‘You live around here?’’ It sounds like an innocent question. But the exchange may have triggered the Jan. 11 shooting of a 13-year-old boy as he walked along Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury on his way to choir practice.
The victim, Gabriel Clarke, is about as far removed spiritually and mentally from Roxbury street life as possible. The middle schooler serves as a junior deacon at the Berea Seventh Day Adventist Church on Seaver Street in Dorchester. In the parlance of the church, Clarke has “Jesus on his mind.’’ Now he is recovering from a stomach wound caused by a single shot from a blessedly small-caliber weapon.
One of the tenets of the Seventh Day Adventist faith is that God loves his people and wants to give them the highest quality of life imaginable. In Boston, however, quality of life is often determined by zip code.
The shooting of an innocent child like Clarke highlights the physical and emotional surcharges paid by families living in the city’s gang-plagued neighborhoods. For many Bostonians, urban life is defined by easy access to public transportation, nice restaurants, cultural venues, and houses of worship. But for others, like the Clarke family, living walking-distance to church can be a dangerous drawback.
Clarke’s shooting was high on the agenda at last week’s regularly scheduled Wednesday meeting at the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester where officials from Boston Police and the MBTA trade intelligence with church leaders. Nearly to a minister, those around the table expressed surprise that the boy would be allowed to walk alone to choir practice at 7 o’clock on a Friday evening. The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who will soon step down as head of the anti-violence TenPoint Coalition, and the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Dorchester pastor, said that what young teens need more than latitude are rides to and from their extracurricular events in Roxbury and Dorchester.
“Most black professionals I know transport their kids from point A to point B,’’ said Rivers. “Even when their kids are back from college.’’ Brown takes the same approach with his 19-year-old daughter. “I’m there at the Shawmut T stop [in Dorchester] to take her home,’’ he said.
Many Bostonians employ street safety skills such as walking in well-lighted areas and tucking packages securely between their arms and body. But a higher level of preparation is required to stay safe along Humboldt Avenue.
Boston Police reported rising tensions between the H Block gang, whose members live in the neighborhood where Clarke was shot, and other violent youth gangs in the city. Tensions are especially high between H Block and rival gangs from Heath Street in Jamaica Plain and Orchard Park in Roxbury. Staying current on such information can be the deciding factor in whether to allow a youngster to walk the few blocks between home and church.
That’s where the weekly meetings between clergy and police officers come in. In addition to messages of salvation, ministers in attendance update their congregants about crime patterns and hot spots. That’s essential information when deciding how to traverse the neighborhood.
Rivers said that the Berea Seventh Day Adventist Church in Dorchester operates outside this information loop. One reason, he said, is that many worshipers at the church drive in from local suburbs. Rivers and other ministers are hoping to convince pastors in and around Humboldt Avenue to replicate their weekly meetings with police. It makes sense. At such a meeting, ministers might have learned of the possibility of a retaliatory attack following an October shooting at the Bromley Heath housing project or heard that young women associated with the rival gangs have been stirring up trouble on Facebook.
It’s ungodly that so many families need to work this hard to stay safe. The entire city owes a debt to such families for remaining in place under such pressures. Without them, large swaths of Boston would resemble the bedraggled blocks of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other US cities.
Meanwhile, there is something the Menino administration can do. It makes ample use of robo-calls to Boston homes for weather-related school cancellations and for public health purposes, such as flu shot reminders. It wouldn’t hurt for people living in gang-infected neighborhoods to know when it isn’t safe to walk to church.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.