There was Davell Gardner Jr., age one, killed while sitting in his stroller at a summer barbecue. Edward James, a church custodian, shot in the back inside of a house of worship. Anthony Robinson, a father, killed holding his daughter’s hand as he helped her cross the street. And many others.
To Louis Straker Jr., pastor of Reflections Church in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, it felt like the city was overcome by violence, a sense that only intensified when protesters filled all five boroughs with the names of Black people killed by police, the city imposed a curfew, and some officers reacted to protesters with force.
In late May, Straker and other clergy in the community were called to the corner of Church Street and Bedford Avenue to try to keep peace. When Straker got there, a police car was on fire, officers were in riot gear, and protesters were throwing garbage.
“That was one of the worst nights,” Straker told CT. “But the presence of God was there, and that made all the difference.”
Storefront ministries and small, deeply rooted urban churches have long been on the frontlines of the spiritual battle against violence in New York City. With the increase in shootings, the stress of the pandemic, and conflict over racism in the streets, Straker and other city pastors knew their work was more necessary than ever. They responded the way they always do: with their feet.
Gilford Monrose, pastor of the historic Mt. Zion Church of God 7th Day, says his team has been responding to community violence for over 10 years. The group efforts are now known as the 67th Precinct Clergy Council Inc., a faith-based community initiative named after the local police district. They call themselves the GodSquad.
The GodSquad facilitates a leadership academy for teenagers, hosts support groups for the mothers of murdered children, and sometimes “deploys” to tense scenes, where they engage people and attempt to de-escalate, bringing a peaceful presence to the street.
The squad also provides meals for people impacted by crime and for others living in the area. They take care of the incidentals in the aftermath of a shooting, making calls to ensure the street gets cleaned up and broken street lamps are replaced. And they spend weekend evenings on high-risk street corners, in the dark between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m., praying, talking to people, and being present. The pastors and their church volunteers call this their way of “occupying” the block.
Police departments started working with groups of ministers in the 1990s, launching Operation Ceasefire in Boston, the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention in Chicago, and similar groups in other major cities. This was partly in response to a spike in violent crime. Since the 1990s, the crime rate has fallen dramatically, according to FBI statistics.
Around 2015, however, gun violence started to increase, and in 2020, homicide rates spiked across the country. Social scientists don’t agree on why, but urban clergy groups like the GodSquad aren’t waiting for an explanation. They’re going out into the streets.
“What we’re doing is the simplest form of the gospel that we can perform. This is a ministry of love, mercy, and justice,” Monrose said. “Good news for some people means that they’re going to have heat in the winter. Good news for some people means that actually their son is not going to spend 20 years in jail because he had a group of people advocating for him when he was actually innocent. Good news for some people means that if we see your daughter or son walking in the street and they’re by themselves and they get attacked or what have you, we’re going to support them, and we are going to protect them, and we’re going to love them.”
According to Monrose, people don’t understand the hidden effects of gun violence. Statistics track the number of people shot, but ministers see the ripple effects in the community.
“We are a traumatized community,” he said. “It’s not just about a person who has been killed. It’s about the people who were taking care of that girl. It’s about the hospital staff, and their family members. You never forget those moments in your life.”
Some of the group’s ministry focuses on serving families after a tragedy. The GodSquad clergy perform funeral services for shooting victims, free of charge, and help connect the family members with resources to pay for the funeral home and the burial, if that’s necessary. The ministers also try to connect with the friends of the deceased, many of whom are themselves at risk.
“As tough as a person might be on the street, when one of their friends dies, they feel the pain,” Straker said. “And they recognize that here are clergy taking the time to see their homie and send him off. Sometimes when we walk into certain neighborhoods that other people may not feel safe walking, when they see our yellow jackets or orange shirts … that say ‘GodSquad,’ they remember us doing the funeral for the friends and family members of their community. It gives us credibility.”
The clergy also partner with the city’s crisis management task force. They receive some money from the city, which designates part of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice budget to fund grassroots organizations.
That can create some complicated dynamics, as they represent the concerns of the community and speak up about police violence and the need for reform. Monrose said the officers know this is not a new issue for the clergy.
“We have been speaking about police reform for years. Not just a year or two years ago—years and years and years of meetings talking about how we think that the police department can be with our communities and our state leaders. We are here to help with that conversation,” Monrose said.
The Brooklyn group is also trying to contribute to the national conversation about violence. They recently started a podcast. In an August episode of Beyond the Headlines with Pastor Gil Monrose, Monrose, Straker, and Charles Galbreath, pastor of Clarendon Road Church in Brooklyn and an associate dean at the Alliance Theological Seminary at Nyack College, talked about the turmoil after a shooting.
“We see individuals allow short-term emotions to cause long-term and lifetime consequences, not only for themselves but also for the families that are impacted,” Galbreath said. “It’s devastating. You see someone’s entire destiny, entire life, cut off, but then also the side effect of the girlfriend or of the child or of the mother or of the grandmother [who] is also deeply impacted by this. This is painful for our community.”
The New York ministers have connected with clergy in Chicago, Boston, Indianapolis, Orlando, and Washington, DC, and formed a national coalition, Clergy for Safe Cities, which they hope will become the heart of the wider conversation about faith-based solutions to urban gun violence. They recently hosted a virtual summit to discuss initiatives and strategy. Sign-ups for pastors planning to attend their upcoming meetings number in the hundreds.
Efforts are already underway to duplicate the Clergy Council’s success in neighboring precincts. But Straker thinks the efforts will have to be adapted to different cultural contexts.
“They can look at what we do and make it applicable to their location,” he said. “No two locations are the same.”
But the basic action will be the same everywhere: pastors responding with their feet, testifying to God’s love with their presence, and serving as a witness for peace when a community is racked by the tragedy of gun violence.
Kathryn Watson is a reporter in New York City.
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