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  • I've learned some of my most important life lessons

  • from drug dealers

  • and gang members

  • and prostitutes,

  • and I've had some of my most profound theological conversations

  • not in the hallowed halls of a seminary

  • but on a street corner

  • on a Friday night, at 1 a.m.

  • That's a little unusual, since I am a Baptist minister, seminary-trained,

  • and pastored a church for over 20 years,

  • but it's true.

  • It came as a part of my participation

  • in a public safety crime reduction strategy

  • that saw a 79 percent reduction in violent crime

  • over an eight-year period in a major city.

  • But I didn't start out wanting to be

  • a part of somebody's crime reduction strategy.

  • I was 25, had my first church.

  • If you would have asked me what my ambition was,

  • I would have told you I wanted to be a megachurch pastor.

  • I wanted a 15-, 20,000-member church.

  • I wanted my own television ministry.

  • I wanted my own clothing line.

  • (Laughter)

  • I wanted to be your long distance carrier.

  • You know, the whole nine yards.

  • (Laughter)

  • After about a year of pastoring,

  • my membership went up about 20 members.

  • So megachurchdom was way down the road.

  • But seriously, if you'd have said, "What is your ambition?"

  • I would have said just to be a good pastor,

  • to be able to be with people through all the passages of life,

  • to preach messages that would have an everyday meaning for folks,

  • and in the African-American tradition,

  • to be able to represent the community that I serve.

  • But there was something else that was happening in my city

  • and in the entire metro area,

  • and in most metro areas in the United States,

  • and that was the homicide rate started to rise precipitously.

  • And there were young people who were killing each other

  • for reasons that I thought were very trivial,

  • like bumping into someone in a high school hallway,

  • and then after school, shooting the person.

  • Someone with the wrong color shirt on,

  • on the wrong street corner at the wrong time.

  • And something needed to be done about that.

  • It got to the point where it started to change the character of the city.

  • You could go to any housing project,

  • for example, like the one that was down the street from my church,

  • and you would walk in, and it would be like a ghost town,

  • because the parents wouldn't allow their kids to come out and play,

  • even in the summertime, because of the violence.

  • You would listen in the neighborhoods on any given night,

  • and to the untrained ear, it sounded like fireworks,

  • but it was gunfire.

  • You'd hear it almost every night, when you were cooking dinner,

  • telling your child a bedtime story, or just watching TV.

  • And you can go to any emergency room at any hospital,

  • and you would see lying on gurneys

  • young black and Latino men shot and dying.

  • And I was doing funerals,

  • but not of the venerated matriarchs and patriarchs who'd lived a long life

  • and there's a lot to say.

  • I was doing funerals of 18-year-olds,

  • 17-year-olds,

  • and 16-year-olds,

  • and I was standing in a church or at a funeral home

  • struggling to say something

  • that would make some meaningful impact.

  • And so while my colleagues were building these cathedrals great and tall

  • and buying property outside of the city

  • and moving their congregations out

  • so that they could create or recreate their cities of God,

  • the social structures in the inner cities

  • were sagging under the weight of all of this violence.

  • And so I stayed, because somebody needed to do something,

  • and so I had looked at what I had and moved on that.

  • I started to preach decrying the violence in the community.

  • And I started to look at the programming in my church,

  • and I started to build programs that would catch the at-risk youth,

  • those who were on the fence to the violence.

  • I even tried to be innovative in my preaching.

  • You all have heard of rap music, right?

  • Rap music?

  • I even tried to rap sermon one time.

  • It didn't work, but at least I tried it.

  • I'll never forget the young person who came to me after that sermon.

  • He waited until everybody was gone,

  • and he said, "Rev, rap sermon, huh?" And I was like, "Yeah, what do you think?"

  • And he said, "Don't do that again, Rev."

  • (Laughter)

  • But I preached and I built these programs,

  • and I thought maybe if my colleagues did the same

  • that it would make a difference.

  • But the violence just careened out of control,

  • and people who were not involved in the violence were getting shot and killed:

  • somebody going to buy a pack of cigarettes at a convenience store,

  • or someone who was sitting at a bus stop just waiting for a bus,

  • or kids who were playing in the park,

  • oblivious to the violence on the other side of the park,

  • but it coming and visiting them.

  • Things were out of control,

  • and I didn't know what to do,

  • and then something happened that changed everything for me.

  • It was a kid by the name of Jesse McKie,

  • walking home with his friend Rigoberto Carrion

  • to the housing project down the street from my church.

  • They met up with a group of youth who were from a gang in Dorchester,

  • and they were killed.

  • But as Jesse was running from the scene mortally wounded,

  • he was running in the direction of my church,

  • and he died some 100, 150 yards away.

  • If he would have gotten to the church, it wouldn't have made a difference,

  • because the lights were out; nobody was home.

  • And I took that as a sign.

  • When they caught some of the youth that had done this deed,

  • to my surprise, they were around my age,

  • but the gulf that was between us was vast.

  • It was like we were in two completely different worlds.

  • And so as I contemplated all of this

  • and looked at what was happening,

  • I suddenly realized that there was a paradox that was emerging inside of me,

  • and the paradox was this: in all of those sermons

  • that I preached decrying the violence,

  • I was also talking about building community,

  • but I suddenly realized

  • that there was a certain segment of the population

  • that I was not including in my definition of community.

  • And so the paradox was this:

  • If I really wanted the community that I was preaching for,

  • I needed to reach out

  • and embrace this group that I had cut out of my definition.

  • Which meant not about building programs

  • to catch those who were on the fences of violence,

  • but to reach out and to embrace those who were committing the acts of violence,

  • the gang bangers, the drug dealers.

  • As soon as I came to that realization, a quick question came to my mind.

  • Why me?

  • I mean, isn't this a law enforcement issue?

  • This is why we have the police, right?

  • As soon as the question, "Why me?" came, the answer came just as quickly:

  • Why me? Because I'm the one who can't sleep at night thinking about it.

  • Because I'm the one looking around saying somebody needs to do something about this,

  • and I'm starting to realize that that someone is me.

  • I mean, isn't that how movements start anyway?

  • They don't start with a grand convention and people coming together

  • and then walking in lockstep with a statement.

  • But it starts with just a few, or maybe just one.

  • It started with me that way,

  • and so I decided to figure out the culture of violence

  • in which these young people who were committing them existed,

  • and I started to volunteer at the high school.

  • After about two weeks of volunteering at the high school,

  • I realized that the youth that I was trying to reach,

  • they weren't going to high school.

  • I started to walk in the community,

  • and it didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that they weren't out

  • during the day.

  • So I started to walk the streets at night, late at night,

  • going into the parks where they were,

  • building the relationship that was necessary.

  • A tragedy happened in Boston that brought a number of clergy together,

  • and there was a small cadre of us who came to the realization

  • that we had to come out of the four walls of our sanctuary

  • and meet the youth where they were,

  • and not try to figure out how to bring them in.

  • And so we decided to walk together,

  • and we would get together

  • in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city

  • on a Friday night and on a Saturday night

  • at 10 p.m.,

  • and we would walk until 2 or 3 in the morning.

  • I imagine we were quite the anomaly when we first started walking.

  • I mean, we weren't drug dealers.

  • We weren't drug customers.

  • We weren't the police. Some of us would have collars on.

  • It was probably a really odd thing.

  • But they started speaking to us after a while,

  • and what we found out is that

  • while we were walking, they were watching us,

  • and they wanted to make sure of a couple of things:

  • that number one, we were going to be consistent in our behavior,

  • that we would keep coming out there;

  • and then secondly, they had wanted to make sure

  • that we weren't out there to exploit them.

  • Because there was always somebody who would say,

  • "We're going to take back the streets,"

  • but they would always seem to have a television camera with them,

  • or a reporter,

  • and they would enhance their own reputation

  • to the detriment of those on the streets.

  • So when they saw that we had none of that,

  • they decided to talk to us.

  • And then we did an amazing thing for preachers.

  • We decided to listen and not preach.

  • Come on, give it up for me.

  • (Laughter) (Applause)

  • All right, come on, you're cutting into my time now, okay? (Laughter)

  • But it was amazing.

  • We said to them, "We don't know our own communities after 9 p.m. at night,

  • between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.,

  • but you do.

  • You are the subject matter experts, if you will, of that period of time.

  • So talk to us. Teach us.

  • Help us to see what we're not seeing.

  • Help us to understand what we're not understanding."

  • And they were all too happy to do that,

  • and we got an idea of what life on the streets was all about,

  • very different than what you see on the 11 o'clock news,

  • very different than what is portrayed in popular media and even social media.

  • And as we were talking with them,

  • a number of myths were dispelled about them with us.

  • And one of the biggest myths was that these kids were cold and heartless

  • and uncharacteristically bold in their violence.

  • What we found out was the exact opposite.

  • Most of the young people who were out there on the streets

  • are just trying to make it on the streets.

  • And we also found out

  • that some of the most intelligent and creative

  • and magnificent and wise

  • people that we've ever met

  • were on the street, engaged in a struggle.

  • And I know some of them call it survival, but I call them overcomers,

  • because when you're in the conditions that they're in,

  • to be able to live every day is an accomplishment of overcoming.

  • And as a result of that, we said to them,

  • "How do you see this church, how do you see this institution

  • helping this situation?"

  • And we developed a plan in conversation with these youths.

  • We stopped looking at them as the problem to be solved,

  • and we started looking at them as partners, as assets,

  • as co-laborers in the struggle to reduce violence in the community.

  • Imagine developing a plan,

  • you have one minister at one table and a heroin dealer at the other table,

  • coming up with a way in which the church can help the entire community.

  • The Boston Miracle was about bringing people together.

  • We had other partners.

  • We had law enforcement partners.

  • We had police officers.

  • It wasn't the entire force,

  • because there were still some who still had that lock-'em-up mentality,

  • but there were other cops

  • who saw the honor in partnering with the community,

  • who saw the responsibility from themselves