As youth living in communities east of the Anacostia River continue to suffer from the onslaught of gun violence, leaders of different religious backgrounds have coalesced around a movement to directly engage Wards 7 and 8’s youngest residents and provide them with an outlet for their grief and trauma.
The clergymen and imams on the frontlines of this endeavor expressed a desire to launch a public platform that centers young people, allows them to talk about their experiences with their peers, and connects them to scripture by exemplifying the unity and community service often mandated in their holy doctrines.
“We share a common enemy that’s destroying the moral fabric of our community. There’s a need for healing,” said Rahim Jenkins, an observer of the Islamic faith and key coordinator of a burgeoning collaboration between mostly Christian and Islamic leaders in Southeast.
Jenkins proposed this idea on Sept. 17 during a weekly community meeting in the Marion Barry Room of the Busboys and Poets in Anacostia. Other religious leaders in that space that morning included Rev. Delonte Gholston of Peace Fellowship Church in Northeast and John Robinson of the East of the River Clergy Police Community Partnership.
Subsequent discussions within the local Islamic community have revolved around using the Clara Muhammad School on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue as a base for direct services for youth. Jenkins said this project will follow in the tradition of similar alliances formed years ago by leaders at Union Temple Baptist Church, also located in Southeast.
“The benefit will be immeasurable,” said Jenkins, also founder and executive director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. “If you go back to the religious history and the life of Prophet Muhammad, negotiations and collaborations supported his relationship with the Jewish community. When you take that example and share it with people, you can work together in a faith-based initiative.”
In the United States, Black people account for one-fifth of the Muslim population, while nearly 80 percent of Black people consider themselves Christians, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center. A January study described Black Christians and Muslims as passionate about worship and concerned about the condition of their community, two factors that fermented the 20th century’s most notable religious and social movements.
This recent call for collaboration between Christians and Muslims has come amid great concern about youth violence in the District, and young people’s growing apprehension toward organized religion, as noted in another Pew Research Center study.
Since the start of the 2019-2020 school year, three people younger than 17 have been fatally shot in the District. Nearly 20 young people have also counted as victims of nonfatal shootings, according to data collected by the Metropolitan Police Department. These trends carry on from a summer that took the lives of several teenagers and incited conversation about wraparound services and Safe Passage programs.
In years past, D.C. youth, many of whom frustrated with the status quo, have stood up against gun violence and other societal ills that hinder their academic and social growth.
For instance, the Black Swan Academy lobbied the D.C. Council, at the height of budget negotiations earlier this year, for an expansion of on-campus mental health resources. In the aftermath of their peers’ deaths, youth from Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School in Southeast launched a campaign, under their organization Pathways 2 Power, railing against youth violence and the key factors that exacerbate this issue.
In 2016, when the District experienced an uptick in violence, The Rev. Willie Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church called together hundreds of parishioners and community members to unite around violence prevention. All the while, he touted male and female rites-of-passage programs, much like what Union Temple has organized for nearly 40 years in coordination with groups in West Africa, as a key part of youth development.
In recent weeks, Wilson too has met with a cohort of leaders of different religious and organizational affiliations to address a bevy of economic and social issues plaguing D.C.s’ Black communities. Once all parties agree on a plan of action, this latest partnership, Wilson said, will bear great similarity to the unification of religious leaders, organizations, and fraternities he helped coordinate during the Million Man March in 1995.
“Our communities are under attack and we are not unified and working together. We have to pool our time and resources,” Wilson said. “We stand in peril when it comes to not controlling what happens in our communities. It’s urgent that we get something done. My experience tells me that you need a victory that would mobilize people. [That’s why] we can’t meet too much longer without some concrete plans of action.”