THE REV. EUGENE F. RIVERS III is pastor of the Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, Mass., and a co-founder of the Boston Ten Point Coalition and of the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation. The focus of the 10 points is on community-based strategies aimed at reducing youth violence. The interview took place in the Rev. Rivers's office at the Ella J. Baker House, a former crack den that is now the location of the Azusa Community. The Ella J. Baker House takes its name from Ella J. Baker, a prominent Civil Rights activist in the South during the 1950's and 1960's who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Azusa Christian Community, of which the Rev. Rivers is pastor, is named after the street in Los Angeles where an African American, William Seymour, began a Pentecostal church in the early 1900's and preached to both blacks and whites. The interviewer is George M. Anderson, S.J., an associate editor of America.
WHO ARE THE YOUNG PEOPLE most at risk-these days for crime?
They tend to be the black and brown fatherless youth who inhabit our inner cities, and who lack mentors, ministers and monitors. The absence of responsible authoritative adults in their lives, in addition to poverty and the lack of education, makes them one of the most vulnerable populations we have in the country today. The major thrust of the Ten Point Plan is therefore to put responsible adults--especially men--into the lives of children to monitor and minister to them, and to mentor them. Mentoring means bringing the child under your wing. The child is in formation, and I function in a sense as a spiritual director. The ministering part is pastoral, working to make ourselves available to the children. Our goals are to help them avoid violence, achieve literacy and to get a job. The Ten Point model and what we do here at the Ella J. Baker House are first and foremost expressions of faith; it is the life of faith that sustains us.
What have been the results?
From the early 1990's to 1996 there was a 61 per cent drop in crime, attributable to a number of factors, not the least of which was the partnership between the largely black clergy and the white law enforcement establishment in the Boston area. This partnership has facilitated the deracialization of law enforcement in what has been a racially polarized city. The Catholic clergy played a large part in this, in that they were in many cases pastors of the churches attended by Irish Catholic police officers. Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, has also played a major role by influencing a largely Irish Catholic police force to back off from some of their more aggressive techniques. The police department and the clergy have now developed an extraordinary strategic partnership. A big part of the Ten Point Coalition, in fact, involves working with the police, along with having the church move out more into the community to deal directly with at-risk youth.
How did the Ten Point Coalition begin?
The official beginning was in 1992, after some kids rushed into the Morningstar Baptist Church during a funeral service and stabbed another kid who belonged to a rival gang. That incident galvanized the clergy to take action by forming a coalition that would develop the 10 points, of which I was a co-author. But in reality, the work began earlier, in 1988. After we moved into this neighborhood and formed the Azusa Christian community, we were recruited, so to speak, by a young crack dealer. He offered to help us on how to do outreach to young people. He told us, "I deal in drugs because there was no adult in my life to tell me that what I was doing was wrong; I don't have a father figure who functions as a sign of love, authority and discipleship." So we began a relationship with this young man, who in turn introduced us to all the other players involved in drugs. He showed us what was happening on the street level in general.
In 1991 I sat down with him and in conversation we came up with the 10 things churches should be doing to save kids. The first two involve establishing church cluster collaborations that sponsor Adopt-a-Gang programs to organize and evangelize youth who are in gangs, with inner city churches serving as drop-in centers for troubled youth. The second is commissioning missionaries to act as advocates for black and Latino juveniles in the court, working closely with probation and law enforcement officers. Basically they all involve the churches going into the streets, homes and schools, and into courts to act as advocates for kids, in cooperation with the police and probation officers. Interestingly, it's very much a pastoral model, with the commissioning of the street missionaries.
The Ten Point concept has since grown into a national model. We're going out to Milwaukee to discuss it, and representatives from Los Angeles have already been here. We've been in at least 35 cities where local officials want to explore what can be done to reduce youth violence. What we do in every city is also to emphasize the need for strategic partnerships between black and Roman Catholic communities. The Catholics have an organizational structure that lends itself to putting troops into the field; the Protestants, on the other hand, being more sectarian, are less disciplined in this regard.
Have you seen results of the coalition in this neighborhood?
This neighborhood has been completely transformed. There's been an absolute drop in the number of homicides, and for the last six years children have felt much safer; more of them play in the parks in the evening now. There are almost 50 churches throughout the city--of all denominations, including Roman Catholic--and a network of suburban churches that assist us. This house, the Ella J. Baker House, where we offer a variety of services to black youth, is the lead site for all the organizing work that goes on in Boston.
What do you do when a youngster gets in trouble?
Let me give you an example of something that just happened in the past two days with a 15-year-old kid whose mother is a dope fiend and whose boyfriend is a drug dealer. The kid runs the streets like a wild animal, because there's no supervision. He recently ordered a pizza and then stuck up the pizza delivery guy. We tell him, "Son, we're going to have a come-to-Jesus meeting." "I didn't do it," he says, and I tell him: "The street says you are in the mix. You're going to put the gun down or you're going to jail." So we called the police, and set up a meeting with probation to get this kid off the street--committed to the Department of Youth Services or to a program, or he'll be incarcerated. He's going to do one of those three things. We're now negotiating and will give him an ultimatum: "You're going to stop raising this hell, or we're going to send you to jail, and we're not going to lose any sleep about it. If you want a job, we'll get it for you; education, we'll walk with you. But we're not going to take this kind of behavior."
We're mounting a major campaign to challenge gangs in the city and kids like him to put their guns down, with the black churches calling for a crackdown on violent crime. We're going to work to get these kids jobs that provide a living wage, alternative educational experiences and recreation. And the concept of the father is going to be an increasingly visible aspect of the organizing in the black community.
Is the gang situation changing in Boston and nationwide?
Yes. We have a younger cohort of children now, who are between the ages of 8 and 14. By the year 2006, it will be the largest number of 15- and 19-year-olds the country has seen in two decades. This situation implies a 27 percent increase in the number of very needy and neglected children who, because of poverty and fatherlessness, are going to be a major challenge for the country in terms of violence and in terms of teen pregnancies. Boston reflects the national trend. In Boston the two major gangs are the Bloods and the Crips. The phenomenon of gangs is a predictable response to the absence of father figures in the lives of poor and too-frequently neglected children.
Are there tensions between black and Latino youth?
Here on the East coast--in contrast to the West Coast--Latino and black youth, along with Cape Verdeans, all speak pretty much the same language when it comes to popular culture. They listen to the same music, which is like a common denominator; so there's an Afro-Latino synthesis at this level. In fact, it's through the medium of music that these kids find a common vocabulary and cultural marriage, so to speak. It brings them together in a good way. Even the ones who come from Spanish speaking countries are quickly Americanized and become part of the hip-hop generation.
What about the ever more severe sanctions for youthful offenders, like Proposition 21 in California, that allow children in their early teens to be tried as adults?
It's bad policy, and laws like Proposition 21 should be opposed, because all they do is create an environment where the young people in prison will cultivate and refine their skills for a criminal career. What we need instead of punitive criminal justice policies is a strategy of prevention, intervention and enforcement.
Another bad policy is our irrational stance toward gun control. To the rest of the civilized world, Americans look like barbarians, with their gun fetish. When you go to another country, people say, "What is it with you Americans and this gun thing?" Americans are some very violent people. More guns do not produce more safety. The hypocrisy is that we promote a gun culture and even celebrate the use of the gun, and then we criminalize the victims of this gun culture who buy into it--like this fifteen-year-old kid. Some of the kids in the area go down to Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, and some dude with two teeth in his head who owns a gun shop out back sells them a gun over the counter for $50.
What does your organization do for teenage girls?
We have an aggressive plan to promote abstinence, based on sex education for high-risk girls--and boys too. The venereal disease rates in the black community are astronomical. We have programs for girls here at Baker House, and one of our staff, Valerie Johnson, goes out to the detention facilities to talk to the girls there and do counseling. Overall the churches have failed to speak out prophetically about sex in creative ways. Never has the need been greater for young people to be spoken to straight about sex. Along the same lines, we've been working on the issue of the connection between AIDS and sexual promiscuity as a form of mass destruction in the black community.
I believe in the tenets of Catholic social teaching on human sexuality, and I promote abstinence and fidelity in marriage. I was in Africa recently on a fact-finding mission to Johannesburg and Lusaka, Zambia, and have seen at first hand what is happening there because of AIDS. And here's where I differ with the Catholic position. If a man from Lusaka, say, goes out and contracts the disease, and comes back and infects his wife, what kind of ethical argument is it to say it is better that he should infect his wife with the virus rather than use condoms? It's committing murder. Otherwise, apart from abstinence and monogamy, these people are not going to survive.
What is the greatest challenge faced by the Ten Point Plan?
Now the issue is resourcing the mission. We've got the dedicated workers, young people interested in doing the right thing. What we need is the funding to bring in more laborers. The churches have to commit themselves either to working on the front lines or providing resources for those who are there. Not every church is called to go into the 'hood, but every church is called upon to play a role, either that way or through funding and moral support. As to the Catholic Church, it needs to be as generous to those ministries that serve its black brothers and sisters as it has been to groups like the Industrial Areas Foundation, which is based on largely white-led Saul Alinsky models of organizing.
As a minister of a church, what about your personal prayer?
I pray for an hour each day. Prayer for me is listening and supplication, along with praise and worship. It drives everything that gets done here. I have always felt a need for prayer, but over the last 10 years, it has taken on a greater urgency. I see it as the most important political resource I have. I use the word politics because I understand politics now in terms of principalities and powers, especially in regard to nations that are controlled by them. I think the biblical language is true that suggests that certain demonic principalities and powers are assigned to certain nations and cultures. Here in the United States, for instance, the powers are reflected in the idolatry of white supremacy. This is the dominant principality here, and it blocks the prayers of the church in America.