When officials in Memphis, Tenn., held a conference last month to study how better relations between pastors and police might reduce crime, the list of “expert” speakers had a decidedly Fort Wayne flavor.
And why not? Police Chief Rusty York conducted his first “Value-Based Initiative” for clergy and community leaders in 2001, and the Rev. Ternae Jordan of Chattanooga, Tenn., began his “Stop the Madness” program in Fort Wayne after his son was shot (but survived) in 1993.
But the third member of that Fort Wayne-flavored panel says it's time to start practicing here what they preached there.
“It's amazing to me that other cities are implementing our stuff, while our model needs to be done here,” said the Rev. Stephen Terry of the New Life Church of God, who with York, Jordan and others appeared at Memphis' first-ever Police and Clergy Conference. “(Reducing violence) all boils down to relationships. Kids' perception of Fort Wayne is only as good as their exposure to it. They will practice what they see.
“Someone needs to pull us all together. But who speaks for the community?”
Just who that “someone” might be remains as unclear as the need is obvious. With Allen County's murder total already rivaling the numbers for all of last year, and with York attributing much of the violence to African-Americans gangs, Terry's perceived leadership vacuum will continue to be filled with negatives unless something more positive fills the void.
In some ways, conditions in Fort Wayne were even worse when the Value-Based Initiative began with the help of a $173,000 Department of Justice grant. In 1997 the federal government had investigated allegations of police misconduct, mostly directed at blacks, and although the department was eventually cleared, mistrust remained. The 12-week academy helped pastors and others learn about police procedures by participating in patrols and other forms of cooperation, which Jordan at the time predicted would “open the lines of communication between the Police Department and clergy leaders.”
But Jordan moved from Fort Wayne back home to Tennessee in 2004, and although York has continued to seek partnerships with local clergy, he acknowledged an “evolution.”
“For a while after (Jordan) left and some of the older pastors died there was a void. In the last year more (clergy) have come forward and there have been different alliances. I'd like to get 'Stop the Madness' started here again. We need to be meeting every six months or so, and we still do,” York said.
Terry's call for greater involvement by church leaders is hardly new, of course. Four years ago, for example, then-NAACP President Rev. Michael Latham told York and 150 others gathered at his Renaissance Baptist Church that “Maybe we need to do our jobs as pastors differently. We all know what the issues are. Don't let this turn into a gripe session. If we don't have a plan, this will be just another wasted meeting.”
Given the acknowledged increase in gang-related mayhem, it's easy to conclude that it was indeed just another wasted meeting – especially since Latham's ability to mobilize the black community has perhaps been diminished by his public criticism of pastors he believes have not always lived up to their calling.
But the lack of immediate results does not invalidate the necessity of the effort.
In one sense, any expectation that pastors can magically reform anti-social behavior is ironic, since they better than anyone should understand the inherently sinful human nature. But it is also that very understanding that gives pastors the unique ability and authority to promote repentance, redemption and the change in behavior they induce.
As a police officer, York is properly concerned more about this life than the next. But there, too, the church can help by preaching the value of living moral and God-pleasing lives, by helping meet members' physical needs and by encouraging respect for and cooperation with lawful authority.
Theological differences can be important, but pastors need not compromise their doctrines in order to address earthly issues. As York said, most are already addressing such things within the walls of their churches. Now they need to do it, vocally and together, in the community at large.
Who speaks for the community? Terry asks. If the right voices don't, you know who will.