ROCHESTER — As the city reeled from one of its bloodiest weeks this year, with seven homicides in as many days, representatives of the World Council of Churches came to Rochester Nov. 13-15 for a conference on violence and the ways faith communities can combat it.
Members of various local churches kicked off “Overcoming Violence: Creating a Culture of Peace” with a Nov. 13 luncheon at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and an ecumenical worship celebration that evening at Baber African Methodist Episcopal Church. Sponsored by the divinity school, the Greater Rochester Community of Churches and the Rochester Friends of the WCC, the conference continued Nov. 14 with two panel discussions about the underlying causes of violence and how the Rochester community can respond to it.
The gathering concluded Nov. 15 with a panel discussion between local Christian leaders, who listened to and learned from each other before launching a series of new forums and initiatives (see sidebar on page A7).
The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of more than 345 Christian churches, denominations and fellowships representing more than 560 million Christians throughout the world. In 2001 the council embarked on its Decade to Overcome Violence, an initiative that encourages churches and communities to address issues of violence in their own contexts and to work together for peace, justice and reconciliation.
The Rev. Hansulrich Gerber, coordinator of the Decade to Overcome Violence, spoke at most of the conference events. Before taking on his position with the council, Rev. Gerber, a Mennonite pastor from Geneva, Switzerland, directed the International Mennonite Peace Committee and the European relief work of the Mennonite Central Committee.
Unity is a key objective of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Gerber told those gathered for the Nov. 13 worship celebration. Christians are bound together by their belief in Jesus and his message of love and peace, he said. Unity does not mean conformity or uniformity, he noted, and Christians don’t have to abandon their differences in order to work together.
“As far as I know, God doesn’t want everyone to … share the same language and literature. God wants peace, so that all inhabitants of this world may have life, and life in abundance. God wants to use the church to bring salvation to the world,” Rev. Gerber said.
Just as unity does not mean conformity, living in peace does not mean living without conflict or tension, he added. On the contrary, people living in a peaceful world may occasionally face conflicts, but they will always feel safe and secure. People in a peaceful world may not have an abundance of resources, but they will have enough to survive, he said.
“A world of enough. That will make for peace, and for right relationships where we are safe again. World peace is about feeling safe, having enough, being at home,” Rev. Gerber said.
One of the biggest obstacles to peace is large masses of people who actively or passively resist change and transformation toward peace, he said, adding that many Christians pray for peace, but their prayers need to be coupled with action.
“We pray for it, but we also have to look for it, and when it happens we have to be there,” he said.
Many Christian churches believe, for example, that war is wrong in most cases. Many have denounced the war in Iraq, he observed, but few have taken concrete actions to support their beliefs.
People need to understand the dynamics of violence before they can effectively fight it, Rev. Gerber stated during a Nov. 14 workshop. War is classified as a collective form of violence, which also can take psychological, sexual, self-directed (such as suicide) and interpersonal (such as domestic) forms.
The first goal of the Decade to Overcome Violence is to learn about all of violence’s forms, he said, and the second goal is to challenge churches to overcome the logic and practice of violence and to give up justifying it. The third goal is to encourage Christians to listen to the spirituality and peace stories of other cultures, then join with those people to search for peace and reconciliation.
“We cannot work in isolation. We need to work together with people of the other traditions because violence doesn’t know the difference. Violence works the same way whether you’re a Muslim or a Jew or a Christian or an atheist,” Rev. Gerber said.
Rev. Gerber was joined at the Nov. 14 workshop by representatives of Rochester’s Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian communities. Each representative shared the perspective on violence of his or her faith tradition.
During a Nov. 15 panel discussion Father Laurence Tracy, sacramental minister for St. Michael and Our Lady of Perpetual Help parishes, called for churches to mentor young people and fight against the lack of social services that he said contributes to violence. Just days before the discussion, two young friends of Father Tracy were shot to death on Rochester’s Hamilton Street, bringing the violence home to him, he said.
“We need to reach out to the neighborhoods around our churches,” said Father Tracy, a longtime minister to the area Hispanic community. He noted that approximately six Latinos are murdered in Monroe County every year.
As Father Tracy and other local ministers on the Nov. 15 panel called for church action, a Nov. 14 panel of representatives of grassroots peacemaking agencies expressed frustration with the time their nonprofit organizations must spend on administration and fundraising, which distracts them from their primary missions.
That complaint prompted Rev. Gerber to propose a centralized organization for Rochester to help small agencies spend less time on paperwork and more time helping people. He said new anti-violence organizations may not be needed, noting that Rochester already has many such small programs.
“The news on television and radio is that Rochester is one of the worst places in terms of homicides, but they do not say that Rochester may be one of the places with the most initiatives,” he said, noting that while conflict is inevitable, a violent solution to that conflict is not.
John M. Klofas, professor of criminal justice at Rochester Institute of Technology who spoke as part of the Nov. 14 panel to put the violence in context, said Rochester’s violence problem springs, in part, from a large gap between its rich and poor residents. Both violence and poverty appear disproportionately in certain demographics, he said. The national homicide rate is six to eight people per 100,000, he noted, but for African-American men ages 18 to 35 who live in Rochester’s high-crime neighborhoods, it is 650 per 100,000.
“That’s a figure that should make everyone uncomfortable,” Klofas said.
Members of the Nov. 14 panel offered the following suggestions on reducing violence:
1. Creating a peace consortium comprising existing grassroots anti-violence agencies
Catherine Mazzotta, executive director of Alternatives for Battered Women, said that such a consortium has been established among local domestic-violence organizations and has prevented duplication of effort. Klofas said a broader organization might help new and small anti-violence groups to survive and thrive.
2. Using education to discourage permissive attitudes about violence
Marion Walker, president of the Jay-Orchard Street Area Neighborhood Association, said that fear of reprisal holds people back from speaking out against crime and drug trafficking. When that fear was overcome in his neighborhood, Walker said he saw a dramatic drop in crime.
Other panelists also offered examples of educational programs that have showed promise in discouraging violent behavior. Alternatives for Battered Women’s Stand Up Guys program teaches people to speak out against violence and report it, Mazzotta said.
Isobel Goldman, community-relations director for the Jewish Community Federation of Rochester, and Deacon Bill Coffey of St. Mary Church in Rochester, said mentoring, tutoring and GED programs help break the cycle of violence. Panelists also agreed that parents need to be educated about the link between exposure to lead paint, learning disabilities and violent behaviors.
3. Making it more difficult to get a gun
Gary Mervis, chairman and founder of Camp Good Days and Special Times, said the community needs to rid itself of guns to help bring about safety. Conflicts escalate when guns are involved, panelists agreed.
“The problem really came home for me when my son said he could very easily buy a firearm as a piece of pizza in school,” said Victor Saunders, director of Pathways to Peace, a network of volunteers that attempt to resolve conflicts and refer people to community resources.
4. Teaching conflict-resolution skills to children
Juveniles are turning to violent behavior and are getting arrested at younger and younger ages, Saunders said, noting that dispute-related violence actually is more prevalent in Rochester than gang-related violence. Thus, he said, teaching young people ways to peacefully resolve their disputes, and getting a network of street peacemakers to help facilitate a peaceful solution, might help to stave off violence.
Rev. Gerber also urged the inclusion of violent offenders and gang members in anti-violence efforts, because they speak from experience and can influence friends and family to work toward peace.
“(Perpetrators of violence) become the best ambassadors for peace,” he said.
5. At hospitals and prisons, making sure families receive the social help they need
Jeffrey Rideout, a social worker with the pediatric intensive-care unit at Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong, said many young patients who have been victimized by violence are also homeless, live in fear or are struggling in school. Victims of violence have an extremely high rate of being revictimized or becoming a perpetrator, he said. Rideout said health-care workers are making a greater effort to refer young victims to social services before discharging them.
“What we’re trying to do now is not just patch them up and send them back out there,” Rideout said.
During the Nov. 15 panel discussion and the Nov. 13 worship service, local clergy called on each other to reach out to underserved populations. The Rev. Karen Carter, who spoke in her Nov. 14 keynote address about the murder of her sister, called on local clergy to help people heal their pain and move away from underground economies, such as drug dealing.
“God’s choice of religious behavior is behavior that meets the needs of others,” said Rev. Carter, program director of Families and Friends of Murdered Children and a chaplain at several prisons.
Donna Ecker, director of Bethany House, a Catholic Worker home for women and children, said victims’ stories can stir empathy and help stave off violence. She suggested that clergy take to the streets to build community. Likewise, the Rev. Roy King, a minister at the Church of God in Christ and a Rochester City Court Justice, called on local churches to each take 10 youngsters under their wings and guide them in their development.
“If we can fashion some sort of ministry, we will be saving thousands,” Rev. King said.
The Rev. Alan Newton, executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of the Rochester Genesee Region, said churches should advocate for alternatives in sentencing and for spending less on war and more on education. The Rev. John S. Walker, pastor of Rochester’s Christian Friendship Baptist Church, said preventing child abuse should be the top priority for clergy.
“The most profound evil in our society is the sexual and physical brutality perpetrated against defenseless children,” Rev. Walker said.
Several people attending the events said the calls for churches to work together against violence were on the right track. James Richardson, president of the Lenox Street Association, said although neighborhood programs are in place, more people, including clergy and their parishioners, are needed in the fight against violence.
“I took away the need for us to work together as a religious community, and that is hard for many of us to do,” said Bill Taber of Brighton. “We get bogged down in our petty differences.”