Members of Barnes United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, some ex-offenders themselves, are walking among gang members and drug dealers in an effort to help reduce youth violence in the neighborhoods surrounding their church.
In 1998, United Northwest, home to Barnes, was one of the neighborhoods leading the city in homicides, said the Rev. Charles Harrison, the church’s senior pastor. He said the violence was affecting the church.
“It was creating fear. People were afraid to come into the neighborhood because of the high level of violence, gangs and drug dealers, so we were trying to respond to that,” he said.
At around the same time, Harrison and a couple of local pastors attended an event together where they heard about the Boston Miracle, in which a group of faith leaders collaborated with the city of Boston to reduce youth violence in the city. That initiative included a two-year period in the late 1990s with no recorded juvenile or youth homicides involving those ages 14-24, Harrison said. “We were just so impressed with that, we felt like we could do something similar in Indianapolis.”
Passion for ministry
Thus, Indianapolis Ten Point Coalition was born in 1999. Harrison, who serves as president of the nonprofit, said 600-member Barnes United Methodist Church was instrumental in getting the program off the ground.
“I didn’t know that many people in my congregation even had a passion to address the issue of violence and the root causes of it. … I was just shocked at the level of expertise we had in the congregation and the passion that people had to do that kind of ministry,” he said. “They really came up with the strategy that helped Ten Point go into these neighborhoods and have this kind of impact, but it started in the local church.”
The impact Harrison is talking about is significant. In 2016 alone, the group helped reduce homicides by 85 percent in the three high-crime neighborhoods it targets: Butler-Tarkington, Crown-Hill and the United Northwest area. All three neighborhoods went an entire year without a youth homicide ages 14 to 24 in 2016, Harrison said.
One of the ways Ten Point is affecting change is by taking its ministry directly to the streets, reaching out to at-risk youth during weekly faith walks. Teams of five to seven people — church volunteers, faith leaders and “original gangsters” with street credibility, as Harrison refers to them — gather in the three neighborhoods five nights a week, with as many as 25-30 people patrolling each night from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.
“Their role is to look for those individuals who are drug trafficking, who may be involved in robberies or gang activity. And what they’re doing is their sharing their story with the young people of the mistakes that they made in their life that led many of them to prison. … They talk about the role that God has played in their life in helping them to turn their life around and get on the right path,” Harrison said.
He said being a faith-based organization has its advantages in this line of work.
“We believe in more God, less violence. We see ourselves as the light of Christ in the midst of these communities that are experiencing a lot of violence, poverty, lack of quality education opportunities, broken families, and our very presence there says to people that we care. What we’re trying to do is redirect the lives of young people and put them on a pathway of success,” he said.
Ten Point also partners with the local business community to help at-risk youth and returning citizens find and keep employment through training and job fairs.
“Last year, we made almost 1,000 job referrals to businesses in the city of Indianapolis and about 70 percent of the referrals stayed on the job,” Harrison said.
Building trust, easing tensions
Another important role of the organization is acting as a buffer between the police department and the community to build trust and ease tensions.
“I think Indianapolis has been ahead of a lot of cities in really dealing with those issues that have created divisions with police, particularly in minority communities. So when we’re sitting around the table, we have those real honest conversations with each other. We become the voice of the community at those meetings with police to let them know what the community is saying, what the community is experiencing.”
In April, Indianapolis Ten Point Coalition received the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award for its work in reducing crime and violence. Harrison said the honor validated the group’s work among elected officials, throughout Indiana and on a national level.
“That was important for the FBI to say that this grassroots, faith-based approach has been effective in reducing urban youth gun violence in a major city. … We have seen a lot of doors open because of that recognition,” Harrison said.
He is currently working with Indiana’s attorney general to expand the program to other cities in the state and is in talks with Louisville, Cleveland, Ohio, and other cities about the initiative.
For fellow United Methodist churches looking to start a similar program in their communities, Harrison said to give him a call.
“Every church has a uniqueness to their congregation that could allow them to have the same kind of impact that Barnes has had in our community.”
Julie Dwyer is general church content editor with United Methodist Communications.