City Hall has been filled in recent weeks with state lawmakers and civic leaders discussing how to reduce the violence on Philadelphia's streets, violence that has surpassed last year's numbers at an alarming rate. When weekends finally brought warm weather, what happened? More people died: nine killed and at least nine wounded in street violence April 21 and 22, the deadliest weekend of the year.
Where do these two worlds meet, and can we have an impact on the growing violence in our toughest neighborhoods?
Those of us on the Mayor's Faith Leaders Advisory Task Force for Community Safety think so. Our strategy? Maximize our neighborhoods' spiritual assets, social capital and civic values. If you haven't ever considered spirituality and civic values to be "assets," you might be surprised how investing in them pays off in neighborhood revitalization.
The Salvation Army's 127 years of experience have taught that the key to creating a life-affirming individual lies in addressing the individual's needs, one person at a time, appealing first to the stomach, then to the heart, and then to the mind.
My colleague Capt. Tony Lewis of the West Philadelphia Corps is fond of quoting the at-risk youth with whom he works, who say, in so many words, "I don't care how much you know until I know how much you care."
A faith-based approach, more than any other, is likely to reduce violence, because violence results from lack of hope and human connection. A faith-based community provides acceptance and high expectations of behavior, with a consistency absent in troubled neighborhoods.
This week, the task force has held a series of events in neighborhood houses of worship and the city's public places to encourage mutual trust and respect, and to promote the sanctity of life.
But we all know that the real work against violence is done one-on-one over time through caring mentors. As young people become involved in after-school academic support, sports and music programs, they come into contact with people who feel God's presence and have experienced that faith can overcome life's burdens.
Once an interpersonal connection is made, hope can be renewed and positive alternatives introduced. Those who have been changed by the experience not only keep coming back, but also are often inspired to help others. Teens who once thought the most powerful act they could commit was the taking of a life come to learn how powerful it feels to give someone a life.
At the Salvation Army's 13 Community Corps centers throughout the city, we have seen mentors help youths in trouble turn their lives around. Ex-offenders who participate in the Adult Rehabilitation Center (and who drive trucks for the Salvation Army Thrift Stores) have an 80 percent success rate of returning to society and becoming productive citizens.
Investing in spiritual assets doesn't mean funding only worship. Today, we hope to see a steady stream of participants in the "Violins, Not Violence" Amnesty Program at the Salvation Army's West Philadelphia Corps, where, for every gun or weapon turned in, Musicopia will provide a musical instrument to Philadelphia schools. A gift of music to a child is a message of hope and possibility that engages the intellect and touches the soul, as sure as a prayer.
We all need to belong to something: a family, a church, a gang. As concerned Philadelphians, we need to support those among us who are willing to extend themselves to include at-risk youth in groups that welcome them in healthy ways. Whether Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Police Athletic League, Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis, the Mural Arts Program, or the local church youth group, many organizations are investing in the spiritual assets of our neighborhoods. We have the power to give young people the meaning that changes their identity for the good, offers them longer-term goals, and influences daily decisions. Faith-based organizations are not the only ones that can do this, but by appealing to the whole person, we certainly have a leg up.