West Fresno Night Walks aims to spread peace

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 while it's not affiliated with Operation Ceasefire, a law enforcement gang intervention program, it has the blessing of Fresno's police chief.

Two teenage boys walk at a fast clip on A Street, heading north from Kern Street. 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. Pastors and volunteers always go in twos or threes when approaching someone.

Anderson and Lewis 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.

Night Walks church volunteers don't knock on doors to meet people -- there's no need. The neighborhoods teem with foot traffic and front-yard sitters.

On Wednesday evenings, Night Walks volunteers go into a residential area bounded by Fresno Street on the north, Kern Street on the south, Pottle Avenue on the west and B Street on the east, and they make a stop at the Kearney Palms shopping center at Fresno and C streets.

On Friday nights, one group walks a loop that starts on Jensen Avenue and goes south down Ivy Avenue then west to Martin Luther King Boulevard. Another group enters at Bardell Avenue and walks blocks in the center of the neighborhood. It's a residential tract without a southern exit. City officials call it Brookhaven, but it's widely known as the "The Dog Pound," a name taken from a gang that has a significant presence in the neighborhood.

Late Thursday or Saturday nights the group hits "hot spots" -- standing outside clubs and in gas station parking lots where young people -- some active in gangs -- hang out.

The routes they take are well worn by police officers.

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. Overall, the area has the highest rate of violent crime in the city, although other areas have more homicides this year.

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% -- a bigger decrease than the citywide drop of 20.4%, 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 "right in the middle of the Dog Pound" 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. "I thank my pastor every day. I thank God it is so much better."

To show her appreciation, she cooked a spaghetti dinner for Lewis and the church volunteers on a recent Friday night. It tickled her that they all asked for second helpings, she says. "They seemed to enjoy it."

In the beginning, it took some convincing to get church members to volunteer to go into southwest Fresno at night -- on foot, Lewis says. But now, on any given night walk, a half dozen to two dozen church volunteers spread out in neighborhoods.

West Fresno Night Walks is one of the newer 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.

Jeffrey Brown, who started the Boston Ten Point Coalition that included Night Walks, says the program fits with a church's mission, but it's not strictly an evangelical effort.

"This is not necessarily about saving souls, but it's about saving lives," Brown says. "It's about restoring community."

Brown was brought to Fresno to speak with pastors about a year ago and says usually smaller to mid-size churches take the lead.

A similar program has been in place in southeast Fresno for about 11 years. Pastor Ricardo Garcia of the Restoration Outreach Christian Center started it; Garcia says he took Brown with him on a walk when he visited Fresno.

The southeast program is not part of Night Walks, but Garcia says he is supportive of the southwest churches' efforts. "It's something I believe every church should be doing," he says.

Faith in Community, a Fresno nonprofit community organizing group, introduced the Night Walks idea to pastors in southwest Fresno and so far, six churches have come aboard -- Rising Star Missionary Baptist, Second Baptist, Westside Church of God, Free AME, Saint Mark United Methodist and Fresno Westside Seventh Day Adventist.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer says Night Walks helps churches be active members of a neighborhood. "It demonstrates that there's more good people within some of these neighborhoods than there are bad people," he says.

Night Walks also complements the department's Ceasefire program, which targets the most violent and influential gang members and gives them the message that violence must stop or there will be consequences, such as stiff federal sentences. Gang members are given resources, including job training, substance abuse counseling, housing, food, clothing and other social services, to help them change their behavior.

Night Walks gives the message that "we're all in it together against gang violence," Dyer said.

However, Garcia's program and West Fresno Night Walks work independently of Ceasefire. In most Night Walks programs, there is close collaboration with police.

Lewis says West Fresno Night Walks must remain a distinct and separate program from Operation Ceasefire. "It would harm our credibility if we were working hand in hand."

Both Garcia's program and Night Walks have the support of Mayor Ashley Swearengin's Gang Prevention Initiative. The city proposes to give the organizations $100,000 of a two-year $500,000 state gang-fighting grant, says Maggie Navarro, the initiative's community organizer.

The pastors had no idea their programs had been included in the grant proposal, Navarro says. "They are doing it without expecting anything in return."

Garcia isn't sure he will accept the grant money. In the past, the Police Department has offered to help by providing flashlights and jackets, he says. He has turned everything down, preferring to run on a voluntary basis.

Lewis says the grant money could help with administrative costs, such as printing fliers about the program and the white T-shirts the night walkers wear, but the program will remain volunteer-based.

A "pop, pop, pop" of nearby gunfire gives the Night Walks group reason to pause on a recent Wednesday near Kern and Pottle streets -- but no one breaks stride.

Howling sirens garner even less attention until a police officer makes a quick U-turn to ask if the walkers are part of the disturbance a block away.

Assured they're Night Walkers, he advises them to turn back, and they do.

The pastors and parishioners have been briefed by Lewis that they are not to intervene in a police scene. The goal is to prevent the need for a police presence.

A highlight for any Night Walks pastor is diffusing a potentially violent situation, and Lewis gets his chance on another Wednesday walk.

As Lewis and church volunteers approach a woman near B and Tulare streets, 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. They 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 pastors and church volunteers spread as they walk. 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. God is able."

The message can be a hard sell. The area is populated mostly by low-income blacks and Hispanics, where poverty is the common denominator. The median income for families is $19,478, as compared to $38,445 countywide, according to the Fresno West Coalition for Economic Development.

Karen Crozier, a Fresno Pacific University assistant professor of practical theology and Christian education, has witnessed the decline of the neighborhood of her youth. Southwest Fresnans get blamed for their broken neighborhoods, she says, but political and social policies contributed to the conditions.

Crozier, an ordained elder at Christ Temple Church in central Fresno, says the needs in southwest Fresno are many, and it will take time for the clergy to learn all of them.

Some needs are easier to see than others.

Many of the streets are dark, without working street lights. "I didn't realize really how dark the neighborhood was until I began walking in the Brookhaven neighborhood on Friday nights," says The Rev. Melvin Whittle, pastor of the Second Baptist Church at Jensen and Bardell.

He has smelled raw sewage and seen garbage dumps in vacant lots. People don't know who to call to get things cleaned up, he says.

Many of the young men are unemployed. Some don't have driver's licenses and some don't have high school diplomas, he says.

The perceptions of southwest Fresno also make it difficult to get help, Whittle says. Drug dealers and violent gang members don't live on every corner, he says. "People out here are victims of those who sold drugs and bring in gangs. It's their mothers, their sisters, their grandmothers who are living here."

The pastors have roots of their own in the communities. Whittle grew up near his church and his 81-year-old mother still lives nearby. Many families have lived in their homes for generations and children continue to move back into the family homes as parents or grandparents die, he says.

During a night walk, Lewis, 51, points to a boarded-building on B Street that was his father's church. The younger Lewis left Fresno for 20 years, returning 10 years ago.

Interwoven families and friendships in Brookhaven become clear on a walk with The Rev. Lawrence Chisom, 63, of St. Matthew Baptist Church, who meets cousins, nieces and friends along the loop through the neighborhood of his youth. "Tell your mother hello," he tells a niece.

Somehow though -- with each new generation and cultural shift -- a connection to church has been broken, the pastors say. Once the center of the neighborhoods, now southwest Fresno church pews are filled mostly by parishioners who drive in from other areas of the city.

It's left neighborhood residents feeling abandoned -- and even mistrustful of the church down the street, they say.

Night Walks is a chance to turn that around.