An ex-gang member who went to Harvard, Gene Rivers is an impolitic preacher on the cutting edge of a hot idea: can religion fight crime and save kids?
June 1, 1998
Picture Editor: Guy Cooper

(COVER) God Vs. Gangs. What’s the hottest idea in crime fighting? The power of religion.

Patriot's day is a city holiday in Boston, but the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a compact, graying black man in a blue dress shirt frayed at the elbows, is working hard. "Yo, wazzup, G money?" he greets a teenager, slapping him five. He wheels on another. "Take your hat off, son. Yes, what? No, yes, sir, we don't speak no Ebonics here." It is just noon on a spring day, and already the Ella J. Baker House-a grand, bow-front Victorian in Dorchester, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Boston-is full of fires: a man's teenage son has brought home a dangerous pit-bull terrier; a pregnant 16-year-old's parents have kicked her out of the house; the Negros Latinos, the house baseball team, need uniforms and a gang-neutral field. Rivers, 48, darts from one to the next, a fixer, embattled but engaged.

When he first moved into this neighborhood, as a refugee from Harvard, Rivers sought out a local drug dealer and gangbanger named Selvin Brown- "a sassy, smartass, tough-talking, gunslinging mother shut your mouth," he says, not without some appreciation. Brown took the reverend into crackhouses, introduced him to the neighborhood. And he gave Rivers, a Pentecostal, a lesson in why God was losing to gangs in the battle for the souls of inner-city kids. "Selvin explained to us, 'I'm there when Johnny goes out for a loaf of bread for Mama. I'm there, you're not. I win, you lose. It's all about being there."

Ten years later, as the Baker House kids file out into the sunshine, Rivers turns from his full-contact pastoring-a mix of street slang and stern lessons-to tell a group of police officers from Tulsa, Okla., about Selvin Brown. Baker House is Rivers' answer to Selvin: it's run by a dozen people, some of whom have given up professorships, military careers and positions in finance to be there. The Tulsa cops are only the latest in a recent stream of law-enforcement emissaries who have come to Rivers' domain, a rec center and parish house that Rivers says serves more than 1,300 kids a year, to watch, listen and talk about the hottest new topic in crime fighting: the power of religion. For decades, liberals and conservatives have argued past each other about the crisis in the inner city. The right was obsessed with crime, out-of-wedlock births and the "responsibility" of the underclass; the left only wanted to talk about poverty, the need for government intervention and the "rights" of the poor. Now both sides are beginning to form an unlikely alliance founded on the idea that the only way to rescue kids from the seductions of the drug and gang cultures is with another, more powerful set of values: a substitute family for young people who almost never have two parents, and may not even have one, at home. And the only institution with the spiritual message and the physical presence to offer those traditional values, these strange bedfellows have concluded, is the church.

As the Tulsa cops sit around the Baker House oak table, Rivers tells them about a grievous stabbing inside the nearby Morning Star Baptist Church in 1992. During a funeral service for a young murder victim, a gang chased another kid into the church, beating and stabbing him in front of a crowd of mourners. For the clergy, says Rivers, "this was a wake-up call. We had to be out on the streets," just like Selvin Brown was. While the mainline Boston churches issued a denunciation of the violence, a group of ministers from smaller churches, mostly shoestring Pentecostal or Baptist, met in Rivers' house to discuss a more radical response: walking the 'hoods, engaging the gangs, pulling kids out. Instead of bickering with police, the ministers vowed to work with them, identifying the hardest cases. "The deal we cut was, 'Take this one off the streets, we can deal with him in a prison ministry'," the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, a Rivers ally, tells the Tulsa delegation. The cops, in turn, would rely on the clergy to work with the more winnable kids.

Since the 1992 alliance, and a reorganization of the Boston police and probation departments, juvenile crime here has fallen dramatically. Rivers is now trying to forge a similar coalition of churches nationwide. It won't be easy: his brand of street-smart charisma is not easily transferable, and the work is house by house, block by block. “But at the end of the day," he says, "the black church is the last institution left standing." The noted conservative criminologist John Dilulio Jr., best known for predicting a coming wave of inner-city "superpredators," has become an improbable friend and ally. In apocalyptic tones, Rivers-a forceful speaker who is sometimes accused of grandstanding-warns that as the teenage population swells in the next decade, "there will be virtual apartheid in these cities if the black church doesn't step into the breach."

Washington is starting to take notice, too. The 1996 welfare bill gives states the option to fund church groups in place of welfare agencies. Research on the effectiveness of faith-based programs is so far largely anecdotal. "But there is a lot of interest in this area now, because secular institutions have failed," says Bernardine Watson, a vice president of the nonprofit Public/Private Ventures. "Anybody who wants to fund faith-based programs is looking at the Baker House model. Conservatives like it because of the crime angle; liberals like it because of the youth angle."

When Rivers first came to Dorchester, the cops say, he believed there was no such thing as a bad kid. That has changed. Now, "ministers will come to us about a kid, say he's menacing the community," says Lt. Gary French, who works with Rivers. The Boston police estimate that 150 to 250 kids are responsible for most of the violent crime in the city. "We can disrupt a gang by incarcerating the most aggressive player," says French. "But we can also disrupt it by getting the fringe players into alternative programs," like those provided by Baker House. The exchange works both ways. "Right now," says Rivers, "any cop in Dorchester can dump a kid off in Baker House, and say, 'Look, I'm gonna crack this kid's skull, take him.' So we have taken the pressure off the police to play heavies."

At 2a.m. in his cramped row house, Gene Rivers is still keyed up. "The great thing about serving the poor," he says, "is that there is no competition. These young males, ain't no black preacher want to be around these boys. You see [he names several kids at Baker House} coming, you go the other way." He is on the short side, maybe five feet six-by his own description, a "pushy, aggressive, interloper-would-be-usurper, with this kind of guerrilla campaign." In battle mode, he is scandalously impolitic. He refers to the mainline black churches as "the major crime families" and is critic of Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard, whom he has called "the emcee at the Cotton Club on the Charles." His own critics -"[it's a] long list," he says - dismiss him as a "black Rasputin" who has duped white people into thinking he has power in the black community. He holds no degrees from college or divinity school; his service on a recent Sunday drew just 19 congregants.

Yet Rivers is becoming a national figure. He has met with the president, been courted by the Christian Coalition and served on the religion panel at Colin Powell's 1997 Volunteerism Summit. Though Rivers comes from what he calls a "radical reform" line, his arguments for black self-help, and his unwillingness to make liberal excuses for urban pathologies, have endeared him to the right. "There's been more litmus-test stuff from the left than from the right," he says. (Rivers' ministry condemns homosexuality and abortion.) "One of the good things about the right is that they're sufficiently indifferent toward the concerns of blacks that they don't bother you." His alliance with Dilulio has given Rivers a boost in policy circles. "Gene and John are very odd soulmates," says Rivers' wife, Jacqueline, who trains inner-city teachers in the Boston Algebra Project. "One is so far left he's right, the other is so far right he's left. They really think alike."
The walls of Rivers' house still bear the bullet holes from two shootings, one a random spray, the second by a drug dealer Rivers had tried to move from a neighborhood park. He roots around for a 1992 essay he wrote for the Boston Review, entitled "On the Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack." It, like his other writings, argues that after the victories of the civil-rights movement, the black middle class, particularly middle-class churches, abandoned the black poor. The signature phrases of these articles - "virtual apartheid," a "crisis of moral and cultural authority"-swim throughout his conversation, crusty set pieces amid his staccato improvisations. "When he talks slang, I don't understand him," says Police Lieutenant French. "And when he talks the Harvard level, I don't understand him, either."

Rivers was born in 1950 in Boston, the eldest of three children. His mother was a nurse, a Pentecostal; his father, who moved out when Gene was 3, was a painter, a Muslim, who later became art director for the Nation of Islam's paper, Muhammad Speaks. Both parents were black nationalists and intellectuals. "What my mother instilled was that life is duty," he says. "Lie itself is a holy war." Rivers grew up in rugged northwest Philadelphia, where he was forcefully inducted into the Somersville street gang at the age of 12. "There was a side of my life nobody understood. At 13, 14 and 15, I remember studying Andrew Wyeth, the Brandywine tradition. [And I'm] in a street gang with a lot of hoodlums. You learn to lead a double life. I've always had that tension." Whenever Rivers describes the violent potential of the Dorchester kids, his voice livens with a certain rogue romance. "This ain't Yuppie kids, this ain't Cosby kids," he trumpets at one point. In part this is because he's playing to a public that finds lurid gang violence a sexier topic than, say, urban poverty. But it's also because he savors that street edge. Mark Scott, who runs the day-today affairs of Baker House, thinks Rivers would be bored in a straighter life. "He's pastor of the church, but he's also pastored by the people around him, especially Jackie." Scott believes that Baker House has saved Rivers, keeping him on the street but out of trouble, giving him a channel for his anger.

As he describes his own past, Rivers' tone becomes more sober. He's riding in Jackie's Volvo -Rivers doesn't have a license- listening to NPR and heading to pick up their two kids, Malcolm and Sojourner, 10 and 8, near their private school in tony Beacon Hill. It does not strike him as a contradiction to send his kids to private school. "I said, 'Jackie, I'm not a liberal. I'm not going to have my kid go to school where the kids are so completely antisocial that Malcolm will end up resenting black kids. No no no no no'." As Jackie drives, Rivers continues his own story. When he was 13, his life was forever changed by the Rev. Billy Graham's radio program. Rivers was being menaced by an older, bigger kid from a rival gang called the Lane, and Graham's words struck him. "He asked, was I ready to meet my creator? At that point, that was not a farfetched possibility. I had a fear of death, which my conversion experience transformed. My response to fear is faith."

Eventually the Rev. Benjamin Smith, a legendary Philadelphia inner-city evangelical, pulled Rivers out of the gang and into the Pentecostal community. But he was at odds here, too, a bookish intellectual in a working-class church. He dropped in and out of two art schools; he read Herbert Marcuse and Noam Chomsky, getting deeper into radical political thought. The 1969 deaths of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark-men his own age, killed in a police raid-shook his moral center, as Graham had years before. The nonviolent movement of the '60s had crashed around him. Rivers was angry and confused, "buck wild," scorched with a case of "survivor's guilt" that has been his motivating force ever since. "I promised the Lord that if he would let me survive, I would never turn my back on these kids," Rivers says. He got a woman pregnant and drifted to New Haven, Conn., where he met Kwame Toure, then known as Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers. Taking occasional courses at Yale, he carved three identities for himself, collecting welfare checks in Philadelphia, New York and New Haven. Finally, another mentor-Martin Kilson, an iconoclastic black professor at Harvard-discovered Rivers and lured him to Cambridge. Rivers raged against the privileged black students of Harvard-including, at first, a Jamaican woman named Jacqueline Cooke-and left, angry, in 1983. He and Cooke married three years later.

On a school holiday at Baker House, Rivers is showing two boys the documentary "Eyes on the Prize," the installment about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. The boys are 12 and 13; Rivers takes satisfaction in calling the younger boy, who appeared pseudonymously in a 1997 New Yorker article, "America's worst nightmare." The kids are to write reports on the video, for which Rivers gives them a few bucks. He hugs the boy, pays him, and the kids are off. "Kareem," as The New Yorker called the boy, was Baker House's most critical case a year ago, and he is still. His day with Rivers began when he showed up at the Rev.'s house for breakfast; it will end around flat night, when he asks Rivers for a lift to the city bus, bound for wherever. Rivers doesn't worry that Kareem will get home safely. "I'm worried about whether other people will." For Rivers, Kareem is a test. "[Kareem]'s father got murdered," says Rivers. "His mother lives in the street more than he does. If you can get [Kareem], you've got the whole neighborhood."

In the early days, Rivers pushed religion harder on the kids, but found that it intimidated-and turned off-many of them. So now he keeps preaching to a minimum. But the men and women who are giving their lives to Baker House still see faith at the heart of their mission. "Bob Moses and SNCC, Fred Hampton in Chicago, these folk laid their lives down," says Rivers. "My understanding is that those acts of heroism were very Christian acts, in the tradition of the martyrs. I live in Dorchester and have weathered what we've weathered because that's my understanding of radical discipleship. There is no crown without the cross. Most folk aren't ready to hear that."

At the end of a long day, a half dozen Baker House members gather for a prayer meeting: Ivy League refugees, MIT doctorates. Their testimony is an ecstatic, Pentecostal affair, full of handclapping and spontaneous witness. After half an hour, Rivers ducks out momentarily, passing the receptionist, a single mother he'd counseled years before. "Hallelujah, praise Jesus," he says then, without pause, "Did you page [a city official]?" This is the refracted life of the Rev. Eugene Rivers, drawing upon Harvard and the Philadelphia street gangs, the church and the state. Rivers checks his pager. The Urban Institute is in for a visit; his wife is on the other line. He ducks back into the prayer meeting and gives thanks once more, and once more again.


Cops, Crime and Clergy

Boston's commish on how the new alliance between police and preachers works. BY PAUL F. EVANS

I was a beat cop in Gene Rivers' Dorchester neighborhood in the early '70s, but back then our paths wouldn't have crossed. At the time, the police force didn't look beyond itself to solve the problem of violence, and we had very little interaction with the clergy. By the early '90s, however, it became clear that our "get tough" policies just weren't working. The 1992 stabbing incident at Morning Star Baptist Church-there was a melee during a funeral-only underscored how bad things had gotten. We finally saw that we couldn't simply arrest our way out of the escalating bloodshed.

It was time for real collaboration. We realized that preachers have tremendous credibility as leaders in the community and that having them working with us out in the streets would have a powerful impact. For their part, the clergy saw cops doing their best to get inner-city kids into summer camps and to get them mentors. We both knew that what children need is an alternative to crime.

The alliance that resulted works because the police and the ministers really do have a common goal: keeping kids from getting killed. And it's not as if we don't know who is at risk: of the 155 young people who died from violence between 1990 and 1994, two thirds had prior arrests-an average of 9.4 arrests for every victim. For the first time, we can really concentrate on these specific kids and make honest assessments of what has to be done with them. We can put our heads together and say this kid has gotten into trouble, but he's a good kid-let's try extra hard to get him the services he needs. This one, we can't save -and if we don't get him off the streets and into prison, he's not going to make it.

With a clear, structured communication network now in place, we didn't have to wait for three or four homicides before realizing we had a problem with the Bloods and Crips gangs. We've got cops and clergy out there, visiting 36 schools and countless homes trying to identify gang wannahas. When there is gang warfare we call members in for an open session with representatives from the D.A.'s office, the probation officers, social-service workers and neighborhood ministers and say, "Look, the community is telling you that the violence has got to stop. If it doesn't, the whole system you see here is going to indict you, sentence you and send you to prison."

EVANS, a 28-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, has been commissioner since 1994.