The congregation inside the Roxbury church on Sunday prayed for the boys and young men in their community, vowing to continue to mentor them and help them find paths to success.
Then they listened to Roderick L. Ireland, the chief justice of the state’s highest court and a longtime member of the church, recall the story of a certain African-American boy from the South Side of Chicago who worked his way to became governor of Massachusetts.
Ireland and Governor Deval Patrick, the first African-Americans to hold their respective positions, headlined a “Men’s Leadership Day” service at Eliot Congregational Church focused on helping African-American boys set out on the right path as they become men.
Three judges from the community, including Ireland, led a responsive blessing as about a dozen boys and teenagers, from age 8 to 17, in the church’s mentorship program stood before the congregation.
“Lord, give us wisdom to stop the spread of crime, violence, and hate amongst our men,” one of the judges said.
“God help our young men to be instruments of transformation,” the congregation responded.
In his remarks, Patrick noted that in policymaking circles, boys such as those who stood before the church are described as being at risk.
“It’s at risk of the ravages of poverty, of violence, of despair, of broken neighborhoods and broken families,” Patrick said. “I’ve been there. I understand that risk.”
But, he added, if the larger community, beyond the boundaries of any certain neighborhood, does not internalize the idea that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, then we are all at risk.
“Being in a community is understanding the stake you have in your neighbor’s dreams and struggles as well as your own,” he said to murmurs of “Amen!” from people in the pews.
Patrick, the second black person to be elected governor in the United States, referenced My Brother’s Keeper, a recent national initiative from President Obama aimed at helping boys and young men of color get ahead. And the service on Sunday highlighted one of a number of local church efforts at steering young men away from violence.
One of the young men blessed by the Eliot community on Sunday was Stephen Reynolds, 15, of Everett, who is also part of the church’s mentorship program.
After the service, Stephen said in a telephone interview it was “really nice” to hear from Patrick, who inspired the young man with his life’s story. He added it has benefited him to have a mentor to stay in touch with as he grows up.
The Rev. Evan C. Hines, the senior pastor at the church, said the service was held in part to respond to violence in the community that disproportionately affects black men and boys.
“The senseless killings that take place — we convene a lot of those funerals at Eliot Congregational Church and these are our children, our nieces, our nephews, our sisters and our brothers,” he said in a telephone interview Sunday afternoon.
“The cry that we so often hear is, ‘Why aren’t our elected officials doing more?’ . . . But we recognize here at Eliot Congregational Church that it is all of our responsibility,” he said. “We have a responsibility to stand up for these young men, to mentor them and to account for them.”
While the focus of the service was on the young men, there was also a political bent to Ireland’s remarks, as he hinted that Patrick’s journey might take him to a higher office.
“He has led our state for the last eight years,” said Ireland, who is retiring next month. “And many of us hope that, someday, he will lead us as president of the United States.”
The crowd at the church rose to its feet, applauding and cheering.
Patrick, who has said he is not running for president in 2016, called Ireland “mischievous” for the remark after taking the podium.
In an interview following the service, the governor repeated what has become his mantra in recent months: He is focused on being governor and intends to join the private sector after his term ends early next year.
Yet his speech offered an anecdote that could be heard as having a double meaning.
Patrick told the story of L. Douglas Wilder, former Virginia governor and the first African-American elected governor, introducing him at a breakfast during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
“People always make a fuss about my being the first black governor in America,” Patrick recalled Wilder as saying. “Being first doesn’t mean a thing unless there is a second.”
Patrick’s point was that it’s important for successful people to pass it forward, to reach out and guide those in younger generations to their own successes. But given Ireland’s introduction, it was hard for some in the audience, including Hines, not to hear a hint of what might come next for the man who was once a boy on the South Side of Chicago.