Newark, NJ: It happened again this week. Two people were killed and four wounded in a drive-by shooting on Friday afternoon, October 24, near public schools in Newark– New Jersey’s largest city. According to police reports, at least 3 people in an SUV drove around the city firing randomly at pedestrians, including a 20-year-old male and 24-year-old female who died. A ninth grade girl and a 16-year old boy, along two others, were also shot, but survived. This was the latest incident in a series of violent crimes over the past few years in a city known for gang violence and systemic poverty.

Eighty-three people were murdered in 2007 and 52 so far this year, according to a New York Times article published on Saturday, October 24. What the news media did not report were on-the-ground reports of unwarranted police actions in a neighborhood conflict the aftermath of the shootings. According to David Kerr, President of Integrity House, “there was a group of street people and ministers marching around each of the scenes of violence both yesterday and today, praying and calling for peace.” Their presence on the streets was not appreciated by police who over-reacted, and one officer may have committed assault. Clearly, there is a need in the city for solidarity among neighbors, peaceful demonstrations of concern, mutual understanding, conflict resolution, and a social transformation of the systems and structures that give rise to poverty, addiction, youth violence and despair.

Newark is also “a city of peace and strength” said Mayor Cory Booker, who recently helped local religious leaders launch the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace focused on engaging gang culture and reducing youth violence. Drew University and Communities of Shalom was one of the founding members of the Coalition last Spring. David Kerr, a member of the Coalition, offered the following perspective in a letter to local religious leaders:

“Many if not most gang leaders and members want the same things we all do, jobs, security, food, shelter and safety and a sense of family and community. From the mouth of gang leader, Akintola Hanif talking about the recent film “Moral Panic”: “When you give people a chance and equip them with the skills necessary to build a life, they do it. These kids don’t want to die.”

The Newark Interfaith Coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders from the greater Newark area was formed to explore ways of engaging gang culture to reduce youth violence in the city of Newark. Working with city officials, these religious leaders are engaging other city organizers and city officials to consider the ways existing resources may join with religious organizations in the greater Newark area to strategize about new possibilities of action in Newark neighborhoods, working collaboratively to support and strengthen existing efforts and promote the efforts to lead from violence toward peace.

The first public event of the Interfaith Coalition was held on April 3 at the Newark Symphony Hall. City leaders from non-profit organizations, social services agencies, churches, mosques, temples, and other religious organizations were invited to hear and discuss presentations by Newark-based former gang members and parents of gang members, and by two guests: Rev. Jeffrey Brown, one of the founders of Boston’s Ten Point Coalition and Imam Earl El-Amin from the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore, Maryland, both models of grassroots religious-based programs which have transformed gang violence in those two cities.

“Recent highly-publicized events have brought deserved focus to long-standing issues of violence in Newark often resulting from grief, addiction, abuse, depression, despair, hopelessness, and fear. Many public, private, and religious institutions have addressed these important issues. Faith tells us to “seek the welfare of the city,” and we want to be a more effective part of ongoing efforts to address this multi-level challenge,” said Bishop Mark Beckwith, Presiding Bishop of the Newark Episcopal Diocese and one of the organizers of the coalition.

A second major Coalition action was the co-sponsorship of “Bradley Court Day” –including a resource fair and interfaith prayer service—on July 21, 2008. Bradley Court is a large public housing complex known for drug dealing and gang activity and in need of social services and resources to help raise the quality of life in the neighborhood, and bring peace and hope to the city of Newark. Integrity House and the Bradley Court Tenants Association, with the support of the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Peace and Hope, and many other groups including the City, Fire Department and Police Department, joined efforts and mobilize resources to offer on-site opportunities for rehab, employment readiness, and truck-driving jobs for those willing to sign on for training.

According to Kerr, “One thousand people were there to feel this show of humanity and love and joy and safety under the torrid July sun. There were job opportunities, and sprinkler fun and animals to pet and great choirs and singers and over a dozen addicts brought out in a van for detox thanks to Bethel Outreach Ministries. There were 70 children getting their hair cut and styled. There were men and women of faith and there were prayers. There were children having fun and adults showing love. It is significant that all this was done in their neighborhood. We witnessed peace and love replacing distrust and anger.”

New actions currently are being considered by the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace in response to the recent youth violence. A group calling themselves “Nine Strong Women” have emerged with a determination to make a difference in the city. ShalomZone training has been requested and offered. And Jews, Muslim and Christians have offered prophetic leadership ‘in such a time as this.’

Creep, Jayda and Loose, “motivational speakers” now working with the Newark Coalition to help engage gang culture and reduce youth violence.