A Word to People of Faith in Urban Communities
Seems like towards the start of every summer, I hear the same foreboding proclamation: “Whew, it’s gonna be a hot summer.”
But in our urban communities, these aren’t meteorologically-based forecasts for sunshine and high UV indexes. Instead, such statements are uttered with a twinge of regret. They signal an expectation for amplified violence and retaliatory activity for the next few months. Already, I have heard that statement in reference to this summer, and with good reason, as crime rates rise. Even Berkeley, a city touted as one of the more peaceful ones in the Bay Area, has seen an increasing homicide rate in 2009.
One of those killed recently was my student, Larry Spencer—a young man whose bright smile and charismatic personality brightened every place he went. Over 400 young people attended his funeral—a testament to his lovable spirit and the indelible impressions he left on those of us fortunate enough to know him. But to readers of the local news, he remains anonymous, at most, identifiable only as “Oakland’s 39th homicide of the year.”
So what is the role of the faith community in such turbulent times? If we are ordered by God to bring the gospel—the Good News—to our urban communities, where do we start? What is the Good News in such a time as this?
For certain, Jesus’ way of compassion and forgiveness are starkly countercultural today. On the one hand, Jesus admonishes us to forgive so that we may be forgiven, to love our enemies, and to turn the other cheek when stricken. On the other hand, violence pervades our world and affects our communities in disproportionate rates. So as people of faith in urban communities, we are positioned in a delicate situation. We must advocate for peace without embracing fear. We must acknowledge the violence around us without affirming it. We must reach people’s hearts with the Good News that blessed are the peacemakers, that Christ offers life more abundantly, and that we will reap in joy what we’ve sown in tears.
The best place to start is right where we already are—in our churches, families and neighborhoods. As traditional forms of authority wane in influence, authentic relationships become crucial. Simply put, young people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
All of us have the power to influence the young people around us, and it starts by simply affirming in them the beauty that God sees. A persistent “I love you” or an occasional compliment can plant seeds that another will water and God will increase. Individually, we can take time to mentor a young person in our community, offer to take someone to the movies, or allow a teen to shadow us at work.
Here in Berkeley, to keep youth off the streets and out of trouble, people of faith are collaborating to take teens on day trips during the week. The idea, inspired by the Chicago Ceasefire Project, takes advantage of the idle time youth have by offering them an opportunity to build community and just have a little fun! And all it requires is a few vans and some willing adult role models. And of course, a little money.
My student Larry, like many others who have died violent deaths in our communities, was seeking a way out of the cycle of violence he saw around him everyday. The last time my husband saw him, Larry proudly announced that he had enrolled in college to become a medical assistant. My hope is that one by one, people of faith in the Bay Area will courageously connect with youth in our midst so that this summer and beyond, the only thing ablaze in our streets would be the vibrant futures of our people.
— Cherise Martinez-McBride is an educator and proud new mom. She is also the First Lady of The Way Christian Center in Berkeley – www.thewaychristiancenter.org
(c) Cherise Martinez-McBride