Introduction: An Epidemic of Violence
It was a warm summer day in Brooklyn when my wife and I took our kids out after dinner so they could ride their scooters on Eastern Parkway, only two blocks from our apartment. A short time later, we came home to discover that our block had been transformed. An angry, confused crowd had gathered on the street. First responders were everywhere. Police tape blocked off entire sections of the block. We ducked under the police tape so that we could tuck our kids into bed, and then I stepped back outside to talk with our neighbors. The mood on the block was tense, alternating between rage and despair. An eleven-year-old boy had been hit by a stray bullet, and the word on the street was that he was dead. Television crews camped outside our home all night long. NYPD officers gave a televised press conference from our corner. And my neighbors lamented the plague of violence that infects our community.
The next day we learned that the young man, named Jayden, had survived. Sadly, he was paralyzed from the waist down, and may never walk again.1 We learned that his 5th grade graduation was the next day, and that now a school and a community were reeling in pain. Nearly 100 neighbors (including family members and educators from Jayden’s school) gathered outside our apartment for a rally. We prayed and we cried. We collected money for Jayden’s family.
And we hoped for a better day, one in which bullets do not steal life from our children.
Across America, many feel the bitter sting of violence, just like we did on that warm summer night. One researcher notes, “In 2017, 17,284 people were murdered in the United States. That is more than forty-seven per day.”2 Violence, especially in the form of mass shootings, has reached a staggering level.3 It should be noted that gun-related injuries are not always malicious.[iv] Some people are harmed accidentally, and others tragically choose to take their own lives. It should also be noted that, although gun violence is the most prominent form of violence, it is not the only means of perpetrating violence.
How can Christians learn to minister in the midst of violence?
Over the course of this essay, I want to explore the issue of ministry amidst violence. Pastors are usually not trained in how to minister in the aftermath of a mass shooting. Yet more and more pastors are facing that scenario. We must ask ourselves: how can we find our voice when the bullets are flying? To answer that question, this essay will propose two crucial moves. First, biblical-theological reflection will provide us with a lens for ministry in violent contexts. Second, a study of black clergy in North-Central Brooklyn will provide a possible template for ministry amidst violence.
Biblical-Theological Reflection on Violence
The writer of Ecclesiastes poetically declared, “There is an occasion for everything, and a time for every activity under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to kill and a time to heal…” (Eccl. 3:1-3). Solomon understood that life is complex, with moments of joy and moments of sorrow. Life is lived “under the sun,” and hence is full of both good and evil. Yet he would have embraced a theological framework shaped by the storyline of the Bible, one that reminds us that “a time to die” was not a part of God’s originally “very good” creation.
God crafted a beautiful world out of nothing (Gen. 1-2). It was teeming with plant and animal life. At the center of it all was a human couple, God’s representatives in the Garden. Destined to live forever, they instead ate the forbidden fruit and were cast out of the garden. They were exiles from Eden, forced to flee from the presence of God (Gen. 3). As a result of their sin, humanity began to die (Rom. 5:12). As Adam and Eve forged a tenuous new life outside the Garden, it did not take long for death to emerge. Their first two sons were embroiled in a bitter dispute, and one took the life of the other (Gen. 4). Abel’s blood still cries out from the ground, as people continue to embrace the murderous Way of Cain.
After the Flood, God began anew with Noah and his family. He warned them that human life was sacred, and that anyone who murdered another human being would forfeit his own life (Gen. 9:5-6). Sadly, Noah’s descendants ignored God’s decree, and humans have been taking innocent life for millennia. The motives for murder have been many. There have been crimes of passion (2 Sam. 11) and crimes of power (Matt. 14:1-12). Perpetrators have been both religious zealots (Acts 8:1) and bloodthirsty queens (1 Kings 21).
For Christians, the most memorable act of violence in history was the one perpetrated against Jesus. He faced violence and practiced what he preached, by turning the other cheek. When a mob arrested him in the garden, he told his disciples to put away their swords. When the soldiers abused him, he did not lift a finger in defense. And when he hung on the cross, naked and bloody, he refused to call in the thousands of angels that were standing at the ready. As the “Lord of Armies” (Zech. 4:6), he could have unleashed his angelic warriors, in an apocalyptic scene that would have been reminiscent of the Death Angel’s descent upon ancient Egypt (Exod. 12). Instead, Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them” (Lk. 23:34).
These two paths have been the dominant approaches to violence throughout human history. The Way of Cain urges us to give in to our darkest desires. The Way of Christ counsels us to turn the other cheek. It is true that not all Christians have practiced an ethic of complete non-violence. Throughout church history there has been a pacifist tradition, as well as a tradition that reluctantly embraces the necessity of defensive violence (exemplified in Augustine’s theory of Just War). Still, all Christians, even those who believe that violence can be sometimes permissible, believe that life is sacred, and that it is a tragedy whenever human life is lost.
Indeed, Christians take hope in violent times because we understand how our story ends. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “…the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”5 King’s confidence was not rooted in human nature, which he knew was corrupted by sin. Rather, it was a firm conviction shaped by the storyline of the Bible. He knew that one day the nations would “…beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning knives” (Is. 2:4). As King well knew, history’s climax has yet to come, but it involves the abolition of death (Rev. 21:4). When the earth is made new, and Jesus reigns over the cosmos, we will know true peace. There will be no violence and no death. Mothers will not mourn their children. Lives will not be lost through the Way of Cain. The Way of Christ will prevail, and we will know peace.
Learning from the Black Church Tradition
Our quick survey of the story of Scripture reminds us of the value of human life, and it points out the merit of living peaceably, whenever possible (Rom. 12:18). The Bible’s narrative arc also provides its readers with an anchor of hope amid the violent waters in which we sail. A day is coming in which death–the Last Enemy–will be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26). However, even though Christians know this is our destiny, ministering amidst violence is still extremely difficult.
Those of us within the broader evangelical world need the wisdom contained within the black church tradition.
For this reason, I have chosen to explore best practices among two predominantly black networks of clergy in North-Central Brooklyn. As a newer (and white) pastor in a historically black context, I have learned much from my colleagues. Over decades they have ministered in violent contexts and have gained expertise in this area. It is my hope that this essay can amplify the voices of my friends in the black church traditions of North-Central Brooklyn. This is not because the Black Church tradition needs me to give it a voice. Rather, it is because those of us within the broader evangelical world need the wisdom contained within the black church tradition. When it comes to the issue of ministry amidst violence, my colleagues have been down this road farther than the rest of us. They have lived the future; consequently, their voice needs to be heard.
The Clergy of the SOS Clergy Action Network
I live in the historic neighborhood of Crown Heights, a community of well over 100,000 people. It is the neighborhood where Jackie Robinson made history in the 1940s and where the Crown Heights Race Riots occurred in 1991. Most of my neighbors trace their heritage as peoples of the Caribbean Diaspora. A significant number of my neighbors are Orthodox Jews. It is here that peoples converge, and that violence is not something to be considered in the abstract.
In the northeastern section of Crown Heights, a non-profit has formed called Save Our Streets (SOS).6 This band of community activists focuses upon ending violence within a 40-block catchment of Crown Heights. Here they employ preventive resources focused on education, jobs, and other alternatives to violence. They also deploy “violence disruptors” to mediate conflict within the community. These violence disruptors are typically former gangbangers who know firsthand the consequences of a life of violence. The team at SOS operates with a firm commitment to the “cure violence” model. In this approach, community violence is treated as if it were an epidemic.7
Thus far, the results have been impressive. One study demonstrates that shootings in the SOS catchment decreased by 6%, while simultaneously rising by at least 18% in surrounding communities. This indicates that SOS has helped to decrease shootings by approximately 20% during the time of this study.8 As I walk around the neighborhood, I am greeted by SOS-branded signs in windows that note how many days it has been since the last shooting. Their slogan, “Stop Shooting, Start Living,” has become a mantra to many within the community.
Community violence is treated as if it were an epidemic.
A key component of the SOS strategy is mobilizing the faith community to help end gun violence within the catchment. To that end, SOS employs Reverend Kevin Jones, a COGIC pastor who grew up in the community and still pastors nearby. Reverend Jones has built a coalition of clergy to minister to those traumatized by gun violence. He provides training for pastors, therapy sessions for families of victims, and prayer vigils in the wake of neighborhood shootings.
It is through this clergy action network that I became involved in the work of SOS. Over the last six-and-a-half years, I have participated in countless street side vigils. Typically, clergy gather with community organizers at the scene of a shooting. The goal is to gather within 48 hours. There, violence disruptors urge those listening (including neighbors and passersby) to eschew violence and choose the path of peace. Reverend Jones typically speaks in eloquent terms about the sanctity of human life. He then asks various members of the clergy to pray publicly for healing and justice.
This is not a model of ministry that I learned in seminary. But I learned from Revered Jones, and the black church tradition9 to “pray with my feet.” As a result of my involvement in this clergy action network, I have become friends with Reverend Jones, and have come to view this network as crucial to our community. For this reason, I administered a survey at a recent clergy breakfast. I wanted to see if I could spot patterns and common approaches to ministering in contexts of gun violence.
Forty-seven people attended the breakfast and were given the survey. 24 completed the survey and were entered into a drawing to receive a $20 cash prize. Of the 24 completed surveys, three were screened out, leaving 21 sets of data, representing approximately 45% of the attendees at the breakfast. Of these, 100% were black clergy. Almost all of them were Protestant, and many of them were Pentecostal. They unanimously expressed concern about the violence within Crown Heights.
Each respondent was asked whether community violence impacted their local ministries of discipleship, counseling, worship, and preaching. Most of the clergy answered affirmatively to each question. One-third of all respondents, for instance, expressed the need to identify with traumatized victims of violence while conducting pastoral counseling. In a similar vein, two-thirds of all respondents believed that violence affects their approach to discipleship. One pastor even wrote movingly about the need to disciple bereaved family members to forgive those who have hurt their loved ones.
In describing their weekly church services, it was clear that violence is never far from the minds of many clergy in this network. Pastors described security concerns (active shooters could be members of community-based gangs) that are an ever-present reality. Nearly two-thirds of pastors also expressed how their preaching ministry is impacted by neighborhood violence. The clergy noted that in their sermons they emphasize themes such as hope, despair, peace, love, and pain. The pastors of the SOS Clergy Action Network preach differently because they know they are preaching to both victims and potential perpetrators.
A slim majority of the clergy indicated that their organizations do not take a position on gun control. Those that do take a position are fully in favor of some measure of gun control. However, a common sentiment seems to be that guns are a problem, but not the problem. Most pastors believed that a house of worship should employ a holistic strategy to reduce violence. This could include components such as education, jobs, lobbying, etc. It was striking to see that the members of this network do not create a stark divide between the “spirit” and the “body,” and consequently between “spiritual” and “worldly” solutions. For the members of the SOS Clergy Action Network, following Jesus means ministering to whole people, body and soul. As one leader noted, “We are in the community, for the community.”
The Clergy of the 67th Precinct Clergy Council
Bordering my neighborhood of Crown Heights is the community of East Flatbush. Here, the 67th Precinct Clergy Council (also known as “The Godsquad”) has been influential in reducing violence. For instance, in 2018, while shootings were up 7% in Brooklyn, they were down 15% in the 67th Precinct.10 The Godsquad has operated for ten years, and their work has been recognized by the office of the Mayor of New York City.
In order to study the best practices of this network of clergy, I engaged in several steps of research. First, I attended a gun violence prevention forum, designed to educate clergy on reducing violence using the methods of the Godsquad. Second, I attended two Godsquad meetings. One was an end-of-year meeting in December 2019 that featured Harvard expert on urban violence, Thomas Abt, the author of Bleeding Out. The second was a monthly meeting at the 67th Precinct of the NYPD in February 2020. Third, I consulted materials produced by the Godsquad (their newly released Protocol Guide) and about the Godsquad (BRIC TV’s YouTube profile). Finally, I interviewed the President of the Godsquad, Gilford Monrose.
The gun violence prevention training was held for clergy in the Manhattan offices of the Anti-Defamation League. Here Reverend Gil Monrose argued that “Public safety is a shared responsibility.” He urged the clergy at the meeting to think about their role in reducing violence. He noted, “The cavalry is not coming so we have to do the work from the ground up.” These themes were repeated often throughout the meeting. It was noted that government funding is slow to arrive (and often never comes), so churches must engage in the work at a grassroots level.
One of the speakers, Charles Galbreath, insightfully addressed the role of preaching about violence. Galbreath is a pastor of a C&MA church within the 67th Precinct. He is also a professor at Alliance Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Galbreath urged the training attendees to reject an approach to ministry that views the church as a citadel amid an evil community. He declared, “There’s no bad neighborhoods, only holy ground.” He also advocated for a prophetic approach to preaching about issues within the community. He noted, “Our preaching has power beyond the pulpit and in the public square.”
Taken together, Monrose and Galbreath illustrate the approach of the Godsquad. They seek to speak to the people on the pew, and to those outside the walls of the church. As one Godsquad pastor put it, “We have come down from the steeple and we’re walking with the people. We have left the benches and are down in the trenches.”
The second step of my research was to attend two meetings of the Godsquad. At the end-of-year 2019 meeting, urban violence expert Thomas Abt argued that “The name of the game is retaliation prevention.” Since many acts of violence are direct responses to other acts of violence, this was a sentiment that resonated among the members of the Godsquad. At this meeting, it was apparent that the Godsquad is a thoughtful collection of the clergy who want to educate themselves about the best possible approaches to reducing violence.
The monthly Godsquad meeting was held in February 2020 at the 67th NYPD Precinct. Here we heard from pastors, community activists, and NYPD officers. The 67th Precinct described the guns that had been taken off the street in the last month. A pastor described a man who had turned his life to Christ after miraculously surviving a shooting. Many statistics were cited. For instance, the 67th Precinct is no longer the top precinct for murders and shootings. However, there has been a 6% uptick in overall crime in 2020. Members of the Godsquad and the 67th Precinct take these trends very seriously and pledged to work harder and smarter.
“That’s why we do what we do. Because we believe that every individual can grow, can change, can be redeemed.”
The third step of my research was to engage relevant materials. In 2019 the Godsquad produced their first Protocol Guide.11 In it, they describe the official procedures of the Godsquad for conducting death notification home visits, hospital visits, funerals for victims of gun violence, and violence prevention at the festivals of J’ouvert and the West Indian Day Parade. It is evident from this protocol guide that the Godsquad has gained extensive expertise from engaging in this work for a decade. It is also clear how seriously they take these various tasks. For instance, they recommended a variety of Scriptural passages for use during a death notification home visit. One such verse was the poignant statement of King David: “The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).
BRIC TV also produced an episode about the Godsquad.12 In it, they showed the pain of a grieving mother, and the empathetic solidarity of the Godsquad at a street side vigil. They described the partnership between the Godsquad and the 67th NYPD Precinct. And they recounted the gripping story of one pastor who came to Christ in prison. Now, he serves the community in which he once dealt guns. Monrose declared, “That’s why we do what we do. Because we believe that every individual can grow, can change, can be redeemed.” Once again, both the Protocol Guide and the BRIC TV profile indicate that the Godsquad has a holistic approach to ministry that is focused upon direct action and is driven by the urgency of the crisis.
The final step of my research was to interview Gil Monrose at the office of the Brooklyn Borough President, where Monrose also serves as the Director of the Faith-Based & Clergy Initiatives. Monrose related that he became involved in anti-violence efforts in 2010 when a 17-year-old boy was shot three blocks from his church. That tragic moment served as the catalyst for the movement that became The Godsquad. For Monrose, the church is the natural place from which to combat violence. He notes that it was the black church that helped the black community to organize during pivotal moments, including the Civil Rights struggle. As he reminds us, “The black church is steeped in the history of injustice, every movement came through the church.”
Monrose described a careful partnership with the government. He acknowledged that the government has resources and technical expertise that the church lacks. Yet he believes that the church has a moral framework for justice that the government needs. For this reason, he believes a collaboration over a shared objective (public safety) is worthwhile. He spoke candidly about the need to call out unjust policing if it occurs. He was committed to working with the police, yet he also intentionally preserves the prophetic voice of The Godsquad.
In an interesting exchange, Monrose described the Godsquad’s approach to funerals for victims of gun violence. He noted that you must preach against gun violence, because there will be people in attendance who are probably plotting revenge. He argued that you “can’t just focus on winning them to Jesus.” I followed up to clarify what he meant. After all, such a venue might appear to be a natural place to proclaim the gospel to many who are far from God. Monrose clarified that his goal was to keep people alive long enough to win them to Jesus. Many evangelicals (myself included) would understand his point, and yet might try to preach a funeral message that both discourages future violence and proclaims the hope of the crucified and resurrected Christ. The methodological difference is not a difference of theology, but one of emphasis.
Implications for Future Witness Amid the Violence
One of the goals of this essay is to learn from the voices of black clergy in Brooklyn. Having explored two clergy networks in North-Central Brooklyn, it remains to be seen what conclusions can be drawn from the data. When we collate this data and combine it with the theological foundation established earlier in this essay, we see that there are potentially three ways to chart a path forward. For those who minister in violent contexts, we can approach ministry as prophets, peacemakers, and pastors.
As pastors in both the Godsquad and the SOS Clergy Action Network noted, black churches often speak with a prophetic voice. They address issues of injustice that matter to their communities. Consequently, pastors are not viewed as simply ministers to those who sit on the pews, but as prophets to the neighborhood (and to society at large). Those who minister in violent contexts would be wise to adopt this approach. Clergy should consider speaking to issues that matter locally. Ideally, such speech (whether from the pulpit or from another venue) ought not to become partisan but should reflect deep reflection upon Scripture and society. Pastors who minister in violent contexts ought to ponder the provocative question posed by Yale theologian Willie James Jennings: “How do we overcome the seduction–the demonic seduction–of the gun?”13
The clergy of the Godsquad and the SOS network also function as peacemakers. They take seriously Christ’s admonition, “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). The clergy within these two networks speak to defuse tense situations and deescalate violence. As one faith leader noted, retaliatory violence is often planned in emergency rooms. That is why clergy are present at the hospital, at funerals, and at street side vigils. They want to preach the path of non-violence. They want to counsel the Way of Christ, instead of the Way of Cain.
The third approach of The Godsquad and the SOS Clergy Action Network could be termed pastoral. Faith leaders minister to the hurting. They lament when life is lost. They console traumatized victims. They help the bereaved to make funeral arrangements. They consistently check in on those who have lost loved ones. One pastor in the SOS network ensures that people who have lost family to gun violence are supported in an ongoing way. He follows up with visits and phone calls and works to place them in a therapy group. Most importantly, this pastor lets those who have been traumatized know that they are not alone.
When clergy are prophetic, they address systems of injustice within their communities. When clergy are peacemakers, they work to prevent retaliatory violence. When clergy are pastoral, they weep with those who weep.
These three strands of ministry – prophet, peacemaker, and pastor – all have biblical roots. The prophets of Israel spoke truth to a society that did not want to hear. Jesus heralded as the value of peacemaking (Matt 5:9). And Jesus himself shows us a pastoral response when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). When clergy are prophetic, they address systems of injustice within their communities. When clergy are peacemakers, they work to prevent retaliatory violence. When clergy are pastoral, they weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15).
Conclusion: Finding Our Voice Amid the Violence
A few weeks after Jayden was shot and paralyzed, I was invited to attend his 5th grade graduation. It took place in a hospital, since Jayden had not yet been cleared to return home. Representatives from the Mayor’s office were in attendance, as was the firefighter who had saved Jayden’s life. We heard from the NYPD, and Department of Education. We also heard from Reverend Kevin Jones, the leader of the SOS Clergy Action Network. He gave Jayden an award, and we all celebrated this young man’s grit and determination. I had a brief chance to speak, and later to shake Jayden’s hand. I presented him with “Get Well” posters made by the congregation I pastor. I told him that we loved him, and I encouraged him to never give up.
In a hospital, faced with a perpetual reminder of violence, I found my voice. I found it, because I heard the voices of black clergy who had been down this road for most of their lives. I listened to the great cloud of witnesses and decided that I had something to learn from the black church tradition about ministry in violent contexts. Across the United States, pastors are increasingly grappling with this question: “How do I minister in the aftermath of violence?” I believe that, when we listen to the voices of our black colleagues, we might just find our own voice.
1 Natalie Duddridge, “He Asked Me Why He Can’t Feel His Legs: 11–Year Old Struck By Stray Bullet May Be Paralyzed From the Waist Down,” https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2019/06/24/jayden-grant-stray-bullet-shooting/.
2 Thomas Abt, Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence – and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets. (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 2.
3 German Lopez and Kavya Sukumar, “After Sandy Hook, We Said Never Again,” https://www.vox.com/a/mass-shootings-america-sandy-hook-gun-violence, provides a detailed, interactive map of recent mass shootings in the United States.
4 National Safety Council, “Firearms,” https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/home-and-community/safety-topics/guns/data-details/.
5 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Out of the Long Night,” in The Gospel Messenger, February 8, 1958.
8 Sarah Picard-Fritsche and Lenore Cerniglia, Testing a Public Health Approach to Gun Violence: An Evaluation of Crown Heights Save Our Streets, A Replication of the Cure Violence Model. https://www.courtinnovation.org/sites/default/files/documents/SOS_Evaluation.pdf. New York: 2012.
9 I use this term cautiously, because the black churches of the United States have diverse approaches and are not monolithic.
10 67th Precinct Clergy Council, The Public Safety Coalition 2018 End of Year Report (Brooklyn: 2018), 8.
11 67th Precinct Clergy Council, Protocol Guide (Brooklyn: 2019).
12 BRIC TV, “The Godsquad,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUeeONam6Bg
13 Jennings made this statement when he participated in a panel discussion on gun violence in Chicago: https://divinity.yale.edu/news/violence-faithful-response-plague-our-neighborhoods-and-nation.