S.O.S. Clergy Action Network

You C.A.N. make a difference! To get involved with the Clergy Action Network call Reverend Kevin Jones 917-837-2032 or 718-773-6886.

Praying With Our Feet
The S.O.S. Clergy Action Network (S.O.S. C.A.N.) is pleased to present a new book, entitled "Praying with Our Feet: Faith-Based Activism to Stop Shootings and Killings in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Beyond." The book features interviews with a few members of S.O.S. C.A.N., and gives information about how clergy members can increase the presence of their congregations in the movement to stop gun violence.

Click on the image below to view a PDF of the book.

 Introducing the Clergy of S.O.S. C.A.N. 

The S.O.S. Clergy Action Network is composed of many clergy members who are dedicated to reducing violence in our community. Each month we will highlight the efforts and experiences of one pastor on our blog, honoring their achievements and encouraging others to support their work. Interviews are conducted by Reverend Kevin Jones and Ariana Siegel, and include information about the clergy member and their house of worship. These interviews are also included in a book, Praying With Our Feet, compiled by the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, covering the anti-violence work of Brooklyn clergy. 

Clergy of the Month:

Bishop Willie Billips
Faith, Hope and Charity Ministry
774 Saratoga Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Bishop Billips is the bishop and overseer of Faith, Hope and Charity House of God. He is an executive member of the 77th precinct Clergy Task Force and singlehandedly mediates disputes all over the neighborhoods of East New York, Brownsville, and others. Billips runs bi-annual “cease fire” events, bringing together members of gangs to discuss violence and peacemaking in their community.

What was your experience like growing up in East New York?

I was the neighborhood DJ, and I never got heavily involved in gangs or crime. I had a few spots, but I never served time in jail. When I was a teenager I thought I knew it all, and at 18 years old I became a father for the first time. I got married at 19 and had four children with the same woman. After 15 years the marriage crumbled, and I ended up raising the children alone.

What motivated you to stay on a positive path?

One aspect was the fact that I got married and had a child at a very young age, and had parents and an older brother who modeled what it was to be a family. That kept me on the right track. I had seen my parents working and taking care of us, and my older brother was working and taking care of his children, and I said, I want to be like my big brother.

I also had God in my heart. I thank God my mother would march us to church every Sunday, even when my father didn’t go. If she wasn’t a God fearing person, my siblings and I would’ve been all over the place. My mother wrote a letter on her deathbed in 1983 that said, all of you were taught the way. Repent, do the right thing by God. I’ve had that letter hanging up through all my years, even when I was doing things in the street.

Mothers are a very important influence in our community. I think that’s something missing, a program to involve mothers in anti-violence work. There is a new program called Young Mothers Love that had 5 or 6 young ladies at their first meeting, talking about the issues and the pressure. My wife is part of that. It’s a very good start.

How did you come to do spiritual and anti-violence work?

While I was struggling to raise my children alone, surrounded by all this violence, I knew there had to be a better life out there because I grew up in the church. My sister is a pastor, so she brought me back to the church, and I realized that I was supposed to have been there all along. I started answering my call, became a deacon, and it went from there.

My anti-violence work started with one incident: I have a nephew who was part of the Crips gang in Brownsville. One day he told me he wanted to get out of that gang, but to get out he would have to be “jumped out” and get beat up. I knew the guy who runs the gang, so I went to him and said I want to get my nephew out. He told me about the rules, but I talked him down so that my nephew only had to fight one guy. That success moved me. I watched him get beat up and it was very hard to watch, but I knew that he would have to go through that process to walk the streets safely. After a bit I said, “That’s enough now,” and they stopped. They respected me.

After that the Crips leader said he wanted to talk to me. I told him to come down to the church, and we spoke one on one. Now, this guy controlled as many as 300 guys, but he sat there and poured his heart out to me and cried like a baby. He told me about the pressure to keep up his image, and how everybody’s depending on him. I listened to him and said, you’ve got a lot of control. We can get some peace out of this!

But I watched him transform as he went out the front door: He was no longer this soft guy. Still, I knew that seed was there, and that motivated me.

How did you translate that encounter into broader anti-violence work?

Around that same time the Daily News ran a story about my wife and I, and our involvement with gang mediation. My brother was working down at Clara Barton High School, and he told me that the leader of the local Bloods gang, who went to that school, saw the story and wanted to talk to me.

So those two gangs linked up with me, and I heard the two leaders were talking about some of the same things, which meant there was a potential for peace. It’s not so much that everybody wants to be bad. I sat down with two of the toughest guys in the neighborhood, one-on-one, and saw them break down and cry before going back out with their tough exteriors.

That was the beginning of our first “cease fire” event. Our event wasn’t related to the national movement in Chicago, but it was about bringing gangs together to dialogue about the violence taking place.

We started this “cease fire” event biannually, and it grew every year. I listened to a lot of their complaints: about schools, unemployment, and all that. So I decided at the next event to bring in employers, trade schools, GED schools, because I thought, we need to bring the resources to them. They’re not going to go after these things themselves. After seven years I thought, let’s bring the community in: the mothers scared to go to stores, the guys they’re robbing. So now you have the whole community talking about how violence, and the behavior of these young men, makes them feel. After that I brought in the emergency room staff, which deals with gunshot wounds, and the funeral director. We’re incorporating a schoolteacher now, and we’re showing them: This is what the world is made up of, and this is how you’re affecting it with your behavior.

I’m still doing these events. Could be 50-100 people come to the events, folks from all segments of the community. I keep doing it because I live in the neighborhood, and it’s real to me. I go into these stores with these guys, and my nephew is there, my grandchildren are there!

Are the gang members you speak with connected to church or spirituality?

Yes. You talk to their grandmothers and they say, “I don’t know what happened to that boy, he used to go to church with me all the time.”

I was sitting in front of the church the other day, and I saw a young man who’d recently been charged with gun possession, all dressed up. I said, where’re you going all dressed up? He said, “I’m on my way to court; I’m trying to stay out here in the street. Bishop, can you say a prayer for me?” So he’s got good sense enough to realize, I’m in trouble—I need a prayer!

When I walk down the street, I deal with the community. I communicate. There are those who don’t want to be bothered, so you don’t bother them! If you can get three out of five to come to church, that’s great. Otherwise you don’t interfere. That’s what keeps me safe.

Are you ever scared to deal with people involved with violence?

I asked some gang members one day, “Am I safe?” Because I thought people were looking at me funny. He says, “Bishop, you don’t have to worry. Everybody out here on both sides knows you’re neutral.”

Wherever they’re fighting, I go. It’s my calling. I go by myself into housing projects at 3a.m. when there’s an incident. I think that’s just the favor of God that allows me to go out there and stay safe. I made a request for a bulletproof vest as soon as possible, too. It was a little scary at first, but you have to try.

I told my wife and the people I deal with: If anything ever happens to me in the street, shot or killed or whatever, know that I died doing what I believe in. I’m out there to encourage peace. My wife is my soul supporter. She knows I do what I do. Whenever I leave out we pray, and she says, “Come home safe.”

How do you go about doing mediations?

I’m connected to the police now, so I hear on the police scanner or get a text from the Police Department when something’s going on. I’ll go wherever I can help: I went as far as the Bronx, but for the most part I’m in East New York. The police ask me to speak to these young people: when I talk to them, it works. I don’t ever tell them, you’re wrong. I say, let’s talk about it. I know the cops be buggin’ sometimes. You have to deal with them where they’re at, you can’t talk police talk to them.

I think it’s very important to keep having clergy involved with the Police Department. Sometimes I get to the scene of a conflict before the police! I get a lot of respect from them: Once when a police officer was shot, I went to the hospital to meet him, and one of the lieutenants there saluted me! I saluted him back, and he said, “Right this way, Bishop.” He took me directly to where the commissioner and the mayor were, and the commissioner said, “Bishop, thank you for being here.”

It sounds like you’re a one-man S.O.S. team!

I’ve recently begun grooming a few guys to work with me. Not everyone can do it, but I’ve got two or three guys in the area nearby who can come with me and mediate.

Have you ever seen people you work with transform?

The guy from the Bloods gang, I’ve seen him through a process of going to jail after we met, coming home, and now working somewhere in Manhattan. The Crip leader who broke down in the church, he was recently shot in the eye. But that’s just given him more stripes, so it’s business as usual.

What other organizing and charity work do you do?

I’m one of the executive members of the Clergy Task Force of the 77th Precinct. I really try to help the less fortunate families. I adopted a shelter called Women in Need, and twice a month I go there and take food, clothes, and toys for children. I’ve organized a few stores to help support that effort. And we help other shelters that help whole families. I even have a little table I keep outside with things I put out there to donate every day. I tell them, if you need it, it’s there. Because even for working people, it’s tough!

If you had endless resources and time, what would you do to help the community?

That’s a great question. If I had endless resources and time I would first put computer systems in every single classroom. Our children are behind, and in today’s times, if you don’t know how to use a computer, we don’t need you. I want to make sure to hold teachers and principals accountable. I think some of them don’t care because they’re going to get paid whether these children learn or not. That’s not acceptable.

What do you feel are some of the biggest issues in the community right now?

Definitely the issue of guns. Everybody has a gun, and that’s the bottom line. Also teen pregnancy, there’s a lot of that. I look at the issue of housing, too. I go to the shelter with all these families and people don’t have any housing, but right nearby there are all of these apartments boarded up. They’re on top of every store. Why don’t we use those spaces? It’s a no-brainer!

I also wonder about holding stores and community stakeholders accountable. You ask stores for donations, they say they have no money. But everybody has something to give, even if it’s just a little bit. So it’s time we open our mouths and hold people accountable to helping the community.

Reverend Stephanie Bethea
Glover Memorial Baptist Church
2134 Dean St Brooklyn

Reverend Stephanie Bethea is a Pastor at a ministry she founded, called “WETTEARS” Women Entrusted To Teach Each other After Rough Starts. She is also the assistant pastor at Glover Memorial Baptist church, where she is active in the women’s ministry, youth ministry, and the hospital ministry. Rev. Bethea has worked as a traffic enforcement officer and training academy teacher for over 20 years, and currently sits on the Brooklyn Clergy/NYPD task force. 

Tell us about your spiritual background. What led you to become a pastor? 

I was raised in a home where religion and spirituality were always important. My grandparents were pastors, going all over doing missionary work. I always knew what God could do, but as most teenagers do, I decided to wander away from it. I ran into some trials and tribulations doing things that I thought I was old enough to do. I got pregnant when I was 16 years old. His family wanted nothing to do with me and the baby, so I had no partner, no money, no idea how to take care of this baby. But because of my grandmother’s strong influence during my upbringing, I remembered that God is always there. I asked God what to do, and He gave me the strength, and taught me how to be a good mother. 

When I learned that God would deliver, I wanted to share with other people who were going through some really devastating, violent experiences and didn’t know how they were going to make it. I wanted them to know that God could help them. 

Why did you decide to get involved with anti-violence work? 

I lost three members of my family to gun violence. I had a nephew Kareem who was shot and killed at my aunt’s door. He was a beautiful young man, he played the flute and he had potential but he got caught up with the wrong crew. His mom was a hard working woman, trying to make a better life for him, and his dad was not in the home. So he was unsupervised and dealing drugs. One day my aunt opened the door and saw her only son with his brains blown out on her doorstep. She lived about maybe two weeks after that and then had a massive heart attack, even though she was a very young and healthy woman. 

Another nephew of mine called Bones was killed on the corner of St. Johns and Albany. After that his girlfriend went into premature labor and delivered her baby early by 1 and half months. So I watched the cycle continue: now this child is going to grow up without a father. 

And then the last person that I had to be killed by gun violence was my baby sister’s boyfriend. Out of all three that one got to me the most. This young man, AJ, was killed on the corner where I was living. AJ was involved in the drug business; his mom had died of a drug overdose at the time and he had no father at home so he was taking care of himself. 

One day AJ came by, and I didn’t want to deal with him because did not really care for the kid. But I decided to talked to him and found out he had brilliant culinary skills! A lot of these young men that you see out here in these streets, they have a lot of potential, but they don’t have opportunities or money to develop their talents. When they get involved selling drugs they think they’re just going to get a few bucks and then do something else. But it doesn’t always work out like that because drugs don’t produce anything positive. 

Anyway, he made us the most delicious lasagna that night, and we all ate and enjoyed ourselves late into the night. Afterward I said to him, I don’t want you to go on the corner with these boys no more. I’m gonna help you get your life together. Promise me, you’re gonna get your diploma. And he said he was gonna try. 

The next day after work my kids called and said Mom, little Dennis, which is my son, he’s been shot! And AJ got shot! I just dropped the phone and started running. By the time I got to the site they had it all roped off—they had AJ covered up and I realized he was dead. I started screaming, God, please no! He was just getting ready to get his life together. My son had a hole through his leg, and they shot AJ in the head. 

So I have been directly affected by gun violence. It’s an issue that’s close and dear to me. I can’t tell you how much I just wish God would snatch up every gun out of this world. 

What did you say to your other family members when they were mourning those deaths? 

As a minister of the gospel, I know that in spite of it all, we have to forgive. It’s not the easiest thing to do when somebody has taken a life from you. And a lot of times family members do not want to hear you say, “We have to forgive, we have to pray for that family, we have to love.” It’s really hard being the only person in the family trying to get people not to retaliate. There were moments when I went into the bathroom and broke down in tears. I said Lord, I need strength and I need you to guide me through this. 

Rev. Bethea with Rev Louis Williams,
 Pastor of Glover Memorial Baptist church
How did you get through to them? 

It didn’t get through to them right away. Some didn’t even try to hide that desire for revenge; my nephew went out in the streets wreaking havoc, and shot up somebody else. In AJ’s case 3 other people were shot and killed as a result of his death. These young men have no idea what they’re doing! They think this is their only method of survival in the street. 

I would say, “You can’t do this. I’m going to turn you in.” And I did turn them in. I’ve been alienated because of that, I was called a snitch, and to this day they don’t speak to me. But I know in my heart I did the right thing; we don’t want people retaliating because that’s how the cycle continues. 

My son was very angry and didn’t want to hear what I had to say, but I did get him to eventually let it go. Otherwise my son might not be alive today. 

What is your involvement with S.O.S. C.A.N.? How do you promote anti-violence at your church? 

I’m the assistant pastor to the pastor at Glover Memorial Baptist Church and I also pastor at my own ministry called WET TEARS ministry, which stands for “Women Entrusting To Teach Each other After Rough Storms.” I’ve been involved with antiviolence through both of them. I do a lot of youth ministry; I believe that we’re often reaching them too late. If you catch him early, teach him a skill, get him involved with positive role model men like Rev Jones—they’ll think differently. Then you ain’t got to run behind them and tell them don’t pick up a gun and don’t take drugs; they going to do what’s right because their mind is in a different direction. 

I lead a youth group at Glover Memorial where we talk about guns, drugs, sex, everything. I talk about the things that they want to talk about, because if we don’t, they’re going to go out in the street and talk to somebody else. So I tell them real. You can’t just be a one-dimensional preacher and tell youth what to do. You’ve got to get into their mindset. 

How do you address issues of gun violence with youth? 

This Christmas I told them to come up with an essay, what do you think we should do to end gun violence? I’m giving out $50 for the best essay about how to get rid of guns. That not only develops and perfects their writing skills but it gets them to think about the issue. 

I talk to them about the gun violence all the time; I’m always telling them about SOS. They all want buttons because they’re “cool.” Now that might be the thing that gets them to the march, but when they come and what it’s about, they want to get involved. My granddaughter said she wanted to get involved because one of her little friend’s brother got shot in school. She was crying to me, and said “I hate guns grandma.” I said me too, but we got to do something to change it. 

How do you council young people who might be prone to violence? 

I understand their anger because I was angry as a young woman too. You said anything to me, I’d snap. That anger comes from hurting, because somebody mistreated you, and you don’t understand why they did that to you. I was molested repeatedly by members of my family. I was so angry I wanted a plane to drop on my molester. A plane! 

People get hardened because they’ve been hurt, ridiculed and degraded. But all they need is somebody to see it, and they can become a different person. I was counseling a young woman recently who was acting out because she was hurting. I told her write down a list of everybody that hurt her and forgive them. If you don’t, you’ll be trapped forever. There was a spirit of bondage that you were entangled in, but now you’ll be free of that. When she left she said I just feel so different. And she started behaving much better. 

What was the turning point for you in dealing with your own anger? 

The turning point was when I had my first little girl. I didn’t want the cycle to continue, and I knew that if I did not take an active stand, the violence in my life could continue in my daughter’s life. As a mother, I felt it was my job to make her life better than mine. And that’s why I made a conscious decision, go back to school, get a diploma, get a degree. I wanted to make a difference, and leave a legacy that my grandchildren can carry on. 

The bible says, “when I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was naked did you clothe me?” Never mind how many services you went to, how many messages you preached. What did you do to make a difference in the community? 

So how did you first get involved with SOS? 

Before Rev. Jones approached me, I had heard of S.O.S. through the posters. They were all over the neighborhood; the police department was putting them up, and at my Community Board meeting they had them, so I took a bunch and put them up in the church, the corner store, the bodega where they shoot all the time, everywhere. Then I found out about the task force, and I said, oh definitely I’m coming to that. That’s where I met Rev. Jones and it all got started. 

Aside from your involvement in S.O.S. and youth ministry, how is your church involved in the community? 

We do the “We Care” Christmas ministry toy drive. We give away food boxes to the children in the shelter, we sponsor 3 shelters in our community. We have everybody go into their pantries. The concept is to go through your own cabinets, and I promise you have enough stuff in there to share with another family. Because Jesus is the reason for this season, and sharing is caring. I get everyone involved- my daughters, my grandchildren, the youth ministry is on board with it, I got all the clergy donating and helping out. 

I do a lot of speaking and preaching with my WET TEARS ministry. My philosophy with that is, “if each one teach one, then we can reach one.” The bible says that the angels in heaven rejoice over just one soul. We’re so busy wanting to reach a whole bunch of people—let’s just get one off the street with a gun. Then maybe that one will go back tell others what S.O.S. does. So it spreads. 

How do you think we can galvanize more people in the community to try to “reach one”? 

If you host a forum for people to share their views and ideas, vent, they’ll come. There are a lot of people that are truly torn apart: their family gets affected by gun violence, and they feel like, well, he got killed, and now nobody cares. Sometimes all you have to do is just reach out to the people and let them know, we want to make a difference. You’d be surprised how many people say, I want to make a difference but I don’t know what to do! 

If you had endless resources and time, what would you want to do to help the community? 

There are a few things I’d like to do. I’d like for us to provide spiritual education for those that desire it, so that we can help them and they don’t become corrupt. Another thing that I would love to do is provide adequate training and skills for employment, or just provide the jobs ourselves. I’d also like to provide for the mentally challenged; my son is a bipolar patient now, and so I’ve become very concerned about the mentally challenged. 

I want to open up a mental facility and that would facilitate a lot of young men and women to work. They don’t have enough facilities for those that need to rehabilitated mentally. Their idea of caring for them is just medicate them. No, we need to seriously counsel and talk to them, and teach them to be contributing members of society. 

So those are the things that I’d like to do. Ministry is my first love, but ministering without doing something else is not going to get the improvement that you need. You need both. 

I thank you for letting me be a part of this project. I often ask the children, do they know what S.O.S. is really about? They go, yeah, those are the people that go around marching and they don’t want you to shoot…and you know? But even that little bit, that goes a long way. I think you guys are doing a remarkable job, I wish you had the resources and the man power to go in every community. I pray that God will bless you, that you will be able to spread. Because it is making a difference.

Clergy of the Month: 
Reverend David Wright
Grace Tabernacle Church of God in Christ, 
1745 Pacific Street

Reverend David Wright is the son of Reverend Timothy Wright, a world-renowned gospel musician whose music was nominated for a Grammy award. Four years ago, at the age of 30, David was installed as pastor of Grace Tabernacle Church of God in Christ after his father passed away due to complications from a car-crash that killed his mother and nephew. Reverend Wright carries on his father’s legacy, having imbibed his love of gospel music and dedication to community engagement.

How did you get involved with S.O.S.?

Pastor Jones got me involved. When I heard about it, I said, I didn’t just want to be a pastor that stays in between my four walls. That’s the main problem with some of our churches today, we don’t see what’s going on outside.

My father once told me a story that his pastor, Bishop Washington, had told him. Bishop Washington was an awesome man of God, who preached around the world. Once, he went out of town and visited a church whose pastor was there for 5 years. The pastor wanted to drive him around the neighborhood, and the Bishop said, let’s walk. So they walked for blocks around his church, visited several stores. After about 2 hours the Bishop said, “I have to let you know, that I have to remove you from this church. We just walked around your neighborhood for 2 hours and nobody knew your name or your church. Nobody knew anything about you after 5 years.” That story resonated in my spirit. That’s part of why I got involved with S.O.S.

What motivates you to do anti-violence work?

I got involved with anti-violence because, as one of the young pastors in the neighborhood, I can relate to some of the issues that our young men have in the streets.

I grew up in East New York, Brooklyn. I went to Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and two teenage boys, brothers, got shot and killed at the high school that I was supposed to go to. The week before they got shot, they were in my house playing Nintendo. They were 17 years old. I was in junior high school at the time, and I cried that I didn’t want to go to the high school where my friends got killed.
I’ve seen a lot of my friends cut down, shot and killed. In the late 80s, when the crack epidemic took Brooklyn by storm, we lived in the projects and they would smoke crack in the basement of my building. You’d see it everywhere. When you’re in the midst of that violence all the time, you can’t avoid it.

My five brothers and I all grew up in East New York, and the only reason we didn’t get caught up into the crime and gangs like some of our friends is because we had a big faith-based family. We’re not perfect; my brother sold guns and drugs, and ultimately got incarcerated. When my father saw that he said, I can’t lose all my boys, so he moved us to Long Island. We got out just in time because between the ages of 13 and 17, that’s when you can really change kids’ minds.
The message I want to push with the youth now is: when you have God in your life it gives you hope. The streets can’t give you a hope for eternal life. You can get the quick easy money in the streets, but longevity and long life and hope comes through God.

How have you been able to reach the youth?

Basketball is a tool that I’m using to get these kids. I can’t go out with a bible, but when I come at them with a basketball, I can get in with them. It’s been working really well. We have a Grace Tabernacle basketball program for teens, 17 and under. I’m the assistant coach, and we have gym time on Saturday from 11am to 5pm, all year round.

Before we play the game we first say a little prayer, and check their grades, and do a little tutoring. We always ask what’s going on; most of the kids aren’t violent themselves, but somebody in their family or around them is, and it affects them. So we minister to these young men on how avoid going down that road to violence.

There are two twins we work with who are 15 years old. Their father is a drug dealer, and he’s trying to get them to sell drugs too. Their mom came to us and said, “I don’t want my kids to get stuck out there.” So every Saturday we go to their home in Far Rockaway and pick them up; we get to them before their father can get to them. Now they’re in the basketball program and come to church every Sunday. They come with jeans and t-shirts on but I tell them it’s fine, as long as they’re in the right place. And I thank God for them. They’re good ball players, but we’re just using basketball to get them off the streets.

How do you respond to gun violence? What do you say to the community after a shooting?

I love to use the slogan that they have, “Don’t shoot I want to grow up.” The worst thing about gun violence, to me, is that some people who aren’t even involved end up getting shot. There was a woman right down the block who was in her kitchen, got shot in her face last month while she was making dinner. It could have hit an innocent child who didn’t even get a chance to grow up. The shooter had no idea what that bullet did. One little spray of a bullet and they could have ruined a whole family.
I also talk about “renewing the mind.” I believe that until there’s a change mentally in the people that are being violent, they’re going to continue being violent. To renew your mind it’s important that you have God in your life. Once you do, God will renew your mind.

How did you decide to go into ministry?

In January 2008, when my parents were still alive, I was my father’s minister of music. On the spur of the moment he made me get on my knees in front of the altar and said, “I’m passing my mantle down to you.”

I have four other brothers, and I’m not the oldest, the biggest or the strongest. On that day he gave me the story of David, who wasn’t the strongest, and people didn’t think he would be able to defeat Goliath. That story turned things around for me. Initially, I ran from the calling. I saw the gray hairs on my father’s head. But now I see the beauty of this work. Ok, you get a few gray hairs, but you touch so many people’s hearts through your messages, through your words.

The summer after my father passed down his mantle to me, my parents got into an accident and my mom died and my nephew died, and my father was paralyzed from the neck down. When I think back to what he did that day, and I believe he saw something that nobody else saw.

Pastor Wright in his office at Grace Tabernacle.
Above, a picture of his father, musician Timothy Wright.
Your father was a world-renowned gospel musician. What was that experience like?

When we would go out to restaurants and things and they would come ask for his autograph. He ran with all of these famous people. [Points to a wall of photographs]There’s Kurt Franklin, my father was one of his musical mentors. And that’s Al Sharpton, he and my dad came up in temple together. Then that’s Patty Labelle, she sang one of my dad’s songs. And that’s him with Mayor Dinkins. This here is one of my father’s greatest achievements, when he was nominated for a Grammy award. He’s in the gospel music hall of fame.

Some folks would say, you can’t join the choir because you can’t sing. But my father said, you just gotta be shown how to sing. And people loved him for that.

My father’s created a standard in gospel music. His gospel can be sung by any choir, anywhere on Sunday morning. Choirs all across the country had at least 2 or 3 of his songs. We traveled the world, too, to Spain, London, Korea—and they knew his songs in different languages! He was named the Godfather of gospel. His music holds to what real gospel music is.

How did you get into music?

I started playing piano at the age of 5, but I stopped because my mom didn’t want me to play. My father was gone a lot, doing his music, and she didn’t want that for me. But one Sunday I was in church and I knew the tune that they were starting to sing, so I got up and played. I was 15 years old and I had stopped playing for years, and but my father said to me, “You’re going to be the next musician.”

After that he locked me in the church for 3 days. He told me to play for an hour and pray for an hour. All he allowed me to eat was crackers and water. And after those 3 days, I was playing the way I’m playing now.

I was the musician for my father for years, and I still play sometimes. Many people think that the church musician job is just playing a song. But there’s a relationship between the pulpit and the organ that makes the whole service flow; the musician’s got to get the spirit of the pastor. To play gospel music, it’s not just about your talent, but also being in tune with God. 

What more would you like to do to help the community?

I want to advocate to change policies around guns. There are no gun shops in Brooklyn—the guns are probably coming out of the back of somebody’s car. You want a gun, you just go holler at the dude on the corner. When I adopted a dog they had to come to my house and do a thorough background check. And I was adopting a dog! If I wanted a gun, I could snap my fingers and get it.
If I had endless time and resources, I would also love to build as many 24-hour youth community centers as possible. Open year round. No closing time. A lot of the youth centers have disappeared, so if somebody has a horrible home to go back to, where mom is in the house shooting drugs, dad is getting drunk—where can they go? If they had a youth center they’d have a place to play video games or ping pong or various activities… sometimes people just need peace of mind. If you’re able to save one person from shooting or getting shot, you’ve done something.

Clergy of the Month: 

Reverend Ken Bogan
Greater Restoration Baptist Church, St. John's Avenue

You've expressed a devotion to nonviolence. What led you to that philosophy? 

I’m motivated by my faith. My philosophy of non-violence comes from Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, which center around the ideas of non-violence and sacrificial love. 

My wife taught me a lot about compassion. I always tried to love people but I was ready to fight those who would take advantage of me. She taught me what it means to love people in a sacrificial way. Even when they burn you, you keep moving, keep loving. That’s a hard lesson to learn in the streets, but it’s an important tool. 

I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist. What I mean when I talk about nonviolence is, we won’t initiate violence, but if you try to attack our families, we’re going to defend ourselves. I do believe, though, that we should lead with nonviolence and lead with love. 

I’m often disappointed with a lot of the talk about non-violence, because there’s no talk of the sacrificial love as a central feature. It’s as though the absence of warfare is going to resolve the issue of violence. But unless people learn how to love each other, in spite of and not simply because of who they are, we won’t be able to transform our community and the world. 

How did you first become an activist? 

Growing up in Texas, I witnessed a lot of violence. I remember the first time that I stumbled upon a Klan rally right in the middle of the woods. They had fires burning, and I was crouched there in the bushes. It was really scary. I recognized that some of the folks under the hoods as white Pastors. 

Several of my friends were killed and nothing was heard of them. One of my friends had been dating this white girl, and when her father saw him, he killed him in front of everybody. Never had a trial or anything. I had friends come up missing. So those things had enormous impact on the way I think and the way I see. 

My mother was the musician for our church and my father ran for mayor, and they’ve always been very active so I was encouraged by that, and try to use it as a tool against the violence I was experiencing. My family and I were very much a part of the civil rights movement. Out of any preacher or theologian, Dr. King was, for me, the person who truly lived out the principles of Jesus. 

One of the things I used to hear in that era of my life is that non-violence is not only about not fighting, but it’s about making sure that people are taken care of. That reminds of a story about a lady in our congregation who was a bootlegger. She made whiskey in her bathtub and she had a still in her back yard, and someone told the Sheriff. Now, she had two boys and if the Sheriff came to arrest her, she was going to go to prison for a long time. As an African American woman she wouldn’t have had any real trial, and she would’ve done 50-60 years for bootlegging. 

My pastor said, we’re going to go to her house and dismantle her still, and we’re going to take all of her whiskey, and put it in the back of our cars, and take it to the church and put it in the basement. So that’s what we did, and she averted being arrested. It was a controversial thing to do, but my pastor said it was the non-violent thing to do because of all the violence that would have taken place—particularly to those young men who would’ve grown up without a mother. A lot of hurt. 

So that’s part of what our non-violence looked like. Another time, when I was in high school, the town was trying to decide whether it was going to be a “wet” or a “dry” town, meaning whether you could sell whiskey. As this whole thing took place, people started to hate each other. We had a big back yard, and my mother decided to host a dinner for everyone in the town. At the dinner she said to everyone, we’ve come a long way, through many trials and great difficulty to get where we are. Surely we’re not going to let a vote over whiskey destroy all of the stuff we built up. And that really changed the course of things in that little town. We came together after that.

How did you end up in New York? 

I was in several different places before I came to New York. I was in graduate school at Duke University and then I went to the seminary. In 1990, I came up here for vacation after the seminary, and then I decided not to leave. 

Shortly after I got to Crown Heights, the—some people refer to it as a rebellion others refer to it as a riot—broke out right in the midst of a witnessing. I’d never been in the middle of violent protest in my life; many of the protests that we were a part of became violent—but not on our part. This was the first time I saw black people and Jewish people at each other’s throats, and it was scary. 

I was really disappointed in the leadership on both sides of the issue. I felt that young black men were scapegoated for a lot of the wrongs, which was disturbing. There was not enough effort to really break through some of the deep things that were going on in the community. The truth is that African Americans and Jews share some of the same concerns about police brutality, economic concerns, poverty, substance abuse and all of those things. 

My wife was very involved in trying to help; she was part of a group that used theater to address divisive issues. Ultimately she and I decided to plant a church here to address the strain between communities, and the violence that was taking place. 

What do you see as the main issues affecting Crown Heights today? 

I think that all the “things” that help produce violence: poverty, unemployment, and people not talking and understanding each other, all of those things play into the deep problems that we have. I’ve been a part of programs to try to address those issues; when the Mediation Center brought African American and Jewish young women together about 3 years ago, I co-directed the program. Those young women got a chance to work together to do some very meaningful projects, and that is the kind of stuff that really transforms people. I don’t think there’s enough replication of that in the community.

Can you tell us about some of the other initiatives you work on? 

We do a lot of work to support children in the community. For years we’ve done an after-school program that primarily works with kids having great difficulty in the community. I run once a week classes for youth where we talk about real issues that have an impact on people’s lives. We support parents, too. They had difficulty advocating for their children at open school night, so we go to help them talk to the teachers and advocate a plan so the kids could get where they need to be. 

Around the holidays we also do a lot of work. On Thanksgiving we hosted a community meal for 130 people. On Christmas we have a toy “store” with brand new donated toys that we sell inexpensively, so that even parents who don’t have anything have a chance to pay something for their child’s gift. That way, they feel they’ve contributed something. 

In the summer we run two camps over six weeks for children from Brooklyn and Manhattan. We write a curriculum around a theme every summer, like, “welcome to the neighborhood,” or “be the change,” and we do some themes around violence. 

Pastor Bogan and his band play at
the S.O.S. Arts to End Violence Festival
We have teams of people that come from all over the country to volunteer at the camp. The teams that come are entirely white and most of them are upper middle class to wealthy. Many of them have never been to New York and many of them have never even talked to people in this kind of neighborhood in their own cities. We encourage them to have relationships with people in their own community, and we also have them commit to helping us long-term with the work that we do here—repairing people’s houses who can’t afford it, helping us at the church. It’s usually a great interaction between the volunteers and the kids—at the end of each week the kids cry because they don’t want the volunteers to go.

Tell us about the work you’ve done with the Mediation Center. 

Well, initially I got involved with them because they were trying to bring the black and Jewish communities together, and I was interested in that. I did the Rites of Passage program for young men. That was a program to help young boys have a different understanding about manhood, and helping them to deal with issues of violence, which they really struggle with in our community. Three of the kids from that program are playing college basketball, several kids are going to college, and one is an attorney now! They’ve all come through that transformation because of the work that we’ve done. I’m very proud of them. 

Of course for a while I was in charge of organizing clergy to do non-violence work. I’ve done press conferences, led trainings.

Do you think that clergy have a particular strength in this kind of work? 

They should. They don’t always. I think that this whole issue of nonviolence is tailor-made for the church. And for most religious groups it should be the organizing principle. There are a lot of issues in the community that the church can take the lead on. 

If you had endless time and resources, what would you do to help the community? 

I would create more programs like the one we did for those young ladies, where people have real contact with each other. You can have all the conferences in the world on racism, and usually, its wealthier people who come to those kind of conferences. But if you create community programs where people of different races are in each other’s face all the time, if you get people to solve problems together—that makes a difference. For instance, there was recently an incident with the police brutality in the neighborhood, and I think that if the black and Hasidic communities came together and tried to challenge the way police operated in this community, it would have a lot of power. I’m also really into music, and I think that we could bring the community together around the arts. That’s what I would create if I had more resources.

Clergy of the Month: Reverend Dr. Cheryl Anthony
Judah International Christian Center, 141 Rogers Avenue, Brooklyn, NY

Tell us about yourself and your involvement in the Crown Heights community.

I’m interested in looking at the human condition, and helping to ease disparities within our community. I’ve been doing community work and support for over 25 years.

My family and I are very connected to this neighborhood. We’ve spent most of our lives within 3 zip codes. I am a Church of God and Christ baby, and I went to school in Crown Heights. Growing up, Crown Heights was more of a community. You knew the families next door, you knew the people on the block, you knew who the neighborhood watch person was. There was more unity in the community when I was growing up.

[Around the time of the crack epidemic] in 1985, the unrest in our community was unbelievable. When my sons went out there, there were elements that I had to be concerned about: crime in the street, and the police department, which was not friendly toward African Americans. We lived in the middle of the Hasidic community then, and sometimes my sons would be accosted by groups of young men of the Jewish faith and asked for ID. So I was afraid for them to go out of the house.

We lived through the riots in Crown Heights with Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum. After that, my sons worked with Richard Green who got them to be a part of City Kids, and they took on social issues. So we’ve always been a socially conscious family.

What led you to S.O.S. and anti-gun-violence work?

I would say that a non-violent philosophy is important to me because it supports my philosophy of following in the steps and the life of Christ. My faith has grounded me and taught me to not only read the teachings of Christ but to have it manifested in my life and in the lives of those that are connected to me. Scripture tells us to be angry but sin not.

Sometimes, when I am impassioned about certain social issues, I have an internal dispute about how to live in a place of peace and harmony and still get the desired results. Growing up I was like Angela Davis, I had a big Afro, you know, power to the people. I think I’ve grown to be compassionate and non-violent over time. It’s a process, and I’m still in the process.

In the same way, I think that young people have to have some experiences that show them that violence is not the answer in order to know that violence is not the answer. They have to see that there’s a different way. One of my youngest son’s friends got into an argument with a grown man over some marijuana in the park down the street, and the man shot him and killed him. The boy was 15 years old.  

I think that that was the first pain I had gone to with my son having a friend who was killed in the street in our community. I think that had a real impact on him, to know that an argument could lead into someone being killed. That was about 22 years ago, and now we live in a time when young people would resort to a gun as their first option.

I think we are not the level that we need to be at with love and compassion. Young people need to know that they are loved, that they are valuable, that they had something significant to contribute to our community and to our society.

What kind of work do you think needs to be done to reduce gun violence?

Sometimes I don’t know whether faith leaders have been given the resources to have the kinds of programs in our community that can provide that love and compassion. When we grew up, they had the gym open at night, there were recreational places, and guys had somewhere to go. Those places are few and far between now.

I think that in the current government mentality, the inner city communities of color have been written off. And unfortunately that idea has trickled down to our communities and our children, that their lives are not valuable. This expectation that they’re not going to live past the age of 21 is something that we have got to reverse. Having them know that they’re fearfully and wonderfully made and that god has a plan for their life.

But even with the lack of dollars in our community, the economic challenges, we can do something.

There’s a new leadership from the faith community. These young people are the children of our congregation, and if we speak truth to them they will utilize our services as mediators. That’s when we get to really live out our faith because Christ was the great mediator between God and man, and we’ve become the mediator between our young people and our community.

Tell us about your church and the services you provide.

We are a socially-conscious, inner-city ministry that provides services in a holistic fashion, which minister to the body, the soul and the spirit of families.

When I first came into doing ministry, my spiritual dad told me, “your church is not going to be one of these mega churches; your church is going to be the emergency room. Now, people don’t stay in the emergency room: they either get discharged to go home, or they go up on the ward. When people come to you they will either be going through some sort of death or a transformation.”

So at our church, we know that people are coming through with some specific need to be addressed. It is my job to analyze what’s going on, give them a treatment and a formula, get them ready to go out to give away on Monday what they’ve received on Sunday. My ministry is not really about what we do on Sunday morning; it’s what we do during the week that really makes the difference.

What are some of the specific programs you run to help the community?

Reverend Anthony speaking at an S.O.S. C.A.N. meeting
We do gun buy-back. People don’t feel comfortable around the police, but they’ll come to us and say, I have a gun, and I haven’t used it but I’ve got younger siblings in my household and I don’t want them to find it. I want this gun out of the house, and I want to turn it over to you.

We also do work with young women around domestic violence. There is a domestic violence shelter here. We’re involved in Safe Surrender, where people can come at a certain time if they’ve got an outstanding ticket or warrant, and it can be taken care of without any repercussions. We also have a lot of men who want to mentor; there was talk of doing a weekly program on Sunday nights, where young men and their mentors watch foot-ball together and talk.

One of the main programs that we do is around recovery. We have a contract with New York State to give support to families that are in recovery from alcohol or substance abuse, or mental illness. We give them some support and wrap-around services in order to unify the family and the community. We do some counseling, we do financial literacy. People can get support with housing, anger management, communication skills, civic restoration after prison.

Today I’m going down to the district attorney’s office to talk about the issues with the 77th precinct. One of my sons is going with me, and the other one has a meeting with City Harvest because we’re going to take on a project serving meals and teaching people how to eat nutritionally. It’s about holistic ministry for us: body, soul and spirit. You cannot ignore any portion of it.

If you had endless time and resources, what would you do to help the community?

I would get a recreational center put in our community. A center where young people would be able to come, almost like a one-stop, where they could get help with homework, get help finding jobs. There would be workshops and information on parenting skills. It would have a component for child care, and teaching sportsmanship, and cultural competency stuff. And it would have a miniature golf course in there.

And they would feel safe. They would know that they can come to a place that belongs to them.

Reverend Dr. Cheryl Anthony is the pastor at Judah International Christian Center, 141 Rogers Avenue, Brooklyn, NY. The church holds a Sunday bible study at 10am and morning services at 11:15am. They also hold Wednesday night prayer and bible study at 7pm, and can be contacted at 718-771-0383.

About S.O.S. C.A.N.

MISSION STATEMENT: To engage faith-based leaders in dialogue and action to end gun violence in our communities.

PURPOSE STATEMENT: To strengthen our witness and work for peace in our communities by inspiring hope, raising voices, and taking action; to guide partnering faith-based leaders in exploring and celebrating together the spiritual grounding of our individual and collective peace work and witness.

Together we will explore the faith basis of our peace testimonies. We will:
• raise up current peace work and witness
• examine how we might better support and engage each other in ongoing peace work
• create new opportunities to witness together for more peaceful communities

The S.O.S. C.A.N. is envisioned as group of faith-based leaders who partner together in order to collaborate on projects and actions to enlarge our peace concerns, producing positive outcomes.

Partnering faith-based leaders will return to their houses of worship with a deeper commitment to our makers call to nonviolence and peace building, with renewed energy, prepared for powerful peace action and with more attentiveness to the spirit that dwells within all, calling all to restore our makers communities for all God’s children.


*To bring community awareness, information, and focus on the issue of gun violence. To speak the S.O.S. message and show the community that WE CARE we will:
1. Collaborate on shooting responses along with the S.O.S. staff
2. Hold weekly mini-marches
3. Hold prayer vigils at hotspots
4. Fast against violence
5. Spread the message to our houses of worship
6. Open our houses of worship for weekly recreational nights and support groups for victims of shootings and their families
7. Provide emotional support for shooting victims and their families
8. Do something with/for S.O.S. participants and families

*To sit down and dialogue clergy leaders to action, we will:
1. Meet quarterly either by breakfast meetings, training sessions, or seminars, planning etc.
2. Discover what each of our leaders and houses of worship offer that can be used to facilitate healing and help to a hurting community
3. Send weekly texts and emails

*To highlight faith-based leaders that are actively engaged in fostering peace in our community, we will select a pastor of the month and:
1. Highlight their work and congregation on the S.O.S. and CHCMC blogs
2. Honor their work with a certificate of accomplishment
3. Have them meet with the CHCMC and SOS team members for refreshments and conversations

*To engage our congregants in dialogue and action, we will:
1. Mobilize our attendees to attend shooting responses, rallies, marches, and community events
2. Use the pulpit to preach nonviolence and help stop the shootings and killings
3. Incorporate nonviolence into our educational materials
4. Create a “peace zone” or “safe haven” at our place of worship
5. Sign the “Covenant For Peace and Action”
6. Share information regarding shootings with the S.O.S. Clergy Liaison
7. Post public education information and encourage congregants to do so at home
8. Dedicate a late night a week for youth to utilize our place of worship
9. Host an anti-violence event
10. Host a GED program or provide tutors for participants
11. Publically support the S.O.S. program and our goal to stop the shooting and killings in our community
12. Invite S.O.S. to speak to your participants
13. Encourage participation in “Arts to End Violence” and “Week of Peace” activities
14. Adopt a program participant: provide volunteer opportunities, jobs, work clothing, etc.

*Lead a service dedicated to nonviolence
Dedicate your regular service to getting the message of nonviolence to your congregants. Here are just a few examples of things you can do in a Nonviolence Service:
-Deliver a sermon
-Lead Youth Activities
-Lead Group Discussions
-Have your congregation read the Principles of n=Nonviolence aloud
-Sing songs of Peace
-Share Testimonials

See a guide for leading a Nonviolence Service here, and please email Reverend Kevin Jones kjones@crownheights.org if you need any assistance.

*Sign the S.O.S. Peace Covenant
Many congregations have already signed the S.O.S. Covenant for Peace and Action which proclaims that shootings will not be tolerated and lists specific actions to take to make peace the norm. Please use the link below to sign the Covenant yourself and make the commitment to use your pulpit to help end gun-violence in Crown Heights.


Pastor Ken Bogan- Greater Restoration Baptist Church
Reverend Daniel Craig - Mt. Zion Baptist Church
Bishop Gregory Foster - Bible Faith Word Cathedral
Reverend Kevin Jones - Peterson Temple Ministries COGIC
Pastor Matthew Godwin Egbeken - Christ Gateway Evangelical Min. Int'l
Reverend John David Wright - Grace Tabernacle Christian Center COGIC
Bishop Roberto Jemmott - Nazereth Christian Fellowship
Dr. Carolyn Frazier - Gt. Mt. Carmel Deliverance Ministries
Bishop Theodosia McClean - Reflections of the Covenant
Reverend Andrew L. Struzzieri - St. Mathews R.C.Church
Reverend Jerry West - Mt. Moriah COGIC
Reverend Cecil Henry - Calvary Community Church
Reverend Louis C. Williams Sr. - Glover Memorial Baptist Church
Reverend Dr. Cheryl Anthony - Judah International Christian Center
James Mcdougle -Bethany Baptist
Dillion Burgin - Bethel United Methodist Church
Asa Powell - Brooklyn Community Church
Rabbi Andy Bachman - Congregation Beth Elohim
Cherly Ault-Barker - Consuming Fire Ministries
Rev. D Allen - Divine Word of Truth
Vilma Craig -Dont throw in the Towel Ministry
Emmanuel Church of God
David Cameron - Esther Ministries
David Butler - Fullness of joy Ministries
Menguel M'Anaba Eka-Abila - Helper Ministries International
James Neville - Holy Temple of Prayer Inc
Eugene Phipps - Jesus, the Good Shepherd
Let Go let God Ministries
Edward Okyere - Miracle Church of Christ
Jerry West - Mt Moriah COGIC
Owen Monk Sr. - Monk Memorial
Pastor Blunt - Mt Zion Christian Church
Pastor Fred Opoku-Gyimah - Pentecostal Redeemest Temple
Kevin Jone s- Peterson Temple COGIC
Nelli Hardy-  Universal Evangelistic Ministries
Guillermo Martino - Tabernacle of God's Glory
Pastor McEwen - United Christian Assembly
Pastor Lou Allen - Word of Faith Deliverance
John Townsend - St. Matthews Baptist Church