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Miracle on the Streets

Jeffrey Brown on the streets of Boston’s Roxbury section. Photo: David Sokol

Jeffrey Brown on the streets of Boston’s Roxbury section. Photo: David Sokol

Pastor’s Boston Peace Project Becomes a Model Worldwide

There’s something to be said for finding the right words, and the right touch, to get people to lay down their guns and knives when they’re immersed in a culture of violence.

There’s a word for guiding lost and angry people from homicide to conversation to solve their differences.

In one racially divided American city, it was called a miracle.

An IUP alumnus has been roundly hailed for leading a crime-fighting and faith-building campaign that cut the murder rate in Boston by almost 80 percent during the 1990s. It was a violence-reduction and coalition-building strategy that has since been emulated around the world.

As a central figure in a grassroots peace movement, Baptist minister Jeffrey Brown M’84 said many people share the credit for what has been called in local lore “the Boston Miracle.”

The program reduced gun-related violence by and against young people because Brown and others found a strategy that worked. They found the right ways to reach the right people and achieve the right results. But the initiative was not one Brown could ever have planned.

Jeffrey Brown ministering at Twelfth Baptist Church. Photo: David Sokol

Jeffrey Brown ministering at Twelfth Baptist Church. Photo: David Sokol

As a young pastor in 1987, just out of Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, Brown expected to serve a congregation with prayerful guidance and to have his share of marrying couples, baptizing babies, and burying the departed.

When he joined Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Brown planned to continue his studies in his spare time. He entered the doctoral program at the Harvard School of Divinity and envisioned leaving New England after completing his courses and dissertation.

“I was taking my time, maybe taking a course each semester, because I was increasingly doing youth work at that time,” Brown said.

Youth crime was a problem obvious to Brown, according to a story he told an audience earlier this year at a Technology Education Design (TED) conference.

“I was doing funerals, but not of the venerated matriarchs and patriarchs who’d lived a long life and there’s a lot to say,” Brown said. “I was doing funerals of 18-year-olds, 17-year-olds, and 16-year-olds, and I was standing in a church or at a funeral home, struggling to say something that would make some meaningful impact. The social structures in the inner cities were sagging under the weight of all of this violence.”

“Imagine developing a plan—you have one minister at one table and a heroin dealer at the other table, coming up with a way in which the church can help the entire community.”

Brown stayed, he said, “because somebody needed to do something.” And trouble in the neighborhood in January 1990 convinced him he had to do more.

Down the street from Union Baptist Church, two young men were stabbed to death after being accosted by a group of five youths bent on stealing a fashionable jacket.

“That homicide happened maybe a block or two away, and it changed everything for me at that point,” Brown said. “School became increasingly less important than figuring out this dilemma, this out-of-control youth violence that was hitting all our communities, especially the neighborhoods in Boston and Cambridge.”

Rounding up support wasn’t a problem. There were many like-minded people who wanted to stop the bloodshed. Getting enough of them to agree on how to approach the problem was Brown’s biggest challenge.

Brown decided the young people involved in crime and violence should be treated not as the problem but as part of the solution in the mission to bring change to the neighborhoods.

It was clear, he said, that the frequency of violence rendered impossible the notion that every person who did something wrong must be arrested and taken off the streets.

The simple keys to Brown’s mission were the decisions to include and to listen.

There was the typical drive to unite a community of law enforcement officers, law-abiding citizens, victims, and young people seen as “at risk” of turning to crime.

Jeffrey Brown discussed his strategy to reduce violence during a Technology Education Design (TED) talk in Vancouver, British Columbia, in March. Credit: James Duncan Davidson/TED

Jeffrey Brown discussed his strategy to reduce violence during a Technology Education Design (TED) talk in Vancouver, British Columbia, in March. Credit: James Duncan Davidson/TED

“I suddenly realized that there was a certain segment of the population that I was not including in my definition of community,” Brown said at the TED conference. “And so the paradox was this: If I really wanted the community that I was preaching for, I needed to reach out and to embrace those who were committing the acts of violence—the gang bangers, the drug dealers.”

Brown asked himself, “Why me?”

“The answer came just as quickly. Because I’m the one who can’t sleep at night thinking about it. Because I’m the one looking around, saying somebody needs to do something about this, and I’m starting to realize that that someone is me. I mean, isn’t that how movements start anyway?”

Brown started volunteering at local schools to find where the culture of violence began, but he found the ones he wanted to reach didn’t go to school. So he and other clergy started walking the streets and the parks late at night.

He described the group as “a small cadre of us who came to the realization that we had to come out of the four walls of our sanctuary and meet the youth where they were, and not try to figure out how to bring them in.”

At first, the young people watched them.

“They decided to talk to us. And then we did an amazing thing for preachers. We decided to listen and not preach,” Brown said. They told the youths, “Help us to see what we’re not seeing. Help us to understand what we’re not understanding.”

“They were all too happy to do that,” Brown said, “and we got an idea of what life on the streets was all about.”

The clergy stopped looking at the youths as the problem and started seeing them as partners in the struggle to reduce violence.

“Imagine developing a plan—you have one minister at one table and a heroin dealer at the other table, coming up with a way in which the church can help the entire community,” Brown said.

Formal names were given to Brown and his partners’ crusade: Operation Ceasefire, the Boston Gun Project, the Boston TenPoint Coalition.

Community leaders in other cities, even in other nations, modeled and adapted the concept. A spin-off organization, TenPoint International, implemented versions of the plan in Northern Ireland, South America, southern Africa, and southeast Asia.

Under Brown’s leadership in Boston, the homicide rate fell from 152 in 1990 to 31 in 1999. People called that the Boston Miracle.

“I always tell people, the miracle wasn’t the youth, it was the adults and our ability to actually come together and check our egos at the door and work for something that was greater than ourselves,” Brown said.

“But I think, for most folks, what was miraculous about the work wasn’t the relationships, but the fact that we were able to build some level of trust between what I would call traditionally conflicting constituencies. That’s when you have black ministers teaming up with white cops in the city of Boston—that’s had a history of racial unrest—and when you have gang youths who are at the table because their innovative ideas gain traction among the youth.

“If it works, it works. If it keeps people alive, it keeps people alive. It’s kind of unusual for a black minister to say something like that, but it’s the truth.”

In 2013, 20 years after he founded the group, Brown exited his post as executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition so he could devote more time as a consultant in cities around the world adopting his crime-fighting principles.

His ambition to settle again in Pennsylvania has long been set aside.

The product of a military family, Brown was born in Alaska and raised around the country. He settled with his mother in central Pennsylvania and graduated from Harrisburg High School in 1978.

Brown earned a bachelor’s degree from East Stroudsburg University in 1982 and learned about the Benjamin E. Mays scholarship opportunity at IUP a year later, while he worked as an aide to K. Leroy Irvis, speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

“I applied for the scholarship, and I got in there in the fall of 1983,” Brown said. “I was going for my master’s in education in communications media.”

Brown said being at IUP was pivotal in his decision to begin seminar studies at Andover Newton.

“The time at IUP helped me to focus on what I really wanted to do,” Brown said. “We were up there in the mountains, so there was not much else to do but think and contemplate and pray and study. This is exactly what I did, and I discovered I had a call to the ministry.”

IUP’s Program of Scholars was invaluable to him, he said. The program called on students, many of them African American, to mentor other students.

“The person who administered it, Crawford Johnson, was really a seminal figure, an inspiring figure for me.”

Professor Richard Lamberski advised Brown in his communications media graduate program, and members of the greater Indiana community were instrumental in providing support and direction.

“I was trying to figure out the rest of my life, which included my spiritual life, and so IUP was a critical period of time,” Brown said.

He found help at a local church, Faith Temple Church of God in Christ, where Elder Stanley Webb was the pastor “and really the guiding light” and Robert Scholfield, a former IUP administrator in the Finance Division, was an associate elder.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have those Sunday mornings and Friday nights at that tiny little church,” Brown said. “The nurturing nature of those people helped me to focus on what mattered and what was important for me.”

Still based in the Boston area, Brown crisscrosses the nation as a consultant to police departments and community groups, guiding them on how to connect with high-risk youth to reduce violence.

Just before leaving the Boston TenPoint Coalition, Brown founded a national initiative called RECAP, Rebuilding Every Community around Peace, for combating urban gang violence.

Through RECAP, he launched an awareness campaign in 2015 called the National Season of Peace, which called on youth in cities to lay down their arms for specified periods of time so they could think more about how they were handling their lives.

Brown also continues ministering to a neighborhood congregation, serving today as an associate pastor for external relations at Twelfth Baptist Church in the Roxbury section of Boston.

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