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Oakland: A recipe for urban opportunity

By John W. Kennedy

Like a priceless crown jewel perched perfectly on a satin pillow, San Francisco is brilliantly inviting — especially at night when the city’s glittering skyline seems to offer sophistication, affluence and promise to every passerby.

Due east, just across the Bay Bridge, is Oakland. If San Francisco is the gem of Northern California, Oakland is the costume jewelry. Violence and decadence plague the city of 409,300. Nowhere is the fallout more evident than in inner-city neighborhoods such as Sobrante Park.

Such areas are the domain of the city’s most-wanted criminals. These are communities where children and the elderly are afraid to leave their homes after the sun goes down. Where outsiders are not welcome. Where all-night convenience stores keep the front doors locked after midnight, forcing customers to pay through bulletproof window slots. Where almost daily drive-by shootings make neighborhood streets seem more like Iraq than California.

The dazzling lights of Network Associates Coliseum, which remain on all night in an effort to prevent vandalism and worse crimes, offer a constant reminder that such neighborhoods mar the city.

Though drug addicts, thugs, gangsters, prostitutes and pimps have embedded themselves in many neighborhoods and given Oakland its sordid reputation, there also are Christians taking the gospel to the streets.

The School of Urban Missions, a cooperative undertaking of the Assemblies of God and Church of God in Christ, is a Bible college situated in a neighborhood that borders African-American and Hispanic communities. The school occupies part of a decaying industrial zone that now also has a sprinkling of modest homes. Graffiti — one of the ways gang members leave their mark — lines the walls as far as the eye can see in an alley behind SUM. Discarded tires, worn-out carpet pieces and trash line the perimeter of the railroad tracks next to the school.

Drug trafficking is well organized and an everyday occurrence in the community around the school and in Oakland. Police made 4,267 drug arrests in 2003.

“If the police bust someone on our corner, 15 minutes later there’s someone else to take his place,” says SUM Chancellor George Neau (pronounced “No”). “There’s quite a recruiting system.”

Students and administrators at SUM know the drug dealers by name.

In addition to classes that provide a lively give-and-take learning atmosphere, SUM students hit the streets for in-the-field ministry.

A RUDE WELCOME

Five years ago, Neau felt called to Oakland after establishing a similar school in New Orleans. Upon looking over two bankrupt warehouses destined to become SUM, Neau asked God to confirm the proposed campus as the right location. Just then three gang members strolled in front of his car. That was all the assurance Neau needed.

Neau, who is soft-spoken yet intense, thrives in such an environment. He jogs regularly to stay fit and to relieve tension. Since coming to the community, he has had to learn a few survival skills. In the early days a gang member came after Neau with a baseball bat while Neau was working on the renovations of the educational facility.

Many students who otherwise wouldn’t be headed for ministry are enrolled at SUM because it’s affordable. Neau passionately wants to reach out to young people who have a ministry calling on their lives. That burden is nurtured by memories of his own scarred past. Neau thought little about the Lord as a teenager — even when his father shot himself and died in his arms. Afterwards, Neau spent years as a professional rock guitarist before the Lord healed him of a mysterious stomach ailment.

“If God can change me, He can change anybody,” says Neau, who still cranks up the guitar to unwind.

For a very modest $940,000, SUM bought 4.5 acres as well as an apartment complex across the street. Crack heads used to shoot up in what has become the school’s educational wing. After renovations, the debt-free institutions are now worth $7 million.

It hasn’t been easy. During renovation — before installation of an iron fence around the property — thieves drove a truck into the side of one of the buildings to gain entry and steal welding equipment. Another time burglars shattered a plate-glass window and pilfered tools. Intruders made off with several thousands of dollars worth of goods during the five years of construction.

Now, though, even students who moved to the campus from much safer suburbs feel they belong here.

“I sometimes hear gunshots at night,” says SUM student Jason Ramirez who lives on campus. “I’m out of my element, but God is with me.”

The character of the community has improved greatly because of the presence of the 95-student school. Still, on a recent Friday at 8 in the morning, a drunken middle-aged man is sprawled on the sidewalk across the street. Other men without work, family or hope mill about on street corners for hours on end.

REACHING THE YOUTH

A good portion of SUM training is hands-on ministry, whether on the streets, in homeless shelters, in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, or working with youth. SUM student Jamila Green, who attends an Assemblies of God church after accepting Christ as her Savior two years ago, volunteered to help pupils read and write at Madison Middle School. The weekly experience at the gated public school less than a mile away from SUM served as an eye-opener.

“These sixth graders talk about vile things that I didn’t know anything about,” Green says. “They aspire to be pimps, drug dealers, criminals. They see money and power as an end to all their problems.”

Uniformed and muscular security guards hired by the school district try to keep control between the aggressive students and stressed teachers, but it’s an uphill fight. Most pupils have little respect for their instructors and guards must scream to be noticed, according to Green.

“Times have changed since I was in sixth grade,” says Green, noting that students routinely shove and curse each other. “These kids don’t show any fear about anything. They have an attitude of give me what I want or I’ll take it. They show a hatred for authority figures.”

Green says some children who earn better grades or who are physically small stay inside during lunch because they face a pummeling if they venture outdoors.

Jo Anna Lougin, principal at the 500-student Madison Junior High, appreciates the SUM students. “Another adult presence in the classroom with the teacher helps,” Lougin says. “When kids make threats they can’t be ignored. Fights can break out at any time.” She wants SUM helpers at the school especially on Mondays.

“We don’t know what happened over the weekend — whose mother had a fight with another mother, whose daddy got out of prison,” Lougin says.

If students are involved in fighting, Lougin calls a parent from both parties in for a chat. “Kids aren’t going to Sunday School, so they’re not learning right from wrong,” says Lougin, who is part of a local Reformed Church in America congregation. “I ask parents, ‘Do you know what the Bible says about this?’ ”

Usually a calm discussion resolves the matter. However, sometimes parents start hitting each other, and police must be summoned to intervene.

Along with diffusing problems involving drugs, violence and inappropriate language, Lougin tries to keep a lid on racial tension. Half the students are Latino, 43 percent are black and the rest are Asian or Samoan.

The vivacious and talkative Lougin is turning the situation around. In 1998, the year before she arrived, Madison students served 1,265 days of suspension. That declined to 62 days in the 2003-2004 school year.

SUM sponsors a variety of events to reach out to children in the neighborhood. There’s a harvest festival at Halloween, an egg hunt at Easter and a Christmas celebration in which every child receives a toy.

“SUM is committed to being a Christian college involved in community development,” says SUM President Anthony Freeman. “Last year’s combined events ministered to more than 2,000 children and youth at the Oakland campus.”

The 4.5-acre SUM is an oasis of calm in a cacophonous sea of sirens, car horns, blasting stereos and rumbling trains outside the 1,000 feet of fence surrounding the property. Inside, the grounds provide recreational opportunities for young people, including two well-maintained basketball courts, a lushly landscaped football field and a walking track.

Every Friday, SUM sponsors a safe place for dozens of teens to hang out at a three-hour “When Warriors Dream” meeting. Youth start out playing football, basketball or video games, followed by a short Bible teaching then free food. Some come because they have nothing better to do, some to stay out of trouble, yet others just to be with friends. Several young men are here primarily to brush up on their athletic skills, proclaiming they are going to become professional athletes. For some, this is their only exposure to Christian adults.

Castlemont High School junior Jason Isom, an aspiring graphic designer, has been coming to Warriors gatherings for three years.

“People are either going to go the right way or the wrong way,” Isom says. “You either end up in the streets or you end up somebody.”

He lives in the Sobrante Park area with his mom, aunt, grandparents and two sisters. “Some people in my neighborhood, if they don’t like people, they just beat them up,” Isom says.

Most of the Warriors students are taken home in SUM vehicles so they don’t have to walk the streets in the dark. One 13-year-old girl saw a neighbor die in a drive-by shooting last year while walking to a corner grocery store. She plans to move to a different neighborhood as soon as she is an adult because she doesn’t want to raise her children here. In 2003, Oakland had 114 murders, the most in seven years.

TURNING LIVES AROUND

Before he graduated recently, John Chavez also worked maintenance on the SUM campus. By hosing down the parking lot and sidewalks every day he had the opportunity to build a relationship with the older homeless men in the neighborhood. In October, half a dozen of them attended the first church meeting he held expressly for them.

“God doesn’t care about appearances,” Chavez says. “God cares about the condition of the heart.”

Chavez, 31, says he became an alcoholic at age 12 after his parents divorced. A decade later he had liver failure. “I asked the Lord if there was any more to life than this,” Chavez recalls. At an altar call five years ago, Chavez promised the Lord he would change his lifestyle and serve Him. Immediately his desire for alcohol ceased, and three months later his liver was healed. He also went from a student who perpetually received D’s and F’s to SUM’s valedictorian.

Chavez, an Oakland native, is encouraged about the city’s future. “When I was in high school, gang activity was bad,” he says. “It’s lessened somewhat; gang life is not as glorified as before.”

But there is something to Oakland’s rough reputation. Gordon Butler is pastor to 50 families attending New Jerusalem Assembly of God, located in an east side neighborhood with its share of bars and liquor stores. “Not one family in the church has been unaffected by crack cocaine,” Butler says. “They have someone serving a jail term, someone who has died a violent death or they have been delivered themselves.”

Butler says few in the lucrative illegal drug business opt to make a commitment to the Lord.

“I know all the drug dealers and they all know me,” Butler says. “They all have my business card. If they call, I will come.”

CHURCHES WITH A BURDEN

Many Oakland churches are losing key members to suburbia because of skyrocketing housing prices. The median price of a home in Oakland has risen 147 percent in the past five years and now tops $300,000.

Beyond economics, pastors of various denominations admit a lack of unity is responsible for the sad spiritual climate of Oakland. There is no shortage of congregations. For instance, three other churches, all various forms of Baptist, occupy the same block as New Jerusalem.

“There’s a great vacuum in Oakland in terms of spiritual needs,” says Charles Bracey, SUM student and associate pastor of Cosmopolitan Baptist Church. “Churches have a long way to go to meet the whole needs of the community. We talk a good game, but are we really accomplishing anything?”

Bracey believes churches are too focused on their own agendas rather than reaching the lost. “Churches don’t cooperate because they don’t want to submit to one another,” he says.

Likewise, too many churches stress God’s love without mentioning the need for sinners to repent, Bracey says. “God holds us to standards, and He disciplines us,” he says. “But churches aren’t dealing with issues of abstinence, out-of-wedlock births and absentee fathers.”

Bishop Bob L. Jackson, pastor of Acts Full Gospel Church of God in Christ, the largest church in the city, agrees with Bracey.

“A lot of churches don’t have a burden for lost souls,” says Jackson, who started the church with 13 attendees in 1984 and now has 7,000. “They’re too preoccupied with doing ‘church’ work and having services.”

Evangelism soul-winning teams from Acts Full Gospel led 502 people to make salvation decisions for Christ in September. Jackson wishes more congregations would develop similar strategies.

“A lot of Christians are trying to stay away from sinners,” says Jackson, who has lived in Oakland all of his 59 years. “But the church isn’t a specialty club.”

Jackson estimates that only 10 percent of Oakland’s population attends church. “We’ve got another 360,000 people going to hell,” he says.

The church has established a Men of Valor Academy, which teaches high school dropouts and ex-prisoners everything from anger management to how to obtain a general equivalency diploma.

“Too many black males have only a third-grade reading level and no vocational skills,” Jackson says. “They come from a broken home, with no mentor to teach them what maleness means. Unless the church intervenes, they are prone to crime on the streets, prison and death. It’s hard to get anywhere without money, and dope dealing offers that.”

Indeed, many commuters who zip past Interstate 880 or one of the many other thoroughfares leading to San Francisco, San Jose or Sacramento don’t realize — or care to realize — that poverty, gang warfare, drugs and prostitution are robbing the life out of inner-city Oakland.

A football stadium’s lights might help deter crimes that would be committed in the dark, but they can never eradicate the sin that pervades so many neighborhood enclaves in Oakland. Only a powerful move of God and the work and determination of active Christians will transform this city.


John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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