- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

Local church groups are helping urban police departments lead at-risk children from gangs and gang violence.

In Southeast, a former NFL defensive back is tackling the problem at a renovated crack house that now serves as a Christian outreach center.

“This used to be ‘Murder Row,’” says Steve Fitzhugh, peering at 17th Street SE from a window of his outreach center, about three blocks from Anacostia High School.

Mr. Fitzhugh, who played one season for the Denver Broncos, founded his outreach center — called “The House” — to provide an after-school haven where 30 to 70 at-risk children in Southeast can receive the “love of Christ” daily.

His efforts apparently are succeeding.

“Police no longer consider this [street] a hot spot,” Mr. Fitzhugh says. “The principal of Anacostia High School came to say thank you because for the first time he can take a lunch break, for the first time he can sleep at night.”

There is still much more to do. “This was a rough year for us,” Mr. Fitzhugh says. “We buried four of our students.”

Elsewhere in Anacostia, Camp Dynamite takes at-risk students on retreats to “teach them about the Lord,” says the Rev. Bobby Mathieu, pastor of Anacostia Gospel Chapel.

“Faith comes in when you feel there is no hope,” says Mr. Mathieu, who runs the Pentecostal church’s weeklong summer camp for inner-city youths.

Mr. Mathieu says the program does more than help keep youths out of gangs. At the most recent retreat, a 7-year-old asked for prayer for her 13-year-old sister who was raped by a family member, he says.

Police appreciate — and seek out — all the help they can get in their antigang efforts.

“The gang problem is not something you can arrest your way out of,” says Capt. Robert Contee of the Metropolitan Police Department. “Kids may not want to confide in police like they will with people in church groups.”

“Churches are a huge resource,” says Officer Rob Musser of the Montgomery County Police Gang Unit.

But Officer Musser says few churches in Montgomery County have stepped forward to help stem the growth of gangs. “They want to help, but they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how much they are needed,” he says.

Fairfax County Police spokesman Jeffrey Gossett says no local churches are working with his department to discourage an estimated 82 gangs and 1,500 gang members in the county.

Paul Addams, an evangelist for Open Air Campaigners, an international and interdenominational evangelical mission, says it’s difficult to work in the suburbs because children there don’t congregate in concentrated spots. Groups are spread among the different neighborhoods.

Although he is based in Montgomery County, Mr. Addams takes his message to Langley Park in Prince George’s County, where he teaches Bible Cubs for 7- to 12-year-olds to help set them on the right path.

A reformed drug dealer, Mr. Addams says that when people put their faith in Christ, they change in a way that detention centers and counselors cannot match. “We teach them the Bible and are laying a foundation that they are accountable to someone — God,” he says.

Meanwhile, a Reston-based evangelist is moving into the District to counter the gang movement there, and a D.C. narcotics detective is serving as a youth leader in Fairfax County.

The Rev. Scott Johnson recently gave up his position as pastor of Reston’s Oakbrook Church to move to Northeast and work with young people around Eastern Market.

Although his mission is still in the planning stages, Mr. Johnson says, he hopes to coordinate churches in the District to target at-risk youths.

D.C. police Sgt. Dale Sutherland says his police work has given him a passion to continue his side work as a youth leader at McLean Bible Church.

“One of the reasons I work with the church is because the only way to change lives is the Gospel,” says Sgt. Sutherland. “[Children] are looking for gangs to fill a need that can only be filled through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

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