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Will Milwaukee's program to cure violence work in St. Louis

414LIFE worker Chris Conley talks to resident Mattie Roberts on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Conley and other members of 414LIFE were canvassing the neighborhood and handing out literature about their organization. They were asking residents to call them if they knew of conflicts that could possibly escalate into violence. Roberts said there was a murder several months ago at the bar/lounge where she works as a cook. "I hid in the kitchen when the shooting started. It's bad out here," she said. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

Why would men of God — pastors and preachers, men and women of supposed faith and belief — stand at their pulpits on Sunday to preach hate, violence and horrid demeaning sermons of hypocrisy to their flocks?

In my 60-plus years, I have been blessed to live and work in St. Louis. The majority of that time as a public servant: 911 dispatcher, in corrections and as a police officer. I’ve maintained lifelong friendships with residents in St Louis, many for nearly 40 years now. Black and white men and women, whom I respect and admire for their honesty, dedication to the truth and faithfulness to their family and friends.

We gather once a month for coffee and share memories. So when many of these friends expressed their concern and anger at what has been preached in some north St. Louis churches during recent Sunday services, I was, to understate, more than surprised. They recounted stories of church leaders telling their flocks that blacks are born as victims of oppression, and that whites instill a sense in blacks to fear the whites — most of all the police. And in doing so, my friends recounted of the preachers’ remarks, black-on-black violence is being used as a tool by whites to control black rage at being forced into poverty, drug abuse, violent crimes and domestic violence.

One of these friends is an ex-meat packer with Krey’s Packing Co. whom I’ve known for many years. He had attended church services just a few days ago and came away dumbfounded when the pastor told a group of children to never forget that the whites created the HIV disease to kill the black race.

Why and to what purpose would such vile poison be preached in any church? Is it to keep hate and racism alive? Is it a political agenda? Is it a twisted ploy to maintain control in the chaos of violence? Isn’t the murder of anyone, regardless of skin color, a sin to be recognized as such by any member of the clergy?

Such a sin is only enhanced by excusing it as a tool of oppression. Murder is murder.

It has long been understood that no single group or organization alone can bring a halt to the violence now plaguing St. Louis. Community and church leaders, the political offices of every alderman and the mayor, and members of the law enforcement community must accept and share equal responsibilities to stop the violence.

How is that going to be achieved if just one of those groups subverts the goals that the people of St. Louis not only demand but are entitled to? Without full cooperation, no change will happen. Neighborhood churches and clergy have immense influence on their flocks. If they urge congregants not to participate or cooperate, church members are likely to do just that — nothing.

During my years as a police officer, I learned early that what happens in the neighborhood stays in the neighborhood. No one wants to be branded a snitch. On rare occasions, relatives of the victim would try to help police solve the crime. But now, promised monetary rewards of rather large figures bring no cooperation, and unrestrained violence worsens.

The newest proposal, Cure Violence, also is doomed to fail without 100% community backing. Even the support of the governor and additional highway patrol won’t help if neighborhood church leadership preaches non-cooperation.

St. Louis has always been a divided city, filled with racism. But even the most entrenched disease can be cured, even racism. There has been progress, and there will be more. But that progress will be slowed by those who, for whatever reason, continue to place blame on outsiders for the decay afflicting their communities from within.

We’re all biased. Each of us is a racist in one form or another. We’re human. Racism is a learned form of hatred, and if it can be taught, it can also be untaught. Being taught fear, hate and resentment when young is difficult to overcome — be it taught from the blackboard in schools or the pulpit in church. There isn’t a law that can force anyone to think what they wish or change what they believe. But they can be untaught.

If a message of non-cooperation is going out from the pulpit to obstruct workers from Cure Violence or any other anti-crime effort, the preachers of this message will have only themselves to blame when the cycle of tragedy and grief intensifies.

Phillip Reagan is a retired police officer and public servant who lives in Wentzville.