The Ralph Avenue neighborhood is a small corner of northeast Crown Heights that has a mountain of churches that have weathered fame and trouble over the years.
In the 1840s one of the earliest free African American settlements in the United States started in this area under the name of Weeksville. Ralph Avenue American Methodist Episcopal Church was one of the settlement's first churches. Long before Jackie Robertson moved a block off Ralph Avenue, in the 1860s the Weeksville "Unknown Base Ball Club" was tearing up the turf in its winning history with rivals in the Black Baseball circuit. The legendary Jackie Robinson moved to the area in 1947 to begin his climatic breaking of the color barrier in national league baseball. To help the Robinsons to get adjusted to Brooklyn, Rev. Lacy and Mrs. Florence Covington invited Robinson and his wife to stay at their house one block off Ralph Avenue and a couple blocks north of Atlantic Avenue. Robinson's practice on Sunday was to go to Covington's church, eat lunch with the pastor's family and then go on out to Dodger stadium. For their wedding anniversary the Robinsons went to the Orange Blossom Inn on Ralph Avenue. Robinson's last act before he died was to gather food for the food pantry for the church's outreach to poor people.
Today, the area is much poorer than in Robinson's day and emergency food suppliers like food pantries keep about 14% of the population fed each week. 50% of the local residents earn less than $23,794. The Ralph Avenue area has always been heavy in churches and now the locals heavily need them. Some of the larger, older churches have declined or moved away from the area. Over two dozen evangelical and Pentecostal churches have grown up. Now, some of these have gotten a second wind after their founders have passed on. There are also a couple of new church starts. All of the church leaders talk about their concerns for the youth, about 23% of the area's population.
Residents can recount the corners on Ralph Avenue on which area youth were maimed or shot dead. It is not unusual for police to released videos asking for help in identifying gun-toting men in the area. On January 17 rape and robbery was committed against customers in one of the local businesses. A short run off the Avenue into the Kingsborough Houses Shaman Cook was snatched away from life with a bullet on December 21, 2013. Rashan Hall was killed at the corner of Ralph Avenue and Pacific Street just about a year ago. A local rapper Mr. Mutherf***in eXquire recounts the thug life Ralph Avenue style.
Up and down the Avenue church leaders shared with Journey reporters the stories of their effort to save the area's youngsters. Church is a haven for the hurting and several focus most of their efforts on giving solace and strength to the wounded poor. Some churches also are launching pads to empower congregants to do mercy and peacemaking out in the streets and alleys.
Some go into the areas where the kids are most at risk. Other churches do periodic events like fairs and school book bag handouts while keeping their churches open for anyone wanting out of the street troubles to come in. A couple of the churches work with the Brooklyn District Attorney's program to divert young juvenile offenders to church and other non-profit programs that help with education, mentoring and job placement. This week and next week with the help of students from Bethel University and expertise of New York Theological Seminary, A Journey will tell some of the churches' stories of relieving life's stresses and youth's thwarted hopes.