Faith leaders explore ways to stem youth violence

A group of Midlands religious leaders gathered Thursday to talk about an issue that won’t go away: the rise of youth violence in the community.

But the pastors who gathered at the behest of the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council said they want to do more than talk about an issue that has garnered headlines in recent months after several high-profile shootings in Five Points and in north Columbia.

“We have got to get to these children very, very early,” before they are enticed into illegal activity and gang activities, said the Rev. Ronnie Brailsford, pastor of Bethel AME Church on Woodrow Street.

After one session, the pastors had determined at least two initiatives worth pursuing — a midnight basketball program held in church venues around the city, and a concerted effort for churches to “adopt” schools and provide mentors to at-risk students.

The Rev. Anthony McCallum, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church on Eastman Street, said midnight basketball worked in Asheville, N.C., where he previously lived, because the program was uniformly structured, operating at midnight through the early morning hours all around the city. Congregations provided food and fellowship at each location and local law enforcement participated.

Henri Baskins, executive director of the Community Relations Council, said she convened the initiative after conferring with Brailsford, the Rev. C.L. “Josh” Lorick, pastor of Rehoboth United Church of Jesus Christ on North Beltline Boulevard, and the Rev. Jesse Washington Jr., pastor of Zion Chapel Baptist Church-No. 1. They, in turn, contacted other faith leaders to gauge support for a community faith-based initiative.

Bishop Herman Yost, leader of the S.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said some work needs to be done among faith leaders to strengthen relationships and widen the net of participation.

“We have not had a healthy religious platform to come together,” he said. Baskins acknowledged that some “relationship building needs to be done,” but she said Thursday’s meeting suggested there was room for growth.

“The energy is really encouraging,” said Baskins. “This has a good chance of success.”

Lorick, youth and community services coordinator in the attorney general’s office, said many churches already are engaged in urban initiatives aimed at rescuing youth from the streets. But he said those programs often get lost among the lurid headlines that focus on the crime alone.

“It seems like all is bad,” said Lorick. “Quite honestly, for those of us in the trenches it becomes quite exhausting.”

He pointed to programs like Badges for Baseball, which brings fourth- and fifth-graders from Greenview Elementary School and local police officers together for friendly games of baseball. The Cal Ripken Jr. program was established by Attorney General Alan Wilson and receives assistance from Bethlehem Baptist Church.