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Clearwater seeks churches' help in fighting crime

CLEARWATER — There was no shortage of spirit at St. John's Primitive Baptist Church at a recent 8 a.m. Sunday service.

Congregants clapped, cried and waved their hands as the choir extolled the power of Jesus.

For many in North Greenwood, services such as these provide comfort and inspiration. But now questions are being raised about what local churches are doing to help those not sitting in the pews on Sunday morning.

After seeing Da Hood Gone Wild, a DVD filled with explicit footage of fighting and drug use in North Greenwood, Mayor Frank Hibbard began meeting monthly with church pastors and leaders in an effort to address the area's problems. The first meeting was held in November.

"All the churches have relationships with parishioners and have the respect of the neighborhood," Hibbard said. "(Churches) can't do it all on their own, like the city or the neighborhood can't. It's got to be a unified effort. But they are an important component."

While they are receptive to playing a part, some ministers say they are uncertain about their new role. They don't want their mission to change from leading souls to Christ to becoming the social clearinghouse for the community.

"There's a fine line we have got to determine of whose responsibility (policing the community) belongs to," said the Rev. Harvey Lawrence, pastor of Church of God by Faith on North Myrtle Avenue and the president of the Upper Pinellas Ministry Alliance. "We are all taxpayers that live in the city, and we know it is the police chief and his staff's responsibility to work for all the citizens."

This isn't the first time the city has tapped the faith community to help North Greenwood.

In a 2007 grant proposal, Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein designed a faith-based neighborhood watch program that asked North Greenwood churches and their members to take a more active role in what was happening in the community.

Klein wants the church coalition to focus on reducing street-level drug dealing and to help solve the community's four unsolved homicides.

Under Klein's plan, each church would be assigned a geographical area. If a young person in the area is arrested or suspected of drug activity, the police would pass the name to the church.

A church member would then contact a parent or guardian to see if something can be done to keep the young person out of the criminal justice system, Klein said.

The city didn't get the grant, but Klein is still adamant he can make the program work.

"(Churches) are a critical and necessary part of the solution," Klein said. "What the police are finding most often is the absence of parental supervision and responsibility. We need somebody to help us fill that void."

But many ministers are skeptical, saying they don't want to be viewed as an extension of the police.

"Everything is not left up to the church," said the Rev. Anita Davis, pastor of Bethany CME Church on Springdale Street. "It has a place and should do all it should to attend to the needs of the people. But I definitely don't think people should be looking to the church as the only entity to save the community. The question is, what responsibility is the church taking on and is that really the police's responsibility?"

Anthony Bernard Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Rice University, said the church's role in the black community has always been complex. He said now is the time for these churches to rethink their missions.

"It's a time of introspection," Pinn said. "It's a time to decide what they are going to do with social involvement and find out what the role is going to be and what kind of contribution they will make to healthy living for folks in the 21st century."

The Rev. Benjamin Adams Jr., pastor of St. John's Primitive Baptist Church, said many churches are already ministering outside their walls. He said he frequently helps people with drug problems find treatment but doesn't publicize it.

The Rev. Carlton Childs, pastor of Overcoming Church of God in Christ at 803 Carlton St., helps run an eight-bed Ruth House for women and a 10-bed Joshua House for men. Both are 12-month residential programs that offer substance abuse treatment, emergency shelter and temporary housing. The church also helps restore the rights of convicted felons.

"In our community there has always been a place of refuge at the church," Childs said. "We do a lot of talking from the pulpit and inside the church walls but after Sunday, how often do you see the pastors, the missionaries on the street trying to reach folks?"

Lawrence is still cautious. He's afraid the extra duties will distract churches from their primary mission: saving souls.

"As spiritual leaders, we want people to come to Jesus Christ so their souls will be saved," Lawrence said. "If we can do that, the police and everybody else will have little to do."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or 445-4174.

>>Fast facts

To learn more

The next North Greenwood action meeting is at 10 a.m. March 19 at Clearwater City Hall, 112 S Osceola Ave.

Clearwater seeks churches' help in fighting crime 03/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 10:25am]
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