Under the searing sun and stench of roadside garbage, a teenage Hispanic girl carrying a baby boy comes out of a door next to a church. Her tousled hair looked like she'd been up all night. The baby's unwashed face was smeared with dirt; a diaper was the only thing covering his bare skin. Was this baby her son? Or was she babysitting a relative? This anonymous girl did not belong to the church, but lived above it. She gave me an empty look. I couldn't help to think that this young girl, who was no more the age of 15, was already a mother and felt some hopelessness.
In a high crime area like Brooklyn, Community District 14, situations like her's is not uncommon. Brooklyn CD 14 includes main church arteries, such as Flatbush Avenue, Nostrand Avenue and Bedford Avenue. Abandoned buildings and stores with bullet proof glass fill parts of the neighborhood. One can see men loitering on the street corners waiting for a drug sell. According to the community district profile, 36.4% of the population received income support from the government in the form of public assistance, supplemental Security, and/or Medicaid in the year 2007.
The voices of the youth are lost in places of high crime like Flatbush. Poverty affects youth by depleting precious opportunities for academic learning and often pushes them into the cycle of drugs, violence, and teenage pregnancies. However, a trend throughout the area is the ability for Flatbush youths who belong to congregations to overcome these patterns.
Fifteen year old Rachell Jean, whose father is the pastor of Tabernacle Haitian Church of Brooklyn, describes how her street transformed after her father opened his
church. "Before we came here, this whole street was drugs. We brought in people selling drugs into this church and now they've stopped selling. If you don't have church, how do you live?" she proclaimed.
Jean is not alone in her sentiments. She and her cousin, 12 year old Carine Nelzy, believe schools are not providing enough after -school activities to keep their classmates off the streets. "That's one reason people resort to drugs, there's no where else for them to go but the streets" observed Carine.
A report on nationwide graduation rates was published in 2006 by Editorial Projects in Education Research Center of Education Week. The report found a 39 percent graduation rate of New York City students, the figure is 30 percentage points lower than the national average.
House of worships provide a platform in which urban youths feel more connected and supported within their community. Lisa Gay, a 23 year old in the Wesleyan Church, said "If you know someone is here for you, it makes everything better. In turn, youths start to develop better relationships with their neighbors, increase their ability to empathize, and overcome their own personal troubles.
When 12 year old Davina Beckford, from Rock of Holiness Deliverance Ministry, was asked what she would do to change New York City. She replied she would help "the people who are out there who thinks no one cares." Her dream is to become a hairdresser, but it was clear that she is capable of a leadership position.
What these young ladies have in common is the desire to push forward with self-reflection and compassion towards their neighbors. They seek to change their hostile environment by changing themselves. This sense of empowerment is a useful tactic in overcoming the effects of poverty.
"I could see it in their eyes that no one feels for them, but I do," stated Rachell Jean. The future of New York City lies within the faces of these young women.
For more see Lisa Gay dances for Haitian relief!