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Acting on a tip, FBI agents in early October began digging up a vacant, swampy lot in Queens with a backhoe, searching for bodies of Mafia victims. One person the agents were seeking disappeared 24 years ago after he accidentally killed the 12-year-old son of John Gotti, the late "Teflon Don" mobster.

I knew exactly where they were digging. I had been on that lonely dead end on Easter. For the past two years, I have been searching hundreds of streets and alleyways to discover the civilizing effect of Christ on New York City. I could have told them where to find the unusual slab of concrete I had noticed. There were no churches nearby, but there were a few toy Easter bunnies around. In this neighborhood that some call "Mafiaville," no civilizing effect was to be found.

But on another New York street, a different story unfolded. Shortly before midnight on a Thursday along Livonia Avenue, a ribbon of darkness in Brooklyn, I met a menacing drug dealer named Jackson in front of the New Grace Center Christian School.

"Do you know the pastor of the church that sponsors this school?" I asked.

"Hah!" he laughed. His 6-foot-4-inch frame loomed over me and his gold chains dangled down. I heard an exchange of gunfire in the distance. The city's rough edge drew closer around me.

I stalled for time. "Is this church any good?"

Jackson paused and glared at me. "Mister, any church around here is good!" Then he marched away abruptly, presumably to his next drug deal.

I later discovered that the gunfire was a fatal shootout between police and two suspects. But I was under the protective influence of that church.

In this area of East New York at Brooklyn's eastern edge, pastors and other Christian leaders are starting up many neighborhood Christian ...

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December 2004

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