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Two decades later, Morning Star Baptist violence still resonates

’92 gang attack at church was turning point for city

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

The Rev. John Borders III addressed a meeting of Boston clergy members at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan on May 18, 1992, shortly after gang violence broke out at the church during a funeral for Robert Odom, who had been gunned down in a drive-by shooting. The attack spurred the city to implement a new neighborhood strategy to combat youth violence.

They gathered to mourn a young man, another young black man gunned down by other young men. In the Mattapan of 1992, in a city ravaged by drug and gang violence, the grief had become a familiar litany.

But when the violence crossed the threshold of Morning Star Baptist Church that May night 20 years ago this week, and a stabbing and shooting during a solemn funeral turned the sanctuary into just another street corner, Boston reached a breaking point.

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“Everyone recognized a line had been crossed,’’ said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown. “You just couldn’t sit idly by anymore.’’

The brazen crime became a pivotal moment in the city’s history, setting in motion changes that are still felt today.

It catalyzed a clergy that by its own admission had failed to grasp the dimensions of youth violence. The Boston TenPoint Coalition, an alliance of ministers and lay leaders, was born. Preachers went into the neighborhood to minister to troubled adolescents.

It gave youth workers and community activists renewed urgency in their fight to keep teenagers away from drugs and violence.

And it built common cause between ministers and the police after years of mutual distrust, giving rise to the acclaimed community policing strategy that led to a dramatic, unforeseen decline in violence known as the Boston Miracle.

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“It was a major turning point for the city of Boston that had national implications,’’ said the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a founder of the TenPoint Coalition. “The church mobilized in a way no one expected.’’

In the years to come, violent crime, which peaked in 1990 with more than 13,600 reported cases, dropped steadily, and last year fell to its lowest level since the late 1960s. Homicides fell from 152 in 1990 to 31 in 1999 before rising again in the 2000s.

For many church leaders in Boston, memories of the funeral attack and its aftermath remain fresh. The victim, Robert Odom, had been killed in a drive-by shooting at a dance party, by teenagers angry over a cover charge. Members of rival gangs attended Odom’s funeral, and soon after it started, a dozen teenagers chased a 19-year-old mourner up the aisle, beating him with folding chairs, cornering him in an alcove, then stabbing him.

As people fled, a bullet whizzed through the church. No one was killed, but the melee laid bare a gang culture in which no place was sacred.

“The young people didn’t respect the church as an institution, because the clergy were not on the street,’’ recalled the Rev. Bruce Wall, a key figure in the clergy alliance. “They didn’t see the church as a sacred place. They just saw a rival gang in a building.’’

Francis M. Roache, police commissioner at the time, credited Wall and other preachers for rallying the community. In the ensuing weeks and months, their outreach helped community policing efforts to take root.

“It was a very jarring incident that brought us all closer,’’ Roache said.

The department had already made a number of changes to its approach, bolstering a drug-control unit, assigning more officers to the schools, and creating community watches across the city. But what happened at Morning Star gave the effort sharper focus, he said.

To many preachers, the church violence was an unmistakable sign they had not done enough to keep teenagers from a life of crime, and a forceful call to action.

“It was a wake-up call for preachers,’’ Brown said. “We were looking at youth violence as a law enforcement issue, and thought it was not something we could impact. Morning Star was the death of that innocence.’’

Within days, more than 300 clergy members gathered at Morning Star, where the Rev. John Borders pointed to the fresh bullet hole in the wall. People were angry, but determined, and the coalition quickly took shape.

Looking back, clergy members marvel at the sense of purpose that emerged, and how it soon led to hope.

“It was either going to be a collaborative response or an ineffective response,’’ said Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and a TenPoint founder.

Youth programs launched an aggressive campaign to reach the young men responsible for the violence. Clergy members began walking the streets, often side by side with police officers, to target gang members, drug dealers, and wayward youths whose lives might go in either direction.

At the time, the alliance between ministers and the Police Department was a milestone, and paved the way for an enduring partnership.

“The idea that black clergy would team up with Irish cops, that’s revolutionary,’’ Rivers said.

Morning Star also shifted the debate in the black community, Rivers said, and forced black leaders to turn their gaze inward.

“It made the black clergy say, ‘We have a problem and it’s not white people or police,’ ’’ Rivers said. “It was not racism that went into Morning Star church.’’

Despite the striking progress after Morning Star, the anniversary also serves as a painful reminder of how much work remains. Urban neighborhoods remain chronically poor, with widespread unemployment. Since a low mark in 1999, homicides have doubled, to 63 last year. So far this year, there have been 16 killings, double last year’s pace.

The rise in violence calls for renewed urgency around crime prevention, ministers say, a comprehensive approach that targets dysfunctional families and neglected children from an early age.

“The frustration for many of us is that we know a lot more today about how to identify the young people and families that are at the heart of the violence,’’ Hammond said.

The Morning Star neighborhood remains dangerous, and in 2010 was the site of a rampage that left four people dead in the street, including a woman and her 2-year-old son.

Evoney Chung, who has lived on Woolson Street since the late ’70s, doesn’t remember much about the funeral at Morning Star. But she knows that she drives her kids everywhere, even to the corner store, because she’s afraid to let them walk.

Police are a constant presence in the neighborhood, she said. She hopes they are getting to know the kids who need their help.

“I want to see them out on the street, not at the top of the street with their blue lights flashing,’’ she said.

But one of Morning Star’s lessons, ministers said, is that even things that seem hopeless can get better.

“Morning Star showed that things didn’t have to be the way they were,’’ Hammond said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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