Toronto churches respond to gang violence
By Mags Storey | Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Damian Pitter (centre), a street leader for Urban Promise, hangs out with Destiny Douse (right). PHOTO: URBAN PROMISE
TORONTO, ONUrban Promise Toronto is reviewing its safety measures after an increase in gang violence between two community housing neighborhoods.
There has been a long-standing rivalry between the low-rise communities of Mount Olive and Jamestown, near Kipling Avenue and Finch Avenue, according to Ron Taverner, police superintendent of 23 Division. Previous community efforts had gone a long way to reducing the number of violent incidents.
"The violence reached a boiling point," says Colin McCartney, founder of Urban Promise Toronto. "There have been random shootings in each community, even affecting non-gang members. The only grocery store is in one of the communities, making it dangerous for the people from the other community to go shopping. We had a community night at the end of the summer which was threatened with a possible drive-by shooting."
Urban Promise runs after-school and tutoring programs, summer camps and programs for young mothers in four different low-income communities across Toronto. They hire local youth as "street leaders"providing them with meaningful employment and enabling them to be role-models in the community.
"There are only about 65 murders in Toronto each year," McCartney says, "but most of them take place in areas where Urban Promise is at work."
One of their community centres is based in Thistletown Baptist Church, located in between Mount Olive and Jamestown.
"Most of the kids are from Mount Olive," McCartney says. "However one of our counsellors is from Jamestown, and she receives a lot of verbal abuse from the children from Mount Olive.
"Violence has a whole bunch of spin-off effects that negatively impact a community. Not only are they fearful for their lives, but the community gets further stigmatized by the media. It's pretty tempting to join a gang to make some fast cash by being a lookout or selling drugs, especially when you don't have a way of making money in legal ways.
"Whatever happens in the community is going to affect us," he says, "because this is who we are. This is where we live. This is where God put us. The church was here before any of these other buildings were.
"A family in our church was friends with one of the young men who was murdered this summer. He was coming home from the grocery store and there were some people waiting for him. Not only did they shoot him, but three homes took bullets. It was nasty.
"Then there was another drive-by shooting just one street up from the church. Turns out the murders didn't even know the victim.
"I visited the friend of one of the young men who was murdered. I said, 'We live in a broken world and we need Christ. That is the gospel: that the world is a mess and people are bad because of sin. We need Christ.
Taverner says the violence has begun to abate again due to the hard work of local clergy, social workers and police. "Although we talk about these things going on, 99 per cent of the community is made up of good people trying to get on with their lives. It is a very small percentage causing these problems."
"I see Jesus in this community," says McCartney. The author of Red Letter Revolution, is on tour with World Vision, speaking on why young people leave the church and how social justice fuels the gospel.
He says: "We've just got to go in there and love these people. We need to show them the church has an impact on what is going on outside its walls."
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