Harlem Clergy and Police Struggle to Maintain Authority

It’s another slow Sunday morning at Greater Highway Deliverance Temple on 111th street in Harlem -church members slowly filter into the tabernacle, women shrug off their coats, and children impatiently shuffle into the pews. It is a quiet day outside, one that contrasts with the echoes of a recent homicide and shootings that haunt the very streets that members of the congregation walk through on their way to the service.  The church is nestled in a neighborhood that faces dismal times.

A mother and her daughter listen to the sermon at Greater Highway Deliverance Temple in Harlem

Although, according to NYPD crime statistics, the crime rate has not significantly risen in Harlem from last year, residents still worry about the crimes that still manage to take place in their neighborhoods. Stringent budget cuts and disheartening unemployment rates continue to plague Harlem neighborhoods, while religious and law enforcement authorities struggle to improve the situation.  The neighborhood has been tainted by misdemeanors that have left the community stumped, unstable and unsafe.

“There have been 10 shootings altogether around this neighborhood, five in this precinct. The most recent shooting was on January 30th, when a 17 year old male with a firearm shot at the police between 118th and 128th street. There have been 418 arrests in the last year and a homicide in February. We need to get the perpetrators of violence off the street,” said Capt. Nilda Hofmann at a community meeting.

Many attribute the crime rates to the unemployment rates that torment the neighborhood and the lack of authority to stop criminal activities. According to a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit research organization, Harlem’s unemployment rate is almost double New York’s unemployment rate. “I really feel that the unemployment rate means that more people are just hanging out, up to no good,” said 23 year old Christopher Vernon, who moved to Harlem six months ago. “[People] can’t find jobs, so they do criminal activities. That’s a very uncomfortable situation.” He added “The church could have moral influence and seems to somewhat have an influence, but the cops have the most power in the community. They do what they want. They can also decide to ignore things, and they can stop you when they want to.”

Frustration over the perceived passive role that the clergy and the police play in the community is common among residents. “Most of our concerns fall on a deaf ear, in this community, in Harlem,” said Carlene Hernandez, who has lived in and around Harlem since 1979. “The churches basically run food pantries and just pray for you, and then get on with running their churches. That’s it, they are low profile. The police just make themselves visible. But nothing is changing. Drugs are still being sold. It’s still the same.”

While attempting to change the situation, the church, which is seen as a haven for relief in the community, now faces serious fiscal storms of its own, while police departments scrounge for resources to keep the streets crimeless. Significant cuts in budget spending have hindered the ability of authorities in the community to counter the effects of crime and unemployment. Churches like Greater Highway Deliverance Temple struggle to provide the community with the same resources they used to offer.

“Jobs are a great issue in this area. We used to help a lot of people that were here,” commented Bishop Liston Page Sr, presiding prelate of the Greater Highway Deliverance Temple Ministries. He said the church’s ability to fully aid the community was intercepted by the church’s economic status.  “Our budget has been tapped. We had to cut back because of the condition in which we are living.”

The church has had to cut its budget by 30 percent, from the quarter million dollar budget it used to receive and utilize every two weeks. It has also had to cut several members of church staff, contributing to the unemployment situation.

“We now have to ask people to do just a little bit more, so that we may be able to get through this crisis, so that we can implement some programs we need for the community at this difficult time,” said Bishop Paige, referring to the community development programs the church runs, which aim to empower members of society by offering job skills and helping with housing problems.

The police department also continues to be constrained by budget cuts that limit its ability to fully cleanse the community of crime. “We’ve had to spend less, and hire less,” said Capt. Hofmann. She said that just as the members of the community face economic challenges that are constantly present and obstruct their daily lives, the public should seek to understand that the police department is “not immune to the fiscal reality, which affects the way in which the community can successfully run.”

As fiscal realities continue to burden the nation, and dire shortages of resources continue to be a thorn in the police and clergy’s ability to assert justice in Harlem communities, many residents in Harlem fear that things will not change fast enough, and darker days of crime, desperation and injustice are still to come. “People keep taking things from other people,” said Hernandez. “When people don’t have, they are going to be forced to feed their families somehow.”