The Rev. Dr. Herron Gaston, senior pastor of Summerfield United Methodist Church, declares that young people must be at the table to engineer solutions to community trouble. Years ago he was told “how can you have a meeting about us, without us?” In response to recent community violence Gaston informs in the commentary that follows the formation of a “Citizens Review Committee that will meet regularly in consultation with key stakeholders from the community to begin to devise an aggressive community plan of action to help restore the image of Bridgeport, and to begin implementing best practices in a concerted effort to save our youth from all forms of violence, and to eradicate gun-violence in our City.”
Gaston also shares insight into ongoing youth programs at his church. For background on Gaston see here.
Over the past few weeks, our City has been plagued with gun violence, which has left community leaders wondering what we can do to help save our youth.
I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about ways in which we can help to improve the life of our beloved community. As a pastor in this community and a national youth advocate who has worked with members of Congress to address youth related concerns particularly in inner-cities for nearly a decade, I think that I bring a professional and unique perspective to this issue. I believe it is mission critical to engage our youth in substantive dialogue and to attempt to drill down on what the root of the problem is–so that we can move closer towards a solution in curbing violence in our City, which is a first meaningful step towards real progress.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “violence is the language of the unheard.” Therefore, perhaps, the surge in violence that we are witnessing is a ground swelling of pent-up frustration on the part of our youth in response to a shadowy mirroring of the systemic and epistemic violence of years of benign neglect by those who control the levers of power who have often turned a blind eye to the plight of the marginalized.
Hence, I believe that often those who are closest to the problem are closest to the solution. Thus, in order to truly address this humanitarian crises, we must invite our young people to the table. I once heard a young person tell me, “how can you have a meeting about us, without us?” This statement has stuck with me for nearly a decade and serves as a constant reminder to ensure that all voices are represented at the “change table.” And as a part of my leadership as senior pastor of SUMC, I have consistently placed young people on key administrative boards where they have decision-making authority within the church.
This has not always been lauded as the most popular idea by more seasoned congregants; however, it is the right thing to do. We cannot continue to apply old-school remedies to new-school tactics. I believe there is something to be said about why we are endowed with two ears and one mouth: so that we can be more expedient to listen than we are to speak. And our young people have substantive things to add to the conversation.
Moreover, I think that we need to inject a sense of pride and hope back into our community, where young people feel that they can be constructive agents of change in their respective communities. For example, we need to invest in recreational programs for our youth, mentoring programs, vocational training, and job placement initiatives to name a few. I know up close and personal, that if we make the right kind of investment in our young people, we will see a reciprocal investment.
For instance, four years ago my business partner and I started a youth program entitled: Youth With A Purpose, where we focus on character development, education, mentoring, and counseling for at-risk teens in Bridgeport through Summerfield United Methodist Church. As a result of this program, we have consistently placed over 36 young people (from Bridgeport) a year into local colleges and universities. These young people are from all parts of Bridgeport, and they consistently give back to their community through their time, talent, and service.
This is a clear signal that great things are happening in Bridgeport and that our young people possess exceptional potential and promise for the future. Nevertheless, these are not the stories that are highlighted about our young people in the media, and these are often the programs that are severely underfunded, but are critically necessary for the flourishing of our community and your youth. Our YWAP program has gained wide recognition from Governor Malloy, Mayor Ganim’s Office, as well as members of Congress.
I am not suggesting that we don’t have significant challenges to address as a community with respect to ongoing violence, and certainly we must all work to do something about helping to change that negative image. As a community we must convey extremely strong and clear standards against violence, and we must work together with community leaders, parents, public officials, law enforcement, churches, schools, and other relevant groups to provide alternatives to violent or criminal lifestyles. And I believe that together we can forge a better way forward. Change doesn’t happen from the top down, but the bottom up. We cannot sit idly by while our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters blood is being shed in the streets.
Therefore, in the New Year, I look forward to forming a Citizens Review Committee that will meet regularly in consultation with key stakeholders from the community to begin to devise an aggressive community plan of action to help restore the image of Bridgeport, and to begin implementing best practices in a concerted effort to save our youth from all forms of violence, and to eradicate gun violence in our City.
This is a clarion call in that we must move from rhetoric to praxis. And from mere conversation to meticulous and methodical practical implementation. I stand ready to work with the leadership of this City, community leaders, our young people, and any other groups or stakeholders who have a vested interest in the prosperity of Bridgeport. We cannot delay. For the blood of martyrs are summoning us to take a stand. In conclusion, in the words of my beloved fraternal brother, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today; we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” I hope that you will join me and others as we work together to restore the reputation of our beloved City.