African American males receive significant attention for criminal and violent behavior. The time has come to show a different side: African American men of faith who seek peace and pursue it.
When Rev. Darren Ferguson started the “Starve the Beast” campaign in New York City in August he knew “The Beast” personally—perhaps better than most.
Many understand incarceration and even serving in a correctional facility as being in “the belly of the beast.” But for the New York City pastor, “the Beast” goes beyond its belly.
“The Beast is a multi-layered phenomenon,” Ferguson told me. While prison may be its “belly,” its reach goes far beyond the prison walls to incorporate images of terror and destruction before and after incarceration.
“I was in the belly, but before I got there, I was part of the destruction of my own community,” the Reverend says. ” ‘Starve the Beast’ is a campaign to combat the destructive behaviors before incarceration, promote strategies that promote transformation within the prison, and give support to persons coming home to move beyond destructive behaviors to constructive engagement.”
For Ferguson, faith is a motivating force to mobilize faith and community groups to apply their existing resources to reducing crime, violence and recidivism. When he quotes the Bible passage from Matthew 25 to which many appeal for their ministry with the criminal justice system, he does not simply point to the verse “I was in prison and you visited me.”
Instead, Ferguson notes that the passage talks about helping those who are “sick.”
“The beast is a sickness and people need healing- their communities need healing,” he says.
Much like Chicago's Operation Ceasefire, he employs “epidemic” language to refer to crime and, especially, to gun violence.
And the biblical passage says that when people of faith take care of the sick, it is as if they were taking care of Jesus himself. Such imagery goes a long way to humanize those who exhibit the destructive behaviors of the beast. It is the starting point for engagement.
When people of faith begin with such a humanizing perspective, they put themselves in a position to build relationships with those battling the beast within.
“Having been both a part of and in the beast,” Ferguson continues, “I victimized my community and had no one in community to tell me what I was doing to it. No guide or mentor to help me understood how I got caught up.”
After years of using drugs, and being a “pseudo-dealer,” Ferguson served 8 years for setting fire to his apartment to burn bills and eviction notices. An elderly woman in the building died in the fire. It was while in prison that he came under the influence of Bishop Richard T. Howze , pastor of Faith Ministries for Better Living.
As he describes it, Howze and his members became “loving caring people [who] helped while while I was in prison in order to level the playing field when I got out.”
“Starve the Beast” helps organizations on the ground reconnect with those who would be destructive, by first recognizing their true humanity, and then building relationships of presence and support.
Ferguson’s leadership represents a generation of African American men of faith striving to make a difference in the reduction of crime and violence.
Hakiem is one such man. Ferguson calls him a “guide and a mentor.” One of about forty people from a variety of religious traditions, he was participating in a recent training session on prisoner reentry sponsored by the Bronx Clergy Criminal Justice Roundtable.
On the screen before the group, the DVD “A Justice That Heals” took those present through an amazing story of forgiveness, where the mother of a murder victim “adopts” her son’s killer, and commences a process of making him a disciple, or “discipling” him, while he serves a 40- year sentence for the killing.
Hakiem shook, he fidgeted, he squirmed.
When the floor opened for discussion, he quickly seized the mike and talked of his own son’s murder over a decade ago. He struggled with the notion of forgiveness, Hakiem's response to his son’s killing has been to hit the streets and prevent others from continuing the violent life that took his son from him.
And he has been a real force in community interventions in “memory” of his son.
But this training session would be a turning point for Hakim. The group, led by Pastor “Que” English, surrounded him with prayer, believing that he needed to be lifted from his burden of bitterness.
“Indeed,” said Pastor Que, “you will be more effective on the streets without the bitterness.”
Pastor Que’s husband, Pastor Tim English, began a series of meetings with Hakim to help him with forgiveness. Hakiem plans to visit his son’s killer. He knows from his own pain and religious conviction that there is a human side to even those who have committed the most heinous crimes. He is working to strengthen his witness on the streets as an intervention specialist.
The faith community’s commitment to forgiveness is a powerful tool in breaking the cycle of violence.
In building relationships with those who receive a second chance upon release, the faith community becomes a first line of defense against recidivism. But like Ferguson, it also also moves to the front end of the process, to “Starve the Beast” of its prey of inner city youth.
Joel Seay, in Philadelphia, knows his faith in God has changed him. The former gang rumbler is clear that in having witnessed the murder of his son some 18 months ago, only God kept him sane, and gave him the ability to overcome the desire for revenge that would have easily won out when he was living the gang life.Now, Seay and his wife have created the Jarell Christopher Seay Foundation to promote peace on the streets- the streets where the Beast took Jarell’s life, and where Joel once was part of the problem.
Speaking at anti-violence rallies, and developing relationships with neighborhood youth, Seay marvels at the transformation in himself, and how his faith propels him toward the transformation of others. His mission is to combat the violence of the Beast by “surrounding communities with love laughter and peace.”
He is clear: the power of faith lies not in its ability to end crime, violence and recidivism, but to replace them with the resources true hope and solid relationships. Men like Ferguson, Hakim and Seay labor by faith for such a transformation.
EDITORS NOTE: For additional information on Starve the Beast, see the campaign's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/#!/StarveTheBeastCampaign
Harold Dean Trulear is director of Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Initiative, and Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University. He welcomes comments from readers.