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Oakland seeks help from churches in youth crime prevention

on February 10, 2010

Mayor Ron Dellums held a peace conference on Tuesday to discuss how faith-based communities can help prevent crime among youth and called for more collaboration among religious communities.

Dozens of clergy members and ministers around the East Bay, Oakland police officers and city officials, and those who involved in juvenile crime prevention gathered in the conference.  The purpose of the summit was to share information about where people can find crime prevention information and encourage collaborations among faith-based organizations to give mentorship to youth who have nowhere to seek help.

“I think the faith-based community is underutilized.  People find safe haven in those places,” said Dellums in his opening speech.  He said that 40 to 50 percent of crime is committed by formerly incarcerated people, and that youth often turn to churches for guidance, job opportunities, and mentorship after they get out of Juvenile Hall. “Those kids have to know that they are cared for.  Now we as a community have to be larger parents to them,” Dellums said.

Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, who spoke at the conference, shared similar thoughts.  He said that two police officers met with 30 teen boys at Acts Full Gospel Church as part of the police department’s Our Kids mentorship program, program funded under Measure Y and aimed at reducing school-related violence by offering psycho-social assessment and counseling.  “Those kids have the officers’ cell phone numbers. They know if they need to call at 2 a.m., those officers will pick up the phone,” Batts said.

Overall, Batts and Dellums noted that crime has been down in Oakland over the past year. Batts touted the statistic that crime this January was down by 38 percent compared to January 2009. Dellums also said that after he called for cooperation among city’s agencies and communities last year, Oakland accomplished and overall 10 percent crime reduction.

At the one-day conference at the Claremont Hotel, attendees enjoyed a continental breakfast, filet mignon steaks and strawberry cakes. The fancy hotel setting and the quiet respectful demeanor of the guests was a great contrast to the violent streets in Oakland. However, most of the participants saw the conference as one of the few opportunities for them to get together to share ideas.

“The city of Oakland has been in good relationship with us, but Mayor Dellums is the first mayor who approved of what we have been doing,” said Pastor Brandon Reems of the Center of Hope Community Church in the Arroyo Vallejo neighborhood.  The Center of Hope Community Church has been involved in activities such as visiting young people at juvenile halls on Valentine’s Day to make them feel they are part of the community.  “We are rooted in the communities and already have structure to reach out people,” said Reems.

In fact, many churches are working as liaisons to formerly incarcerated youth, people with mental health problems and those who do not have place to stay.  Rev. Jasper Lowery, of Urojas Ministry in downtown Oakland, said he worked with 230 youth under Measure Y funds in 2008.  “I am like a foot soldier. I go anywhere they need my help,” said Lowery.

Some of the police officers attending the conference agreed that faith-based organizations have a positive effect on Oakland.  “Faith based community definitely serves as pipeline between youth needing help and the police department,” said Captain Anthony Toribio, of the Oakland Police Department, during a workshop at the conference where he explained the police department’s effort to reduce crime among youth.

Involvement of the faith based community in crime prevention may be bringing changes in traditional churches, said several church leaders at the conference.  “I don’t even encourage kids to join the congregation. These kids needs place to stay off dangerous Oakland streets,” said Rev. Kevin Barnes, the pastor of the Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church near MacArthur BART station.  Barnes said that his church remodeled its basement to make an arcade with a PlayStation game and a place to play basketball for kids aged 2-18 years who have nowhere to go after school on Fridays.  He said he saw a 25 percent increase in the number of kids who come to his church on Fridays since he started the program in May 2008. “More churches have to get out of the box and reach out to their communities,” said Barnes.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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