; in 1999, the number had fallen to 30, not one of them a juvenile. What sparked the turn around?

Larry Mayes is pacing the hallway of Dorchester District Court like a man on a mission. Mayes is a youth outreach worker, more commonly known as a “streetworker,” who is employed by the Ella J. Baker House in Boston's Four Corners neighborhood. He's here to advocate for a man we'll call “Mario,” a 25-year-old Cape Verdean who has surrendered to authorities one year after skipping out on assault and battery charges. Mayes wants to keep Mario out of jail.

“If I can somehow get strict probation or we get another hearing, it's a huge win,” Mayes says as he waits anxiously for the case to be called.

It would be a victory for Mario, but Mayes is thinking about more than that. It would be a big win for the new way business is being done on the Boston city streets and in its courts.

A spate of shootings among rival Cape Verdean groups had punctured the calm of a quiet summer, and the police were ready to crack down. They were going to arrest a number of youths who had outstanding warrants, and Mario was on their list. Before making their move, however, police officials did something unheard of in most big-city departments: They handed their warrant list to local ministers and gave them 10 days to get the wayward to come in on their own.

Reverend Filipe Teixeira, a 33-year-old priest who ministers to Cape Verdean youths in Boston's Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods, and Reverend Eugene Rivers, the outspoken leader of the Azusa Christian Community, an urban ministry that operates the Baker House, paid a visit to Mario's mother. After the ministers left, Mario's mother contacted her son, who months earlier had fled Boston, and begged him to settle his accounts with the law. Mario decided to turn himself in.

“I'm shocked that he called, I'm not lying,” says Mayes. “A lot of these kids are hard heads.”

Mario still has to face the earlier charges. And because he defaulted before, he could be heading to jail on high bail until his trial, months down the road. But because Mario came in on his own, Mayes and Teixeira are hoping the judge will release him under tight supervision pending the trial. They also hope such an outcome might lead other young Cape Verdeans to come clean on their outstanding warrants. Teixeira thinks Mario might even be willing to work with him to steer other youths in the community away from trouble.

What's unfolding is another small test of Boston's nationally acclaimed approach to stemming gang violence and youth crime. Baker House has become a cornerstone of the outreach work. Named for a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the building was a burned-out former crack den. Rivers and a full-time staff of nine direct a range of programs for area youths out of the renovated three-story house.

The work involves more than just keeping the peace. Sometimes it means negotiating a return to school or brokering a deal with state juvenile authorities to keep a teen out of detention but under the close watch of a Baker House worker. Just as often, it means simply spending time with young people who have few real mentors in their lives, acting as social counterweights to the fast-paced street life that tugs constantly at young men in the city's minority neighborhoods.

Mayes speaks of the need to embrace young urban outlaws. Sometimes that means going to the prisons and ministering to them there. And sometimes it means going to court on behalf of someone like Mario.

 

Keeping the peace 

The Baker House street ministers blend activism with a belief in political self-determination, much as Ella Baker and the civil rights activists did in the ‘50s and '60s.

 

“The black community is in a serious crisis — it's in dire shape,” says Mark Scott, the 37-year-old director of the Baker House programs. The solutions have “got to come from the community. No outside force is going to be able to come in and say we'll fix this for you. Well, what institution that is part of the community is going to do it? Of all of the institutions that you could look to, the church is the most viable.”

Everyone agrees the streets are safer and quieter than they were in the early 1990s. Crime levels in Boston are at a 30-year low, and the city's murder rate has plummeted a stunning 78 percent, from a peak of 152 killings in 1990 to just 34 murders last year. During the 30-month period from July 1995 to December 1997, there wasn't a single juvenile homicide victim in Boston. “The good news is almost unbelievable,” says Rivers. “It's a different world.”

But there are troubling signs that Boston could be in for another wave of gang violence. With many of the most violent homegrown gangs put out of business or suppressed by aggressive policing and prosecution in the mid '90s, local factions of the Bloods and Crips, the notorious Los Angeles street gangs, have begun to fill the vacuum. To keep a handle on the situation, representatives of law enforcement and youth agencies and religious leaders have been meeting once a week at the Baker House. “It's all about individuals you can really go to,” says David Singletary, an officer with the Boston Police Department's anti-gang unit. “Our strength is not just physical; it's partnerships.”

At Dorchester District Court, Larry Mayes is working every partnership angle he can come up with. Still waiting for Mario's case to be called, he buttonholes the prosecutor in the hallway.

Wearing a striped dress shirt and tie that Filipe Teixeira, the Cape Verdean priest, brought for him, Mario cuts a better image than the cohort of T-shirt-and-sneaker-clad defendants herded through the morning arraignments. But it's not just his pressed collar that makes Mario stand out. While on the run from his default warrant, Mario was working and he stayed out of trouble, Mayes says.

“Not every kid will I advocate for,” says Mayes. “I think he's worth it.” Mayes says Mario had tears in his eyes as they spoke of the role he could play with younger Cape Verdeans heading for trouble. “Watching his eyes glisten — that's unusual,” says Mayes. “I said, ‘All right, this guy gets it.'”

What finally works is the intercession of veteran probation officer Billy Stewart, with whom Mayes has also done some hallway lobbying. Stewart agrees to make a pitch to the judge, and when the case is finally called, Stewart, the prosecutor, and Mario's court-assigned public defender approach the bench for a “side-bar” conference with Judge Rosalind Miller. Stewart does most of the talking.

“Billy's a great talker,” Mayes whispers, watching intently alongside Father Teixeira and Mario's mother. When the conversation is over, Judge Miller, who has taken a tough, no-nonsense approach to cases all morning, announces that Mario will be released under tight supervision. He has to be home by 7 p.m. every night until his trial in November and must show proof at weekly probation meetings that he's searching for a job. “They will be checking on you,” she warns him sternly. “You better be where you say you'll be.” Mayes and Teixeira are thrilled.

“You have a carrot and stick approach. We're the carrot, they're the stick,” says Mayes, referring to the court. But “carrots can choke you,” he adds. “If he screws up any which way, they won't need to find him. We'll turn him in and advocate that his butt is locked up for a long time.”

“This is a real good win for us,” says Gary French, commander of the police department's anti-gang unit who gave community leaders the first crack at his warrant list. “Everybody's credibility is sort of on the line here, but I think it's the way we probably should be doing business.”

“The good thing and the bad thing about Boston is everything is relationships,” says Baker House director Mark Scott. “Ten years ago there were no relationships, so everybody was talking to nobody. Now, we're all accountable to each other.”


Michael Jonasregularly contributes to theBoston Globe andCommon-Wealth magazine, where a longer version of this article appeared.

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