When Love Increases…Crime Decreases

By Elizabeth Boo Neuberget, Catholic Extension

 

In neighborhoods across Shreveport, Louisiana, a powerful movement is taking place that is rooted in neighborly love and faith. Based on the conviction that people crave connection and that vibrant communities are built on meaningful relationships, neighborhoods are being dramatically transformed, block by block.

Mack McCarter, who is leading the way, has seen the physical, emotional and spiritual evolution of several communities in the 25 years since he started his ministry.

Mack spent his adult life in ministry, having gone to seminary and been a pastor of an evangelical church in west Texas for many years. He returned to his hometown of Shreveport in 1991 and discovered many neighborhoods—that were once vital and thriving—were in great decline. They were facing gangs, drugs, violence, crumbling homes and people living in isolation.

During his time in Texas, he had poured over scripture, counseled members of his flock, and sought to lead them as faithful followers of Jesus. But even within this vocation, Mack has discerned a deeper voice, urging him to pay close attention to the poor.

Christian life, he understands, is more than seeking personal holiness. It is about loving your neighbor, no matter what it takes.

And that’s how he found himself, on a Saturday morning in 1991, walking through the Allendale neighborhood of Shreveport, just trying to be neighborly. He knew no one, and no one knew him. But he was aware that the murder rate in this area was at a rate averaging nearly two people every week.

God told him to head toward “the Bottoms,” the toughest area of the city, and go door to door. He thought about taking the easy route first—“drive-by blessings,” he calls them, recalling how he tried to hedge on his promise to God. But God told him to go door-to-door on Saturday mornings, when “the bad guys are hungover,” and try to make friends. The first people to greet him were kids, who unselfconsciously wanted to play with him. Emboldened by this spontaneous ice-breaker, he began to knock on doors, introducing himself and saying he wanted to be friends.

Many, he said, were more than a little dubious. But the key is that he came by every Saturday. And within three months, people were waiting on their row house porches, waiting for their turn to meet their gregarious neighbor.

Mack decided to enlist the help of the Bishop of Shreveport, William Friend, because in Mack’s experience, “Wherever the poor were, the Catholic Church was.”

He knew that Catholics reached out to the margins to help people. He explained to Bishop Friend his dream to renew their city by helping to establish new relationships among its residents. The bishop was convinced. He invited Mack to speak in any of the Catholic parishes in the city and gave him a check for $10,000 to get to work.

Mack and the bishop struck up a life-changing friendship. Not only did the bishop help Mack execute his dream, but he brought Mack to meet Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1998, and inspired Mack to convert to Catholicism.

 

Community Renewal International

In 1994, Mack founded Community Renewal International (CRI) to resurrect the foundation of relationships in neighborhoods. He understands that friendship between neighbors does more than just provide good block parties; they connect people to their faith and to the intrinsic dignity of each person.

Relationships make people feel safe, confident and optimistic. They motivate them to go to church, school and jobs and to be good and productive citizens. Mack believes that strong relationships define all healthy societies.

The areas CRI serves have seen a 52 percent reduction in major crime—but nothing is more transformational than how these neighborhoods “feel” now: children are playing outside, people are smiling, houses look tidy and colorful community gardens have replaced former drug zones. Outreach to neighbors, like what Mack did in Allendale years ago, is still fundamental to the CRI model. Mack and his team have scaled up that basic insight with three related initiatives: Haven Houses; the renewal team; and Friendship Houses.

 

Haven Houses

More than 1,700 diverse leaders live in Haven Houses throughout the neighborhoods and provide a broader platform for socializing among neighbors and helping each other. The leaders undergo training to become good listeners and build skills to develop relationships of trust.

 

The renewal team

The Renewal Team consists of more than 50,000 people — who Mack calls the largest gang in town — who have signed “We Care” pledge cards, committing to service towards their neighbors. In 2018, over 2,000 volunteers gave nearly 40,000 hours of service. Members of the Renewal Team have bumper stickers and yard signs to make their commitment visible. Driving through these neighborhoods, one now sees house after house bearing “We Care” signs.

 

Friendship Houses

There are 10 “Friendship Houses” spread throughout Shreveport in low-income, high-crime areas. With live-in leaders, typically a married couple, these houses are popular gathering places and a crucial presence in the neighborhoods. Children come for after-school programs, teens gather to socialize and anyone in need of comfort or a little socializing, stops by.

The success of CRI is now being replicated in nine other places: Abilene, Texas; Palestine, Texas: Houston, Texas; Shawnee, Oklahoma; Lawton, Oklahoma; Ringgold, Louisiana; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; Washington, D.C.; and the country of Cameroon in Africa.

 

 

Reprinted with permission from Catholic Extension Society of America

 

 

 

 

 

One Response to When Love Increases…Crime Decreases

  1. Jean Woods says:

    The photo on the front cover is absolutely beautiful! The article is wonderful! Mack McCarter, CRI and the Renewal Team do an outstanding job! Wherever the poor are, the Catholic Church is always there.

    Proud to be Catholic!
    Jean

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