local pastors

Local Pastors gather in Washington, D.C. to speak with teens and residents about the growing violence in Wards 7 and 8. (Courtesy Photo)

When Nathaniel Newell attended Spingarn High School three years ago, he had to “literally fight my way home” from the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station in Northeast D.C. to his mother’s house near Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue. “Back then, we used to go behind Big Liquors and hold the fights,” Newell said. “Other times, entire ‘hoods’ would gather after school and fight, but it’s nothing like it is now. Back then we would be friends after the fights. Now people want to shoot or stab you if they lose.”

Newell, 20, was back at the Minnesota Avenue Station June 1 with a group of local pastors to speak to teens and residents about the growing violence in Wards 7 and 8. “I know a lot of these youth and they can relate to me and I can relate to them,” said Newell, an aspiring business owner and freshman at Prince George’s Community College. “Not everybody can come down here and talk to these youth who have grown up without fathers and in some cases mothers and who go to bed hungry listening to gunshots a lot of nights. I know that was my story, but I am telling them it doesn’t have to be their story.

“Working together we can make a better life for everyone. A lot stems from the crack epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s good that we are out here showing people that someone cares. You have to start somewhere.”

The June 1 event is the first of a series called “Peace Walks” in high crime areas near the metro. The pastors said the goal is to encourage youth to lay down their arms and seek positive resolutions to street conflicts that far too often end up in deadly tragedies. According data collected by the Metropolitan Police, as of June 7, the area surrounding the metro station has seen 15 violent crimes, consisting of sex abuse, robbery, and assault. To date there have been more than 50 homicides in the two Wards.

Peace walks will occur in areas such as Kenilworth, Lincoln Heights, Barry Farms, Condon Terrace, Savannah Place, Clay Terrace, Benning Terrace, Langston Terrace, Mayfair, Simple City, and Trinidad. “We want our youth to know there is a better way,” said organizer the Rev. Charles McNeill Jr. co-chairman of Maryland Business Clergy Partnership, vice president at large of National Capital Baptist Convention DC & Vicinity, and pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Ward 5. “We are reaching out to the entire community to help resolve what we believe is a growing concern in the church and out of the church. We have pastors that are ready to hit the pavement to save not only souls, but a lost generation of youth who have lost hope and lack opportunity.”

McNeill, joined by seven other Ward 7 pastors, has an unique perspective because he once patrolled the same streets as a member of the Metropolitan Police Department. “I am a firm believer that we can’t incarcerate everyone. I believe that we must be proactive in our approach to not only saving lives, but saving our community. We are working across social service lines and grassroots organizations to get this done,” he said.

The movement continues to grow as the Nation of Islam and several other clergy groups have joined the effort. “There is a lot of pain in our community,” said Ward 7 resident and pastor Nathaniel Thomas. “I live in this community. It’s time for pastors to leave the safety of their pulpits and the four walls of the church and do the real work of the gospel. There are a lot of shootings that just don’t make any sense and a lot of it stems from stress. Young people are under stress.”

The Rev. Andrea Harris is a firm believer in street ministry. Her church, located off Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue in Northeast, often holds services in the middle of open air drug markets. “People see us and ask for prayers from their homes,” Harris said. “Many of them just open their windows to get a good word. For me, this is what pastors are supposed to be doing; taking the gospel to the streets.”