NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Part 2 of our report on violence in St. Louis.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: As we reported last week, the murder rate in St. Louis is the highest in the nation. And most of those murders are concentrated in just a few inner-city neighborhoods.
A traditional law-enforcement approach might emphasize crime and disorder—the so-called broken windows approach. What Christians who live in the area stress is personal relationship-building with those who live in the neighborhood.
EICHER: Kristen Flavin is here now with her report on Christians working to turn things around.
KRISTEN FLAVIN, REPORTER: Mike Higgins is the senior pastor at South City Church in downtown St. Louis. He grew up in one of the city’s rough neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s.
HIGGINS: Then something called crack cocaine came into the neighborhood. I just, as a young black man growing up in north St Louis, I realized that I need to get out.
But he came back 10 years later to go into ministry with students at Covenant Theological Seminary. After a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson in 20-14, Higgins realized he needed to work to reduce the violence in his own neighborhood. He started by meeting with people face-to-face.
HIGGINS: I’ve had meetings with gang people, and I think gang is like family that some people didn’t have. So if we can find redemptive bridges, like, okay, family is a good word. So how does that play out in your gang, you know, and at first nobody wants to talk, but then you get one person who’s like, well, you know, I don’t really talk to pastors, but I’ll tell you this and all of a sudden everybody’s talking.
Admittedly, it’s not easy.
HIGGINS: You’ve got to be cussed out and have folk throw bottled water on you when you first start because they want to see how much skin you got in this game, you know?
Building bridges looked a little different for Pamela Baum and her husband Bryan. In 2004, they felt called to adopt. They had six children of their own, but soon these two white parents found themselves adopting two black children.
The Baums lived in a predominantly white suburb about 30 minutes from downtown St. Louis. It didn’t take long for the Baums to realize they needed to make a location change for the sake of their young black children.
It wasn’t a smooth transition.
BAUM: It was a little bit of a culture shock for them to adjust to staying close at home, having to be driven to a friend’s house instead of being able to walk to a friend’s house.
Pamela wanted to be a positive influence in the neighborhood. She made her home a safe place for neighborhood children to hang out. Then she began reaching out to the adults. She and her husband hosted backyard barbecues and helped neighbors with house projects.
BAUM: And what I realized was that the drug dealer that lived across the street was just like me. He had the same hopes and dreams. He’s just chose a path that was illegal and kind of bought into the lie that that was the way to go.
Theo Jackson is a Christian police officer for University City—a district that sits in a suburb right on the edge of the St. Louis city limits.
He believes bridge building in communities is an important part of being in law enforcement. He says officers should live near their jurisdiction and be neighborly and approachable.
JACKSON: I was recently at a play, and I was just in line for concessions during intermission, and one of the guys that was serving and he was like, Officer Jackson. And I was like, yes, how you doing? It’s like, man, I was just want to thank you for how you handled my situation.
Jackson suggests officers stop their cars and sit with residents on their front porches to have a conversation.
But he says the solution can’t entirely ride on conversations. Faith and gatherings are a lynchpin in communities.
JACKSON: Usually the only time you see your neighbors is maybe at a sporting event from the school or at church. Those things are starting to fade away. And so if we don’t find other means of coming together, like those things have been the foundation of our neighborhoods, we’re going to be isolated, I guess in a sense, to where we’re gonna need police on every corner to protect us.
Jackson believes that way of life will lead to worse quality of life and more crime.
Pastor Higgins is working to help people in St. Louis see each other’s dignity as image-bearers of God.
HIGGINS: If we can’t get back to that common denominator, then people are just a demographic. They’re just something on a pie chart.
Pamela Baum agrees.
BAUM: I think really the role that we had was to break down those barriers and to give value to people and say, hey, you have just as much value as me, and I want you to know that.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Kristen Flavin reporting from St. Louis, Missouri.