Published January 31st, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Violent crime in Kansas City — especially gun violence — has been out of control for years, and the Rev. Darron Lamonte Edwards, lead pastor of the United Community Believers Church, is sick of it.
So he and several other clergy members began working in partnership with the Kansas City Police Department last summer to see if they could find ways to reduce it. Though about two years in the planning stage, the initiative happened to be launched in the midst of last summer’s turbulent Black Lives Matter street protests over police misconduct here and across the country.
“What Edwards (and others) did, stepping forward at a time when it was very unpopular to be seen talking to the police, took a lot of courage,” says Jason Cooley, the police department’s community initiative officer. “They put their reputation on the line, their churches, their congregations on the line to step up and do what pastors do, which is to step into that void, that middle ground.”
Edwards says the initiative, called “Getting to the Heart of the Matter,” will expand in 2021 and try new strategies, and he hopes to draw in other clergy and members of their congregations.
“In 2021,” he says, “the effort is looking toward neighborhood associations, speaking with neighborhood leaders and seeing how they view their communities.”
Edwards and others working with “Heart of the Matter” hope to create “violence-free zones” this year.
“We’re just going to declare them violence-free zones,” he says, “whether we do an event in that zone or a prayer walk or more policing. But we really want to make sure in 30 days that it becomes a violence-free area. With that kind of impact and synergy, I really believe we’ve seen the last days of 170-plus murders a year in Kansas City.”
One of the ministers joining Edwards in this work is the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, pastor of St. James United Methodist Church. When asked why he committed himself to this work, his answer was short: “Simply put, something had to be done.”
Cleaver says he hopes “that we will be able to build a relationship with minority communities and law enforcement. For decades there has been a great deal of tension between the police and the Black community in particular.”
And, like Edwards, theological thinking motivates Cleaver: “Jesus’ teachings on the lost, left-out and the least undergirds my work in the community. I believe the gospel is both a personal matter as well as a social matter. To truly live out our mandate as followers of Christ we must love God, love neighbor and love self.”
Edwards explains his motivations this way: “The main idea is to be a bridge builder. My goal is to see a better day between the people of Kansas City and the Kansas City Police Department and to see them in wonderful conversation, sharing true and factual information from the people to the police and the police to the people.”
But he acknowledges that there’s so much mistrust of police among Black residents that some people have questioned the wisdom of deciding to work closely with the police.
This work, Edwards says, “has come with its set of challenges from several groups within the city who see things differently than the way I do. There are movements to defund the police and abolish the police, but that’s just not my lane. I try to stay true to my calling and endeavor. Have I reached out to them? Absolutely. And there will be continued efforts to bridge dissenting opinions together so we can see what’s best for our city.”
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t resulted in a decline in murders, which is all the more reason for Edwards and others to continue their efforts in this new year with new approaches.
Arguably the most important of those will be to engage neighborhood leaders who understand the pulse of their communities. As Edwards says, “We’re looking at all the neighborhood associations surrounding the police divisions. Hearing and amplifying their voices in 2021 will be a huge win.”
Cooley adds: “Cooperation and dialogue and communication and understanding are important. We’re open to listening to a good idea from just about anybody at this point to have a positive change with what’s going on with violent crime. Things really have pieced together nicely with the vision Pastor Edwards has brought forth. We’ve partnered and come together very nicely.”
Cleaver is hopeful, too: “If ‘Heart of the Matter’ can bridge the gap I believe it will increase the number of minorities willing to serve in law enforcement, decrease crime and create more partnerships between law enforcement and the community.”
It would be helpful, of course, to have all major civil rights and community organizations working together to create safe neighborhoods, but not every group — whether the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Urban League, the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime or the Black Lives Matter movement — sees these issues in the same way. As Edwards puts it, “They just see it through a different lens than I see it.”
No individual or community group — and certainly not the police department itself — so far has had anything close to an effective answer to stopping violent crime. But residents of the city will be safer if the 2021 work planned by “Getting to the Heart of the Matter” succeeds and if the necessary police reforms advocated by Mayor Quinton Lucas and many others finally get adopted.
“All of us will agree,” says Edwards, “that we want to be a safe city in every ZIP Code.”
Bill Tammeus, a former award-winning columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His new book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety, was published in January. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.