Clergy, officials, politicians seek answers to gun violence

PGUNS02-a
The Rev. Kevin Johnson said connecting youths with building-trades careers was a must: “I can’t tell you how many times I have talked to the unions about having a pre-apprenticeship program.”

In the second meeting in as many days on Philadelphia's ever-present problem of gun violence, a group of clerical and civic leaders concluded that stopping young men from arming themselves and shooting themselves and others has no easy solutions.

"We are in a war, a real war, where casualties are every day in our community," Kenny Gamble, the Grammy-winning record producer and developer, who has focused his attention on the South Philadelphia neighborhood of his birth, said Tuesday during a faith-based roundtable discussion at City Hall. "Now, you can sit back and talk all this soft talk, but this is not going to get it."

Gamble, who in 1990 moved back to South Philadelphia from the suburbs, talked about the importance of living in troubled communities.

"Most of us run away from our communities. You have to get back into the community," said Gamble, drawing nods of approval. "You can't do this when . . . you live way over in Abington."

The Rev. Helena Fontes of Mount Zion Baptist Church of Germantown said clergy members should focus on meeting troubled young people where they are, instead of expecting them to be at a certain place.

"We need to hear them, we need to hear the despair that is in their hearts. We need to then partner with them to try to make a difference in their lives," Fontes said.

The meeting was the second in as many days launched by City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson to address gun violence. He will hold a third meeting next month.

Last year, the number of aggravated assaults involving a gun increased 11 percent over 2014, and homicides went from 240 in 2014 to 280 in 2015, according to the Police Department.

A significant number of those involved youths, either as victims or perpetrators. According to the FBI, in 2014 nearly half of the victims of gun violence were under 25.

Monday's meeting at Vare Recreation Center in South Philadelphia drew Mayor Kenney and about 100 residents.

Many of the 75 participants of Tuesday's meeting, composed largely of clergy, advocated increasing job training programs - including greater access into labor-union apprenticeships - as a deterrent to violence.

The Rev. Kevin Johnson, pastor of Dare to Imagine Church in West Philadelphia and president of the career-training program Opportunities Industrialization Center, said connecting young people with careers in the building trades is a must.

"I can't tell you how many times I have talked to the unions about having a pre-apprenticeship program," he said, and gotten nothing but lip service. "They give me the okeydoke.

"We have to make sure that the trades understand: 'You're not going to get that contract, banks are not going to fund it, unless there are some black and brown people who are on those jobs,' " he said, drawing applause.

Others wondered why no young people were invited.

"We've got to give them a platform to speak. . . . If we can hear them and dignify them, now we have allies within the community," said Bishop J. Darrell Robinson of Yesha Ministries.

Kenyatta Johnson said the young were excluded to give the adults a chance to get on the same page. The recommendations offered will be used to form committees and prepare for follow-up meetings.

"This is probably one of the most complex issues that we are facing as a city," Johnson said. "We have to be consistent in addressing this issue on a day-to-day basis. Because, if not, what happens is, day after day, another African American child murdered. Another African American child shot."

deanm@phillynews.com 215-854-4172 @mensahdean