Rev Jeffrey Brown is a Baptist minister in Boston and president of Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace (RECAP), a US organisation seeking to reduce gang violence. Ian Britton spoke to Rev Brown about his story
Ian Britton: Are you from Boston?
Jeffrey Brown: No, I came to Boston when I was around 22 for seminary. I started pastoring a church and said to myself: “Maybe about a year or two of this and then I’ll go back down south.” I’ve been there over 30 years!
IB: What was the community like around the church you pastored?
JB: It was an inner-city community in Cambridge, which is a little different from Boston in that there are a lot of universities around there including Harvard. So you had a mix of young students and people who lived in affluence, and then you had the ‘projects’ [public housing]. It really needed to have somebody who could help bring everybody together.
That’s part of the reason why if you are thinking about pastoring, the most important thing is your relationship with God and your prayer life. I wouldn’t have been able to figure it out if I didn’t have the spirit of God upon me.
IB: The church was a block away from the projects, how did you get involved with the people there?
JB: The homicide rates started to rise fairly quickly, and there was a lot of denial in the Boston area that there was a problem with gangs. But if you lived in some of the projects, it was a stark reality: you’d hear the gunfire; you knew who the players were; you’d seen the guns. If you had children you were afraid your children could get shot. So trying to find ways to bring peace to the community was important. I thought if I built programmes for at-risk youth, if I preached well, that would be my contribution. But as the violence careered out of control and changed the city, it became clear that we needed to do something more.
Around that time two students were murdered - I started going into the project near my church. I realised there’s a whole different world right down the street from my church that I had no idea about. And if I’m going to impact that in some way, I need to get to know that world.
We needed to find creative ways of addressing the issue. As much as I love the word of God, preaching wasn’t going to stop it alone. Prayer wasn’t going to stop it alone. We really needed to have action behind the prayer. And that meant coming out of the four walls of our sanctuary and meeting the youth where they were, because they weren’t coming in.
The reaction that came from my church wasn’t initially positive. There were a lot of people who felt I was going outside of what I was supposed to do as their pastor. Resistance continued until we started to reach the nephew they didn’t like to talk about, or the granddaughter on the street who shows up in church. When that started to happen, support began to build, and men in the church said: “We can’t have you out there by yourself, we’ll come with you.” We started to gain laity support, which is so vital when you do these kinds of movements.
Young people are already out there, seeking some type of spirituality
IB: When did the police start to take you seriously?
JB: At around the same time the gang members did. We were out on the streets, walking around the most dangerous neighbourhood in the city at night. The gang members started to take us seriously when they realised we weren’t going to stop doing this work. They saw that we weren’t out to exploit them, because there were sometimes ministers who went into the community but had reporters or TV cameras with them. They would enhance their wider reputation to the detriment of their relationship with those on the streets.
Then the police - for the same reasons - began to take us seriously. Boston was just beginning their community policing programme so they were trying to figure out ways they could work with the community to reduce the violence. So we said: “Hey, we’re out there, work with us.”
IB: How did you prepare yourselves when you went out? How did you dress?
JB: There were highs of 150 homicides and 1,100 gun shootings a year. For a population of 700,000, that’s pretty intense. One time there were shootings right outside the house and we all had to hit the deck. I’m not saying it wasn’t dangerous, but the way we prepared ourselves was to all come together and pray.
How we dressed is an interesting question, because at first you would think to dress like everybody else to blend in. But on the streets, we found that people just want you to be who you are, and that includes how you dress. Often I would still be in my suit and have my collar on. One time I had a pair of jeans on and the guys looked at me like: “What are you doing out here looking like that? We’re expecting the suit!”
The idea was that if you’re going to do this work, do it through who you are, don’t change the way you are, because they abhor somebody who is being fake. We would train other ministers to go out there and we’d tell them the same thing. What was important was not how you dressed, but how you related to people: how you built relationships, how you talked to the young people - they weren’t into you preaching. It was not about bringing sermons to the streets, this was about being the Bible instead of showing the pages, and listening. We’re here to build relationships, not to collect souls.
The reputation of the Church at the street level leaves much to be desired, especially in inner-cities torn apart by violence. There are people who have been rejected, abandoned and mistreated by the Church. And you find that out if you listen to people’s stories. It’s about ministering to needs and not worrying if they’re going to be saved. You leave that to the Holy Spirit. Just as the Spirit led you to Jesus, the Spirit will lead them. Some of my evangelical friends get nervous about that, but I point to James and say: “When there’s someone hungry, you don’t feed them the gospel first, you feed them food first, you clothe them.”
We’re here to build relationships, not to collect souls
I thought I was bringing Jesus to the streets, but I found that God had beat me to the streets already. Young people were already out there seeking some type of spirituality; you can’t be around life and death issues on a nightly basis and not think about the deeper interior aspects of your life. When someone was killed, they would erect these memorials - teddy bears, candles and flowers - around the place where the person was killed and people stood around them. The process they’re engaged in is a spiritual process, trying to make a connection to the spirit of the person that they loved.
I’ve done this work for over 25 years, and have been in dozens of cities at night in California, New Orleans, Detroit, all over the place. I have walked up to memorials in all these cities, and there are always people standing around and there has never been a moment where I asked: “Would you like to have prayer?” that a person refused. They all welcomed it. And they welcomed guidance as they tried to understand what had happened. Those are tremendous opportunities for us to be able to share and to be the Bible that God wants us to be. And so it’s quite a challenge, but we have to change to be able to do these kinds of things.
IB: Do you remember particular people who lost their lives?
JB: One young man was a guide for me in the early part of our work. He was a drug dealer, a gang leader; he led his group of youth. Young himself, he was a brilliant mind. He loved to talk and I loved to listen to him. I’ve found that some of the most creative, intelligent and inventive people I’ve ever met are on the street, and he was one of them. As we all were ministering to him, he decided that he wanted to change, to get out of the life he was living and become something different - maybe even a minister.
The difficulty of getting out was illustrated in his life, when it became clear that the money he was making was also supporting his family. He was looking for a regular job, and we had connections so we got him a job, and he was supposed to start on a Monday. But the Friday before, he decided to make some quick cash for his family before he started this job. So he bought some drugs and started selling them. But the drugs were ‘hot packs’ - laced with something that could cause a person to overdose. They were given to him because the guy who sold them didn’t want him back in the drug game. That night, he decided to use some of those drugs; the next morning he didn’t wake up.
I’ve also had other young people where things seemed to be going well and then something would happen and they would get arrested or killed. When you take somebody out of the context of gang life, sometimes there are unresolved issues - people who get out of jail who come looking for you and you’re not prepared because you’re a different person now. That’s happened more times than I care to remember. But for every tragic end, I’ve had young people who have actually got out of the gang life.
IB: So you’re in the community, God is clearly at work. What happened next? Was it a phone call you got from the White House?
JB: It wasn’t from the White House; I think it was the Senator of Massachusetts’ office. They said: “The President’s coming to town, and we’d like you to be on a panel to talk about what we’ve done in Boston.” They asked about the importance of the faith community and I talked about how a strong community component was important to any violence reduction strategy. I shared the importance of a holistic approach - not just physical and mental, but a spiritual approach. Afterwards President Clinton shook my hand, and talked about how important it was for him to hear what I had to say! That began my work with the Attorney General Janet Reno who thought it was important to have the faith community involved in these public safety prescriptions. I started travelling around the country, talking to pastors and other parachurch leaders about what we were doing, and why it was important to continue to do this kind of work.
I had several meetings after that with President Clinton but most of my work was with the Attorney General and working with the justice department as they expanded their understanding of the community component to their violence work. I have done some work with the justice department within the Obama administration, but that’s been around police community relations and particularly police reform, with some of the departments and how they’ve been working in communities of colour.