Churches tackle underlying causes of street violence

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On Oct. 26, more than 500 people from different congregations around the region gathered in Epiphany Catholic Church to move forward with plans for social reform and to celebrate their past accomplishments.

Members of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network challenged elected officials to agree to a number of commitments on issues including community benefits agreements, immigration reform and health care reform. Although Black-on-Black violence was not among the main points on their list, PIIN believes the issues they addressed are the driving force behind street violence.

“The overarching concern for which we organize is metro equity. Violence in the Black community is a public health issue that is a result of a number of things eroding metro equity, e.g. sprawl, suburban development incentives given by cities, municipalities and states which dilutes the tax base in the city and further contributing to concentrated poverty,” PIIN President Rev. John Welch said. “Low wage jobs with no benefits contributes to the hopelessness in our communities that also plays a part in the violence we experience.”

At this year’s public action meeting PIIN tackled the issues of economic development, immigration, racial profiling, health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, drug activity, and blight.

They received commitments from city council members Bruce Krauss and Bill Peduto; representatives from Sen. Bob Casey, Sen. Arlen Specter and County Executive Dan Onorato; Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper; and county council president Rich Fitzgerald who promised to address these problems.

“To deal with Black violence in itself and apart from the wider issues which in my opinion are the upstream causes of urban violence is counterproductive. These are issues related to the violence in our communities,” Welch said. “However, my firm belief is until more Black congregations organize together, raise their concern together, persuade the appropriate officials to identify this violence as a threat to public health in the city and suburb then anything short of that would be like lighting a fire cracker in the middle of Heinz Field and expecting the noise to shake the structure.”

Welch referenced PIIN’s Holy Ground campaign as one of the ways the organization has tried to curtail violence in the community. The campaign, which was launched over the summer, attacked drug activity and blight around neighborhood churches.

At the meeting those involved in the campaign shared stories of how their actions have helped to make the neighborhoods safer. In some neighborhoods PIIN members received commitments for increased police presence and in other areas abandoned houses were boarded up or demolished.

“As a result of our congregations identifying issues around our houses of worship and holding local community actions to address them, we came to the stark conclusion that one underlying problem directly or indirectly impacted each issue in each neighborhood: blight and abandonment,” Rev. Richard Freeman said.” Blight and abandoned properties are a direct result of larger regional economic and social forces and also cause many other problems faced by neighborhoods infested with the disease of blight.”

Freeman, who is the pastor of Resurrection Baptist Church in Braddock, was one of 100 community members who took a stand against drug dealing in their neighborhood. He said this activity no longer occurs in the area and the community meets monthly with the Braddock Chief of Police.

“Whether it’s in the Hill, Garfield, Homewood, the North Side or Braddock, abandoned and blighted properties tend to be at the center of illegal activity, downgrade the appearance of the street with overgrown weeds and debris; and make the neighborhood unattractive to future tenants or buyers,” Freeman said. “Blight and abandonment are not only signs of decline in a community but also creators of further decline and barriers to progress as a neighborhood works to come together to make progress toward rejuvenation.”

PIIN is a group of over 30 churches of several different denominations and other religious organizations. It is also allied with ten other non-profit organizations.

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