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Dorchester priests see outreach as key to quelling city violence

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BOSTON -- Father Richard C. "Doc" Conway was about to attend an Aug. 17 meeting of clergy with the Boston mayor and police officials to address a spike in city violence when he happened upon the aftermath of a recent shooting.

"I see all these kids lying down on the tennis courts. I'm saying, jeeze, that's a different kind of an exercise for tennis. The next thing -- before I get to the end of the street -- sirens, police cars coming from everywhere," Father Conway said.

He was passing by the Melnea Cass Swimming Pool just off Washington Street in Roxbury. The shots had been fired at a nearby memorial service being held for a victim of an earlier shooting.

The incident, in which no one was injured, was just the latest in string of acts of gun violence that began Aug. 12 with three fatal shootings in Roxbury. Another shooting over that weekend injured a 16-year-old boy in Jamaica Plain.

Those shootings had prompted Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Police Commissioner William B. Evans to call the meeting with clergy at Boston Police Headquarters to address the issue. Father Conway attended with Father Jack Ahern, pastor of Holy Family, St. Peter, and Blessed Mother Teresa in Dorchester.

The two priests spoke with The Pilot Aug. 18 about the meeting and their efforts to quell violence in their neighborhood.

They said that at the meeting Mayor Walsh laid out a vision of police, clergy and even elected officials hitting the streets to interact with young people in an effort to bring peace and stability to the neighborhood.

With the likelihood of gang involvement in the preceding incidents, clergy who attended the meeting commented on a Walsh administration program called Operation Exodus aimed at getting gang members off the streets and into jobs.

Father Conway said initiatives need also center on outreach to families.

"You can't do this with just the police, and you can't do it just with clergy. Somehow, we have to get parents to cooperate more," he said.

Father Conway said he has participated in a BPD collaborative effort with schools and clergy to reach young people and their families at home called Operation Homefront.

He also spoke about the need to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to light a path for those at the center of the violence.

For him, that has meant maintaining a presence on foot in the neighborhood near Catholic Charities' St. Peter's Teen Center and the parish across the street.

"Most of the time, I would guess -- I can't speak for other churches -- the people who would need this connection with Jesus Christ are not necessarily in church, so you go out and maybe you run into them. It might be on a basketball court, or a soccer program, or things like that," he said.

Father Conway said the culture in neighborhoods needs to move toward a mindset of collaboration with police to stem the tide of violence.

He referred to what he saw on Washington Street the day of the meeting.

"Somebody knows who those kids (who did the shooting) are. Turn them in. You can't have kids running around the streets with guns, shooting willy-nilly," he said.

Father Ahern said, "The summer has been sort of quiet in Bowdoin-Geneva. Then last week it all broke loose."

"One of the things that came out of the clergy meeting yesterday was that it's not just the police who have a problem, it's a community problem. The churches, the community centers, and all, we have to do something," he said.

Father Ahern outlined some of the work that he, Father Conway and the parishes do in the area to mitigate the violence. He said that work is especially important in the summer months that can be a campaign season of sorts for gangs and criminals.

Father Ahern said much of the outreach of the Dorchester parishes centers around the St. Peter's Teen Center, which holds programs for young people at the center from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m., with later hours on weekends.

He said events like trips and soccer games provide a safe space for between 250 and 300 young people both day and night and added that the center has extended a program that gives young people a chance to interact with police through basketball games organized locally.

He said the clergy reacted positively to the meeting with Mayor Walsh.

"Several of the ministers and community activists who were there said (the mayor) was inspired yesterday. He was calling us to partnership. He was calling us to task. He was calling us to reach out to our kids and be there for them in a number of different situations," Father Ahern said.

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