OPINION | JESSE TURNER: Clergy key to progress

In June 2017, as the president of the Pine Bluff Faith Community Coalition Ministerial Alliance, we publicly endorsed Go Forward Pine Bluff, and the clergy's endorsement helped dominate the "No" vote by more than 2,000 votes. In May 2023, GFPB failed by a measly 117 votes without the clergy's public endorsement.

The Nov. 14 vote failed again without an invite to engage the clergy. In May and November, the voter turnout was very anemic. Pine Bluff pastors are critical for future progress; this city will live or die on our watch due to our involvement or lack of involvement. Since the defeat of GFPB, what will Pine Bluff do to regain its footing as we advance?

FACES (Faith And Community Empowerment Strategies) is needed to engage the faith community in strategies to reduce crime and improve economic development in the city.

The city's clergy are considered leaders in our community, however, they lack the necessary skills in crime prevention or community economic development (CED) to tackle crime prevention and economic development issues.

As a crime prevention practitioner and mentor for over two decades, I have coordinated two successful federal nationally known crime prevention strategies in Pine Bluff.

Engaging the faith community in these strategies can reduce crime and improve economic development. FACES empowers faith leaders to become more vigilant and aware of the need to be involved in the community. There was and still is a need to create more FACES in 2023. FACES was my 2010 thesis at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) in Manchester, N.H.

As a Pine Bluff Weed and Seed coordinator with the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, my work revealed that clergy members are not typically trained or vested in CED or crime prevention. If one never says anything, people don't know what they know. We found this to be one reason ministers are detached from their communities, remaining on the sidelines instead of getting involved.

FACES brings a different perspective on training faith leaders to become involved. This initiative is slightly different from the view of traditional projects because the focus is on empowering church leaders in local churches.

Pastors on Patrol have proven clergy members can make a huge difference with their voices and presence on school campuses.

My community assessment regarding crime and economic development in my hometown: (1.) The need for awareness of crime prevention tools. (2.) Lack of knowledge regarding the nexus of community economic development CED-based approaches and crime prevention strategies. Crime prevention must be a sustained effort rather than a one-time bouncy house and hot dog eating event with prizes and giveaways. In other words, crime prevention is a marathon and not a wind sprint. These two beg for more skills in managing community development and crime prevention initiatives, with additional national networks and organizations that support your efforts.

Pine Bluff needs faith and community empowering strategies (FACES) to help clergy move the city forward in crime prevention and community economic development. I understand the need for increased clergy involvement when viewing Pine Bluff's community economic development and crime prevention strategies from a pastor's perspective.

Clergy members should lead in creating a better quality of life in their community. A survey with clergy revealed three primary financial problems in their neighborhood: (1) Unemployment, (2) Lack of health care, and (3) Lack of education. (Pine Bluff Weed and Seed 2009.)

The clergy also responded that the three major crime problems in their neighborhoods were (1) Drugs, (2) Robbery, and (3) Assault and battery. (Pine Bluff Weed and Seed 2009.)

Pastors also stated unemployment was the number one issue in economic development, and drugs ranked as the number one crime problem. (Pine Bluff Weed and Seed 2009).

Faith and community empowerment strategies (FACES) aim to enhance clergy involvement and their capacity in crime prevention and economic development. Faith leaders hold their associations, conferences and convention meetings yearly. Most, if not all, of their gatherings don't always address community economic development or crime prevention.

It is easy to organize and train faith leaders to impact change in their neighborhoods, provided they know about community development and crime prevention. Because knowledge changes behavior, and behavior can change the community's landscape.

I also recognized the influence and ability possessed by clergy members to change the moral direction of an individual's life. The effects of clergy can potentially move a neighborhood out of poverty into a better quality of life.

The Rev. Leon Sullivan exemplifies this success as he organized in the '60s to train black kids in his church to achieve, and later, the organization became a premiere community development corporation (CDC) that trained many minority workers and developed its manufacturing enterprise.

Another way clergy in Pine Bluff could utilize the church would be a place for job training and resume preparation, skill training in carpentry and electrical plumbing, among other skills. As progressives sought explanations and responses to poverty in local communities, clergy members can become organized, educated and empowered to advocate against homicides, domestic abuse, the sale of drugs, deteriorating housing and poverty.

FACES believes organizing ministers in crime prevention and community economic development will result in increased assets, reduced crime, restoration of homes, cleaner neighborhoods and restored pride in the community where they serve. Clergy-promoting neighborhood building and home rehabilitation can create synergy for jobs and help people escape poverty.

Thus, clergy advocating and using their influence to focus on economic development and crime prevention will create businesses that can sustain the community, provide employment and reduce crime. Additional tools are needed to organize, plan and educate the Faith Community's power to influence economic development and reduce neighborhood crime. Community economic development impacts the neighborhood by stabilizing and stimulating job creation, ultimately reducing crime.

Rev. Jesse C. Turner is executive director of the Pine Bluff Interested Citizens for Voter Registration Inc.