Friday, April 13, 2012

Once a Drug Dealer, Now a Peace Maker – DC Pastor Partners with Catholic Charities to End Drug Violence in his Neighborhood

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On a recent weekday, the Carver Terrace neighborhood in northeast Washington, DC is quiet and completely unremarkable. The sidewalks are clean, the trash is well-maintained, and during the day, people walk to and from taking care of errands or catching up with neighbors.

So what, right?

According to local pastor, activist and longtime resident District Elder Darrell Lewis, that’s a major step forward.

The Carver Terrace neighborhood has a violent history. Going back to the 1980s, it was known as the “War Zone” by residents. As recently as last fall, the neighborhood was gripped in a series of deadly shootings between rival drug dealers, a problem that left many of the longtime residents afraid to leave their homes at night.

District Elder Lewis is pastor at Family Community Fellowship, a church and community center in the heart of Carver Terrace, working since the mid-1990s to meet both spiritual and tangible needs in his community.  

(l to r) District Elder Darrel Lewis, Darryl Colbert and Darrel Lewis, Jr.
When the violence spiked and many of his congregants feared leaving their home even to walk down the street to church, District Elder Lewis reached out for help to an old friend, Catholic Charities’ Darryl Colbert.

Colbert has worked in all aspects of substance abuse for more than 20 years – as a personal counselor for those recovering from addiction to being a voice of reason to talk young people away from seeing drugs as a means of income and escape.  Lewis asked Colbert to help him approach the warring youths and try to find a solution to end the violence.

Though the drug trade in urban centers may seem hopeless to outsiders, Lewis knew most of these kids growing up and he knew they wanted more. They just didn’t believe it was possible.

But, if anyone could show the troubled youth of Carver Terrace a better way forward, it was him. After all, more than 30 years ago, District Elder Darrell Lewis was once a young man selling drugs in this same neighborhood and fighting for his life.

“We’ve never spoken, but I know you.”
In the late 1980s, long before he founded his community center and church, Darrell Lewis ran the streets of Carver Terrace as a drug dealer. Addicted to the drugs he was selling and believing he had no potential for more, he lived with the expectation he might die any day. Instead, he landed in prison.

District Elder Darrel Lewis talked about his journey
from being part of the drug trade to trying to end it.
But, as he emphatically states, prison wasn’t a bad thing.

“In jail, I saw just how much of mess I’d made of my life,” said Lewis. “But I also found the opportunity to turn it around. I came back to Jesus, for one. And I started participating in the programs offered to help. I came out ready to make a difference.”

Today, District Elder Darrell Lewis is a pillar in his community. His gentle spirit guides the Family Community Fellowship in its service and ministry. His son, 27-year-old Darrell Lewis, Jr., is a role model to his peers, having never messed with drugs. He works with his dad as a peer to the young people they are reaching out to.

During interviews for this post, we were interrupted by knock at the door.

In stepped a young man, likely in his mid-twenties, who sat down. He wore designer jeans and was neatly kept. He looked right at District Elder Lewis and said, “I’m done. I want to stop doing this.” He sat down. “I don’t want to lose everything in the drug game.”

He had a young daughter and an opportunity to leave the city. But he didn’t know how to quit and he needed help.

For the next 20 minutes, the young man received encouragement and guidance on his next steps to remove himself from the dangerous drug trade.

“Thank you for your help. I’ve known who you are for years, even though we’ve never spoken. Thank you for being here when I was ready,” the young man said before leaving.

After the door closed and the young man had gone, Lewis looked up to the ceiling, folded his hands and said a prayer of thanks.

One Bite at a Time
It’s not easy to get rival drug dealers and neighborhood gangs to stop fighting. But, it’s not rocket science either, Colbert is quick to point out.

“In the end, it is all about economics,” he said. “They are going to do whatever they think is best for them at that moment. Sometimes things get too hot and out of control, which is where we can step in and try to talk some sense into them. We have to show them how they are hurting themselves by hurting the neighborhood. We have to show them they have options. Too often, they believe they can’t get a normal job.”

So, last fall, Colbert and Lewis organized and mediated a series of meetings between representatives of the gangs. Colbert brought the expertise of Catholic Charities and its Parish Partners Program, introducing drug prevention education, GED classes, job training programs, conflict resolution, young father programs and lunch Programs. Lewis opened up the use of Family Community Fellowship’s band equipment to let the rival gangs come together to play music, a shared passion.

They’ve started a Go-Go Band and have been practicing together for more than two months now. And most important, the violence has dropped – dramatically.

“We’re able to hold a revival at our church on a Friday night,” District Elder Lewis said, punctuating the word night. “A few years ago and even a few months ago, we couldn’t get older folks to feel safe enough to leave their homes at night.”

He looks over at his friend Darryl Colbert. “We couldn’t have gotten that far without Catholic Charities and Darryl. We brought the will to make a change, and he brought the way.”

In many ways, the work and partnership between Catholic Charities and Family Community Fellowship is demonstrative of the new direction of Catholic Charities – working together with local community groups, especially the many Catholic Parishes, to stretch the resources and expertise of each to serve as many as possible. And the results so far are highly encouraging.

Of course, Lewis is quick to acknowledge that this doesn’t mean an end to the violence, to the drugs or to the fear. But it is a start.

“You ask me how this can stop something as overwhelming as crime in this community. And I ask you, how do you eat an elephant?” He asks.  “One bite at a time.”