Night walks spread hope, calm crime

12/10/2012 12:00 AM

12/10/2012 6:58 AM

Daylight is fading when the Rev. Booker T. Lewis II begins a night walk that takes him and a group of pastors and churchgoers into a part of Fresno scarred by poverty, neglect and crime. They march along darkened southwest Fresno streets where many in the city fear to drive, even before sunset.

Armed only with a stack of postcard-size fliers explaining their belief that violence must stop and that they are committed to helping that happen, the pastors hail men standing in yards ringed by chain-link fences.

"How ya doin'?" they ask.

They listen, then ask if they can pray together. Their goal: spread peace, stop violence and create opportunities in the neighborhoods.

The 6-month-old effort is West Fresno Night Walks, and supporters believe it can curb crime – and already has done so.

On the street this night, two teenage boys walk at a fast clip. Their eyes are focused on the asphalt, and they stumble to a stop when Anthony Anderson Jr. jogs up to ask if they would like a prayer.

Anderson, 28, is quickly flanked by Lewis, his pastor at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church. They huddle with the youths.

"That was worth stopping for," Lewis says, catching up with a half-dozen volunteers walking nearby. "They wanted prayer just for living – they were thankful just to be alive."

The encounter with the boys underscores the pastors' refrain of "be safe," uttered over and over as they pass people on streets and in front yards, stopping to talk and to pray with those who want the fellowship.

Violent crime too often intrudes on life in these neighborhoods. This year, through the first seven days of December, there have been 11 homicides, 11 rapes, 283 robberies and 489 aggravated assaults.

Night Walks has been credited with helping lower crime rates in other cities, and the pastors hope it will help here. Fresno police officials are optimistic. In the past 30 days, for example, violent crime in the city's southwest region dropped 35.9 percent – a bigger decrease than the citywide drop of 20.4 percent, says Capt. Greg Garner, south bureau commander.

Night Walks has "really had an impact," Garner says. "It's really predicated on the idea that it's good for people in distressed neighborhoods to actually know that there are people who care about them."

Sabrina Rodgers, 57, and her husband, John, were ready to pack up and make a move they couldn't afford before Lewis began Friday night pilgrimages through their Brookhaven neighborhood.

Their home had been broken into twice and egged, Rodgers says. Loud music blaring from passing cars shook the house so that it "felt like an earthquake," she says, and dozens of people gathered outside on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. "It was like a circus." Now, "it's so much better," she says.

West Fresno Night Walks is one of the newer such programs in California, but it has a model to go by. The faith-based Night Walks program got its start in Boston 20 years ago after a brutal gang-related attack inside a church at a funeral service. Violent crime rates plummeted there after the faith community went into the streets between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Thursday and Friday nights. A similar night walk program has been in place in southeast Fresno for about 11 years, founded by Pastor Ricardo Garcia.

Though it's independent, the Night Walks program complements the Police Department's Ceasefire program, which targets the most violent and influential gang members, giving them resources for change that include job training, substance abuse counseling, housing, food, and clothing. Both walk programs have the department's blessing.

The impact is evident. On one Wednesday night walk, the volunteers approach a woman, she is visibly upset and shouting, and it has something to do with "getting my kids out of here." Four children and another woman identified as a sister cluster around her. "I'm mad and I'm letting her know," the shouter says, gesturing across the street where loud voices crackle in the dark.

Lewis steps toward the woman. "Let me pray for you. I'm not mad. Let's pray for this situation."

The Night Walkers form a circle around the women and children. "Bless this woman, who even in this difficult moment is receptive to prayer," Lewis says.

The circle parts, the woman mumbles a thank you and walks away, children in tow. Across the street, voices fade back into the black.

The walk continues. The volunteers pray with a woman in a laundromat who is grieving the loss of an uncle, and they pray for a woman who despairs of making a change in her life. Hope is what the walkers preach. Too many people feel discarded, disdained and damned, they say.

"They need something to help them not to give up," says Jesse Armstrong, 39, an associate minister at Rising Star. "We let them know there's still hope."

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