UU Urban Ministry mourns six deaths

UU Urban Ministry mourns six deaths

Ministry tries to counter rising tide of violence in Boston.
Kimberly French


Six times in the past two years, the First Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts, has opened its doors for the funerals of young black men fatally shot in gang-related violence, which has been escalating in Boston’s inner city.

The deaths have devastated participants in the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry program based at the church. All of the victims were between 17 and 28. Most had been former participants in the Urban Ministry’s Roxbury Youth Programs, or had relatives actively involved in it.

Last fall the community was traumatized when two of its young men were killed within a month. Kenny Hall, 17, a former program participant whose grandmother drives an Urban Ministry van, was shot in the back by a drive-by shooter on September 14, while he was walking past a Roxbury park. Then on October 13, LeVar Jackson, 18, whose family has had six children in the program, was shot in the head while sitting on the steps of a Dorchester home.

The other victims were Vernon Cobb, 20, shot in July 2006; Dwayne Larry Turnbow, 28, shot in May 2006; Leonard Thomas, 25, killed in November 2005; and Luis Barrows, 19, shot in March 2005.

“It’s a kind of genocide among our black youth in Boston,” says Michelle Walsh, who has led the Urban Ministry’s weekend program for 16 years and had known Hall since he was 2. “You don’t have to go to Darfur or anywhere else. You can come right here in our own backyard in Boston.”

The Roxbury church has offered its sanctuary to victims’ families, in some cases helping pay for the funerals. The rituals are highly emotionally charged, with altar calls and caskets on display, usually led by a minister from the neighborhood.

“It’s like all the grief you can imagine in the world pouring out, with people crying and collapsing,” Walsh says. “If the minister is good, he will bring people to hope again, with singing. It’s both healing and at the same time very traumatizing.”

Most UUUM staff and participants have known victims and attended funerals in numbers well beyond the six at the church. Recently elementary children in the after-school program were asked how many had known someone killed by gun violence, and nearly every hand went up.

“All of our young people live with a sense of fear that this is going to happen to them or someone they know,” Walsh says. “There’s a real deep lack of hope, that anything will get better, or that anybody’s paying attention and going to do anything.”

The Urban Ministry, an affiliate organization of the UUA, has been operating for 173 years at the Roxbury church. In response to the unprecedented wave of gang violence that hit Boston in the early 1990s, it started the Roxbury Youth Programs, which serve about 100 children today. The free after-school and weekend programs offer tutoring, mentoring, enrichment activities, meals, and transportation home. An eight-week summer program pays teens minimum wage to work on a project. Last summer the group mapped violence in Boston neighborhoods using global information system (GIS) software, producing a report social-service groups can use.

The Urban Ministry also runs a 15-bed domestic-violence shelter called Renewal House. In 1999, in response to government budget cuts in halfway houses, it began United Souls, to help men coming out of prison to re-enter society and avoid being lured back into gangs. It also operates a monthly food distribution program called Ricesticks and Tea for the Chinatown community.

The programs are funded by individual donors, grants, and about 50 UU member congregations around Boston, who also provide volunteers.

Increasingly, Urban Ministry staff have been ministering to bereaved families and young people. “There’s a lot of anger and frustration in the community, a lot of mourning on the street,” says Sam Williams, Urban Ministry associate director. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking with young men, trying to think together of creative ways to remember those who have been killed, to talk about peace, and to heal from tragedy.”

Homicides in Boston hit a high of 152 in 1990, then fell to 35 to 40 annually in the late 1990s. The dramatic drop became known as the Boston Miracle, usually credited to an unusual collaboration among black ministers, social service groups, and the police. But homicides have risen sharply in the past two years—to 74 in 2006, and 63 of the victims were black.

The reasons are complex, say Urban Ministry staff members. Many of the young men imprisoned in the early 1990s are now being released, with little structure to help them make new lives, and are returning to gangs. In recent years the state government has cut programs for tutoring, after-school programs, and summer jobs, and the state has lost thousands of blue-collar jobs. More inner-city kids are dropping out of high school in reaction to a statewide standardized test required for graduation.

Furthermore, Boston’s teen population has increased by more than 20 percent since 1990. A disproportionate number of those young people have grown up in households with single parents, alcohol and drug problems, disability and joblessness, or in state custody, staff members say.

“It really boils down to a social and spiritual deterioration in adult leadership and guidance in our community,” Williams says. “We want children to understand that if they break the law, they have to pay consequences. But they are the product of a family and community that has failed them.”

What’s needed are more places where young people can find structure, a positive vision for their lives, and adults who will hold them responsible to it over time, Walsh says. Roxbury activists have repeatedly told her that the Urban Ministry, with its long history in the neighborhood, is valued as a safe place for kids.

“There are very few examples of where we UUs engage in neighborhoods in meaningful, sustained ways,” says the Rev. John Hickey, Urban Ministry senior minister. “Our member churches ought to be darn proud of what they’re doing down here.”

Currently, the youth programs rely on about 60 weekly volunteers from churches and area colleges, and they are actively seeking more.

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