It was the last wish of a man who seen too many peers turn onto the hard roads leading nowhere. Jerome Tyrone Somerville, 57, deacon, and a member of United Baptist for seven years before his sudden death, said the church sits right down into the middle of the unrest among the local youth. “It’s the common problems in the poor community—financial, a lot of mothers are raising the kids on their own, drugs, alcoholism,” says Somerville.
Drug abuse is one of the main problems affecting the community, said Somerville, and it has been an ongoing issue for nearly 30 years. “When the 80s came, we lost a whole generation. We had a great falling away from the churches and they became addicted on Satan’s crack stuff.” Somerville stopped to think about how the past was crushing the present.
“And then, when the crack babies were born,” he continued, “that was a continuing lost generation, because now every house was disheveled. The fathers were living in jail, the mother was hooked on drugs. Who took care of the kids? That is the generation we’re dealing with right now—the children of the 80s.”
Recognizing the rampant drug-related crimes in the community, United Baptist members have taken their message of turning back the clock in the projects to better times to the gang community. At some of their events the church has invited gang members to come in, sit down, and talk about the frustrations they face, including economic turmoil. Some of the gang members take the church up on the invitation, if only to pass the time between the active times for drug deals. They tell church members that they can’t find jobs and then feel overwhelmed with peer pressure to make something of their lives by selling drugs.
“Joining gangs is like a peer pressure thing,” summarized Somerville. “A lot of them are forced into it, and they don’t really wanna be in it.”
Because Jesus traveled around to bring his message of heavenly peace, the church on Ralph Avenue feels impelled also to go into the projects. “We know Jesus. He never stayed stationary in His divine willingness,” the church deacon reflected. “He went off everywhere and brought the Gospel to the people. And sometimes you gotta go into mix.”
Somerville’s urgent sincerity was persuasive. “I desire that more people be willing and caring enough to go into the highways and byways of the community and save these young people. Or if not, we’re gonna continue to see eight or nine funerals a day.”
Somerville complained that too many of the kids have adopted a “live fast and die young” mentality. “It’s like they don’t see a future in their lives. They just want to live for today, and that’s it.”
Somerville also noticed that the police methods have disrupted the community though they may bring some temporary peace. He argues that the police come into the neighborhood in a way that feels more like an invading army.
“Have you ever seen the police do a raid on the projects? You see how they come? Like three, four-hundred of them bum-rush the projects. Everything is set down,” the church leader observed.
A different solution, he felt, would be for more neighborhood people to come together to walk into the projects. “In order to save this generation,” he said, “collectively we all have to do something. It can’t be no one individual, or two individuals. This thing has got to be a massive gathering of people.” The deacon likened his job to Jesus walking to wherever there was a need. “We know Jesus. He never stayed stationary. He went off everywhere and brought the gospel to the people.” The church needs to assemble its army of hope and be prepared to go into the battlefield.
“But what we have to do collectively is come together and march into it. We will save more lives than we lose. Once people see us as a gathering, they lose their fear.” After all, there is certainly power in numbers.
Holding his Ryrie Study Bible in his lap, he echoed the profound message of Jesus: “Love one another as I have loved you.” He said, “Some people, they just wash their hands and give up. And some people care. It was the saying, ‘Those who know won’t tell, and those who would tell don’t know what to do.’ So I just think there’s not enough caring.”
And Somerville knew exactly when this should happen. “It needs to be done now.”
The deacon lived up to his word by volunteering daily at the church, weekly at a Ralph Avenue food pantry, doing dramatic presentations on the gifts of God, and distributing relief supplies after Operation Sandy.
Alas, the deacon passed away since this article was reported and won’t be around to see his dream of a breakout in local compassion. However, at his funeral a church member shared a poetic encouragement that Somerville left to the congregation, his favorite Biblical verse from the Apostle Paul’s words to the early Christian church (2 Corinthians 4:8,9):
Troubled on very side
Yet not distressed
But not in despair
But not forsaken
But not destroyed.
An apt summary of the steadfastness of this congregation through the decades.
The church promoted a change in the political leadership in the area, and Karim is working with the local politicians to build more community-government partnerships. Right now, the church is preparing to launch a new afterschool program. Karim says that the local kids “who are seeking a refuge need a place to go. We will try to capture their hearts before they start doing something crazy.”
Also contributing to this article: Christopher Smith.
Hope in the age of Crack Cocaine. Part 2 of series Youth moving on up at Brooklyn church, God’s Row Ralph Avenue