Published in San Francisco Chronicle
In the wake of last month’s slaying of four Oakland police officers by a parolee, pastors around Oakland spoke at vigils of the power of resurrection.
They saw in the language of the church, the most powerful organizing force in many neighborhoods of need, a parable applicable to the most vulnerable and dangerous on the city’s streets. But the nature of the ministries that would need to accompany that vision is still largely in question.
But today, as Christians honor the moment they believe Jesus rose from the dead, one answer may lie in the street ministry that is perhaps having the most pronounced effect on Oakland. At the same time, this particular ministry shows just how slow and subtle it is to raise the wayward up into the full life of healthy society.
It is being done by men like the Rev. Jasper Lowerey. It is being done on nights like Thursday, while churchgoers around the region were worshiping in honor of Jesus’ last supper with this disciples.
Lowerey and four men he leads walked some of the grittiest streets in West Oakland with the goal of talking to those hanging out on corners and engaging with elements others might fear.
Their ministry is distinctive for many reasons.
While the outreach workers are deeply Christian, this is a ministry that involves almost no discussion of faith.
“You don’t want to be shoving Jesus down their throat,” said Sylvester Raymond, 46, one of the street outreach workers. Scripture, he said, can get in the way of the personal connections the lost are particularly hungry for. “One of the key things is relating to people.”
Perhaps most striking is that the primary goal is to link up the unmoored with social services and jobs they might not know about. These men, who themselves had lived on the other side of the law, are weaving social networks where none existed.
“If you’re not fulfilling their basic needs – food, shelter, clothing – then they cannot progress and learn,” said Eli, one of the outreach workers accompanying Lowerey who declined to give his last name out of concern for personal safety.
This ministry is also distinctive because it is made possible by the residents of Oakland, who in 2004 passed Measure Y, a parcel tax that raises roughly $19 million annually – 40 percent of which goes to violence-prevention programs, including street outreach like this.
On Thursday night, the risks and rewards of such work came into focus at the corner of Apgar and Market streets.
Three people clustered on the corner as the outreach workers approached from a half-block away. They were having a minor confrontation with a stranger. But within moments, Lowerey had his arm around the most heated of the three, who was intoxicated. The other outreach workers explained the services to the other two, a man and a woman. She asked for help.
“I’m gonna sic you on my son,” she said as she took Raymond’s card and cell phone number and declined to give her name. “He needs a big brother.”
Meanwhile, the man Lowerey had counseled asked if he could be walked home, which they did.
“They just want somebody to care,” Lowerey said later. “They still want someone to say, ‘How you doing? I love you.’ ”
The West Oakland street outreach led by Lowerey is mirrored by efforts in East Oakland and Central Oakland. The total budget for the three groups is $575,000 annually, according to Kevin Grant, the city’s violence-prevention coordinator and Mayor Ron Dellums’ street outreach coordinator.
Oakland Police Capt. Anthony Toribio, who oversees much of West Oakland, said last month that Lowerey’s team had played a critical role in bringing down crime in the area because of the relationships they’ve developed. Toribio said he had met a half dozen people on the street who said outreach workers had persuaded them to leave lives of crime.
He said they do what police often cannot.
“Most of these guys (outreach workers) grew up in some of these neighborhoods. They recognize guys from the street,” he said. “Some of them have been to prison and battled their demons, and they have a lot of credibility on the street.”
Lowerey, who said he was involved in “all kinds” of illegal things as a youth, said he knows the process of helping resurrect the lives of others started with himself.
“If they see I made it,” he said, “they got hope.”