Transforming a Community from the Inside Out

BY ALEXIE M. TORRES

When residents of the Soundview section of the Bronx decided that their community had suffered enough from the growing drug trade in their neighborhood, nearly 400 of them rallied in October of 1992 for an anti-drug march, organized and led by the youth group of Holy Cross Church. The marchers, representing diverse ethnic groups and religious backgrounds, boldly stopped their procession in front of a known crack house and remained there for half an hour reading Scripture, singing, and praying.

Just two days after this event, the drug dealers retaliated. Seeking to send a message that would scare local residents from organizing further active opposition to the drug trade, dealers broke into Holy Cross Church and committed $20,000 worth of vandalism, setting several fires in an attempt to burn down the church.

The response of the church and community to this act of vengeance was the opposite of what the dealers expected. The youth group sent out flyers for another anti-drug vigil even as workers were sealing their damaged church with plywood. Alexie Torres, then a volunteer with the youth group at Holy Cross and now Founder and Executive Director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, said she cried throughout the following week, but deep down believed that the desecration of the church would serve a higher purpose. And she was right. An act that was meant to instill fear and deter the community from fighting the drug trade brought the community closer and made them more determined than ever to rid their neighborhood of drugs.

Two weeks later, 1200 people turned out for the next anti-drug rally. Torres, who has seen many of her friends die from drug-related shootings and from AIDS, said, “The attack against the church became a call to action against the desecration of people, the true sanctuaries.” In the aftermath of the church desecration, Torres and several other youth leaders vowed to create a different type of sanctuary for community youth that would use faith, the arts, education and community organizing as points of entry to raising a consciousness about the Gospel’s call for social justice. Since churches are the last stable institutions left in many low-income communities, they are effective places through which to teach, mentor, and organize youth, and to build community.

Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice is actively involved with training and organizing pastors, lay leaders, and youth against drugs and violence in the community. In speaking to churches around the country, Torres tries to convey that a congregation that is truly alive provides not just a refuge, but also an active voice in the community around it, by challenging its members to take responsibility for the well-being of their neighbors.

Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice has a social justice vision that is grounded in Old and New Testament spirituality. Drawing strength from the biblical concept of each person’s sacredness, and seeing the community as a living body that works together as one, the members of YMPJ sign contracts committing themselves to the development of their bodies, minds, spirits, and community. Their faith provides the moral authority for and sustains the integrity and commitment these young people demonstrate in their work for social justice.

Alexie M. Torres is the Founder and Executive Director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. She speaks nationally on issues of peace and social justice as they relate to the spirituality of youth and community development. Ms. Torres resides in the Bronx River Section of the Bronx, her childhood home as well as the location of her ministry.

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