The Street Ministers

For urban youth, who face a world of trouble, Boston's streetworkers are doing a world of good.

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, not far from the courthouse. 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 city streets and in its courts.

A spate of shootings among rival Cape Verdean groups had punctured the calm of a quiet summer on the streets, 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 wanted to come in on their own.

Rev. Filipe Teixeira, a 33-year-old priest who ministers to Cape Verdean youths in Boston’s Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods, and Rev. 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 to a city outside 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.

The case looks like just one more chapter in the endless tale of broken lives and laws that is being told at the Dorchester court on this steamy July morning. But as Mayes and Teixeira confer in the hallway, and Mario’s mother waits inside the courtroom wearing a worried look, what’s unfolding is another small test of Boston’s nationally acclaimed approach to stemming gang violence and youth crime. Fittingly enough, a streetworker from the Ella J. Baker House is in the thick of it.

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

All kinds of new lines of communication have developed among the many groups in Boston touched by youth crime–from police to preachers, probation officers to school officials. And credit for Boston’s success in reducing violence has been widely shared, too. But at the heart of the effort has been the willingness of Rivers and some other church leaders in the city’s black community to lay claim to the streets and to the young men leading lost lives there. “Without the ministers,” says Boston police Capt. Robert Dunford, who oversees the Four Corners area, “I think the whole thing would have been built on sand.”

“Without the ministers…the whole thing would have been built on sand.”

Much of this ministering is being done by a cadre of streetworkers whose job is to be available–night and day–to youths on the edge of trouble. In 1990, the City of Boston sent four outreach workers into the streets, combing the neighborhoods, trying to redirect gang members away from the downward spiral of drugs and guns. The city’s streetworker program has now grown to 30 positions–although high turnover and low salaries left eight of those slots unfilled this summer. The state Department of Public Health funds an additional half dozen streetworker positions. Community health centers and other service agencies throughout the city have outreach teams whose stated mission may be HIV education or teen pregnancy prevention, but who represent another form of streetworker. And community groups such as Teen Empowerment in the South End and the Dorchester Youth Collaborative provide outreach targeted to specific city neighborhoods. All told, says Tracy Litthcut, the city’s director of youth services, there are more than 100 people citywide interacting full-time with young people “out on the street level.”

But the churches have laid the foundation for the city’s anti-crime efforts. The Ten Point Coalition, formed in 1992, brought new voices of moral authority to the campaign against crime: Rev. Rivers, Rev. Ray Hammond and Rev. Jeffrey Brown, among others. The Baker House has become a cornerstone of the outreach work. Operating out of a three-story house in the middle of the tough Four Corners neighborhood, Rivers and a full-time staff of nine direct a range of programs for area youths. Their specific duties aside, the Baker House staff act ultimately as front-line soldiers in a crusade to reclaim young lives marked by fatherlessness, low expectations, and a street culture where jail time is more rite of passage than badge of shame.

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.

Larry Mayes speaks of the need to embrace young urban outlaws. Sometimes that means going to the prisons and ministering to them there. He sees his work partly as a Christian-inspired propaganda campaign. “Who has the loudest voice, who has the most influence?” he asks. “I’m out to prove to these kids that I can be more authentic than their own friends. A lot of times when they get arrested their friends go bye-bye. No one shows up to visit them in jail. We do.”

And sometimes it means going to court on behalf of someone like Mario. Having worked with police to bring him into the system, Mayes and his compatriots believe it’s time to balance justice with mercy. They think Mario is ready to turn the corner on crime. It’s a gamble, but one not taken on blind faith. It comes of an effort to look into the hearts of young people who are shunned or feared by most adults.

KEEPING THE FAITH, KEEPING THE PEACE

In 1995, the Azusa Christian Community opened the Ella J. Baker House on Washington Street, the main artery through the Four Corners neighborhood. Named for a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the building was a burned-out former crack den. Fully renovated, it now houses the Azusa youth center and worship services.

Topped off by a smart, four-color Victorian paint job, the Baker House is a beacon of the “faith-based” approach to social problems now in vogue. The concept landed Rivers on the cover of Newsweek magazine last year, and it had Al Gore and George W. Bush jockeying this summer over who could pledge greater allegiance. The Azusa activists, however, have been at it in Four Corners for more than a decade. And the approach had some currency before that, too, says Mark Scott, the 37-year-old director of the Baker House programs. “Not a new idea, about 2,000 years old,” he says.

Scott, who moved to Four Corners a decade ago to join Rivers’s church, gave up his job as a librarian two years ago to work full-time at the Baker House. “For me,” he says, “Jesus sided with the poor, and all those Scriptures side with the poor and the alien and the prisoner and the downtrodden, and there’s no getting off the hook.”

Raised as a Catholic on Chicago’s South Side, Scott is now preparing to become an ordained Pentecostal minister. With a master’s degree in library science, he was, like most of the Azusa members, on a decidedly middle-class, professional trajectory before responding to the pull of strong faith and a belief that its power could be harnessed to tackle the most desperate problems facing black, inner-city neighborhoods. “All social movements are led by largely, d‚class‚ middle-class intelligentsia,” says Rivers, who calls the small Azusa community “a lean, mean, guerrilla machine.”

Though the Azusa activists say it is indeed a holy war to save lives that they are waging, there’s no Bible-thumping in their dealings with young people, most of whom have had little contact with church life. “It would be meaningless,” says Rivers. “You might as well be speaking 12th-century Peloponnesian. And so we don’t speak in foreign languages. These people have heard all the B.S. before; they’ve got to experience God’s love. They experience God’s love through us loving them, loving them with expressions of sacrifice and commitment and long hours.”

The Azusa street ministers blend activism with a strong belief in political self-determination, much as Ella Baker and the civil rights activists did in the 1950s and ’60s. “The black community is in a serious crisis–it’s in dire shape,” says Scott. 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. It’s an old piece of nationalism that black people have to fix it for themselves. 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.”

There is no shortage of churches in Boston’s black community. Between small, storefront ministries and larger congregations, there are more than two dozen churches along Washington Street alone, says Scott. “You feel like–all this God, we shouldn’t have any problems,” he says. Though a number of churches have stepped forward as part of Boston’s anti-crime efforts, many remain focused inward on their flock, showing little interest in reaching out to youths at the far margins of the community. “The church has not done what it could do or should do,” says Scott.

Ultimately, he says, the work with young people is about redemption, an “a priori belief that they’re created in the image of God, and that they therefore have an unlimited amount of potential.” But you have to save lives before you can save souls, and the path to spiritual redemption runs firmly on the ground. You have to “forget the church altogether almost, and be on the street, be in the field, be available right where the kids are,” says Scott. “Avoid violence, achieve literacy, access jobs. If they could do those things, that would be success.”

HELPING THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES

Over the summer, the Baker House runs science and sports camps, and a job-readiness program. The one constant throughout the year–and throughout the night–is the availability of staff to deal with young people in every type of crisis imaginable, from 2 a.m. calls from a police lock-up to pleas for help from homeless 16-year-olds.

“Like AT&T, I’m in business. Every page will be returned,” says Teny Gross, who is paid through the city’s streetworker program, but works full time out of the Baker House. The Israeli-born son of a Croatian Jew and Serbian Catholic, the 33-year-old Gross was a photography student at the Museum of Fine Arts when he came to Four Corners in 1990 to do a documentary project on Azusa’s outreach work. He never left, and is widely regarded as one of the most committed and effective youth workers in the city.

Gross finds his own reference point for the group’s drive to repair black city neighborhoods. “I think Azusa is really a ‘Zionist’ organization. You cannot ask for others to save you. If you can’t build your capacity to save yourself, you are doomed,” says Gross, who regards himself as something of an outside helper-soldier in the Azusa army.

Because the Baker House has established a strong foothold in the neighborhood, more and more young people find their way to the building on their own, or are referred by a friend, teacher, or probation officer. Contrary to popular images of streetworkers corralling a crew of teens under a street lamp, Gross generally shuns that approach. “I spend a lot of time with kids alone. I’m not a fan of big groups. There’s a lot of bravado going on,” says Gross. “Everyone’s like high-five, everything’s cool. But it’s a fake. Inside people are eaten.” Though he once had a gun pulled on him on a Mattapan street, Gross calls the street swagger of most young gangbangers “a shell, it’s a thin shell of rejection.” When they’re alone with him, says Gross, “I have some tough gang members who cry with me.”

“We sell values here. We’re saying there’s a normal world here. Let’s get you back in it.”

He says the initial stages of gang life–the sense of importance, of belonging–“are truly exhilarating for an inner-city kid.” The later stages offer a different scenario. “More and more stress, get shot, in jail,” says Gross. “It usually is not a happy ending.”

“We sell values here,” Gross says of the Baker House. “We’re saying there’s really a normal world here. Let’s get you back into it.”

KICKED OUT

“William,” a 16-year-old black youth with a muscular build and weary eyes is one of the many teen-agers Gross sees who is living far from the “normal world.” Estranged from the aunt and uncle who were raising him, he’s been living with grandparents. He’s been kicked out of high school, and his grandfather is accusing him of selling drugs, a charge he denies. He also swears off any gang involvement, a claim that Gross later confides he doesn’t accept with full confidence.

“My grandfather just disowned me. I’m not even allowed in the house,” William tells Gross, sitting in a meeting room at the Baker House on a late June afternoon. He’s been bouncing between places, and his case worker from the Department of Social Services is talking about a foster home. “Practically, I’m a bum, if you ask me,” he says. “A bum is a person that don’t have no home, and I don’t have no real home.”

Gross says he can work on getting him back into school, and he offers to go with William to help negotiate a return to his grandparents’ home. “I’ll do whatever it takes for me to get back in the house,” says William. “I’m tired of running. Today I just want to go home, to my own room, and lay down, go to sleep for a couple hours.”

Ten days later, William is one of 40 teen-agers who show up for the start of the Baker House summer job-training program. It’s the third year that Baker House has run the six-week program, in which teens take part in mock interviews, goal-setting exercises, and get some hands-on experience with computers, carpentry, and other lines of work. They’re paid $5.50 an hour through the city’s summer jobs program, and the Boston Private Industry Council provides job placement help. A grant from the police department pays for a van, leased for the summer, and for food consumed during a two-week stay at Camp Edwards army base on Cape Cod.

Last year, 60 teens started the program, but only half made it to the end. It’s not a stellar retention rate, but the program doesn’t draw from the honor roll. A lot of these young people, says Rivers, are part of “a whole generation of kids beneath the radar screen that aren’t going to be doing Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, Big Brother. They’re going to be doing time.” Indeed, two high-profile gang members were in the program last summer; one of them is now in jail. “You see them in our room, and they’re just kids–which they are,” says Gross. “Put some of them on the street at night, and you’ll be afraid to go on that block. You’ve got some real players and future players.”

One of those they’re trying to keep off the streets is a wiry 13-year-old Gross has known for three years. “Barry” is already a veteran of the Department of Youth Services, the state agency that supervises juvenile offenders. He stopped showing up at school in the spring, and DYS was ready to commit him to a state-run facility. “I negotiated with DYS,” says Gross. “He was going to be locked up for six months. The only reason they’re not locking him up is because he’s coming with me.”

“Looks sweet as hell,” Gross says of Barry. “I remember him carrying a gun when he was 10. We’ll see if we can save him. Everyone else has sort of given up on him.” Gross and others at the Baker House often speak in shorthand of “saving” kids. In reality, they say, they can only show kids a better path to follow; the rest is up to them. “They fix themselves,” says Mark Scott, who tells youths, “Decision is destiny–it’s really on you.”

“No outside force is going to come in and say we’ll fix this for you.”

The prime time for trouble is between ages 14 and 24, say youth workers. After that high-risk period, many settle into more licit lives, driven by a combination of maturity and exhaustion from life on the streets. “I call that the bottleneck,” Gross says. “I push you through that, you’re probably all right.”

For some, the awakening comes earlier.

“I was young and dumb,” says Luis Garcia. At 19, he’s working as an assistant supervisor in the Baker House job-training program. Just six months earlier, however, he finished a year on probation for receiving stolen vehicles. Before that, there was a juvenile crack cocaine conviction that landed him in DYS custody for six months.

Last year, Garcia finished his high school G.E.D., and he now hopes to enroll at Roxbury Community College. “It’s pretty hard going from negative to positive,” says Garcia. He has two daughters, ages 1 and 3, and says they were his motivation to straighten out–as was his mother. “I didn’t want my mother looking at me through the bars.”

“I’m working with kids telling them right from wrong,” he says of his summer job. “But I can’t tell them too much, because you have to learn from experience. The negative life–it’s bullshit. I look at those kids over there, they don’t really realize it.”

GETTING THE WORD OUT

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. During a memorial walk in February 1998 for a Dorchester youth cut down by gunfire, Teny Gross and Lieutenant Mike Hennessey of the Boston school police force talked about the rising temperature on the streets. “We didn’t know what we were going to do about it, but we knew we had to do something,” recalls Hennessey.

The following month, in the city’s Brighton neighborhood, a group of Crips carried out a brutal attack on a Blood with a hammer and machete. Lieutenant Gary French, commander of the Boston police department’s anti-gang unit, showed up shortly after that at the Baker House, and within days there had been meetings between leaders of the Ten Point Coalition and law enforcement officials. Cardinal Bernard Law, a stalwart supporter of the Ten Point Coalition, hosted a strategy session at his residence in Brighton, and Mayor Tom Menino convened a City Hall summit with school superintendent Thomas Payzant. With much of the new gang activity taking place at schools–some of it starting among younger, middle school students–the decision was made to bring a stern warning about gang life to the city’s classrooms.

The reach has been impressive. Since March 1998, teams of ministers, streetworkers, police and probation officers have made 78 presentations to more than 8,000 students at Boston middle and high schools. Ministers and law enforcement officials have also made 200 home visits to families of kids suspected of gang involvement. The message, says Dorchester District Court probation officer Billy Stewart, has been: “Violence, high-profile gang activities, the beat downs, the assaults–you’re going to get suppressed, enforced, and jailed. We’ve been there, done this, kids, and we’re not going to do this again. You will lose.” Along with a promise of harsh suppression of gang activity has come information on summer jobs and other resources for youths.

But it’s difficult to measure the impact of the new anti-gang campaign. There were several violent incidents in schools last year involving gang members. And an attack last spring outside an East Boston school marked the first shooting that “no question, absolutely can be attributed to the Bloods and Crips,” says French, the police anti-gang unit commander. Still, there’s a feeling that things could be much worse. “I think we reached a lot of kids” with the school visits, says Hennessey, the school police lieutenant. So far, at least, things haven’t gotten “out of control,” he says.

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. The sessions have been convened under the banner of a Baker House initiative dubbed “Operation 2006.” The name is a reference to the projected peak year of the demographic “bubble” criminologists have been warning of, a point when the population of 14- to 17-year-olds will be 20 to 25 percent larger than it was in 1994.

The meetings, held every Wednesday morning, are a picture of Boston’s anti-crime collaboration in action. At one session in late June, more than a dozen people gathered around a conference table, including representatives of the Boston police, school police, probation department, and Department of Youth Services, along with religious leaders, youth workers from other agencies, and a lawyer from Roxbury Defenders, a local branch of the state public-defender agency.

Emmett Folgert, the veteran director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, warns two officers from the anti-gang unit, David Singletary and Kenneth Israel, of a local Bloods and Crips beef that’s been playing out beneath the law enforcement radar. It’s the sort of free-flow of information that never happened years ago, and that can sometimes head off problems before they get bigger, say participants. “It’s all about individuals you can really go to,” says Singletary. “Our strength is not just physical; it’s partnerships.”

CREDIBILITY ON THE LINE

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. “I’m making a case to everybody,” Mayes says after the encounter. 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.'”

“I think a Christian should make people uncomfortable.”

It’s a breakthrough that carries a price, Mayes knows. “I think a Christian should make people uncomfortable,” says the lanky 37-year-old. “We believe someone repents and turns around. When you do that, that means that those you left behind usually reject you. And he’s in that position, which I think is excellent,” Mayes says of Mario. “It doesn’t feel great, but it’s good for him.”

Mayes was raised by a single parent in the housing projects of New Haven. After high school, Mayes studied to be a missionary at a fundamentalist college in Texas, and he recently returned to school and completed a master’s degree in public policy at Regent University in Virginia, a Christian school founded by conservative preacher Pat Robertson. But he leavened his religious readings with large doses of Noam Chomsky and other left-leaning thinkers.

“I know I made my professors uncomfortable,” he laughs. “I’ve always been battling with people who say claim yourself” by staking out a position on the ideological spectrum. Mayes calls himself an adherent of “the tertian quid–the third way. Which means that Christ or my Christian convictions predate and transcend left and right politics. I’m not going to let someone put me in a framework off the bat, and then control me and frame me from that.” Adds Rivers, “It’s a post-ideological, post-left, post-right pragmatism. Measurable outcomes is the bottom line. So what works, works. What does not is discarded.”

In Mario’s case, what 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. Had Mario been sent to jail, says Mayes, it “would have been tough to get other kids who are on the edge to come in.”

“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, the anti-gang unit commander 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.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“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 Jonas is a free-lance writer and regular contributor to The Boston Globe.