I had a chance to sit in Lockport last week and talk about race, society, crime and decency with Pastor Don Chisholm of the Latter Rain Cathedral and Pastor Mark Sanders of the Refuge Temple of Christ.
Lockport and Niagara Falls are on opposite ends of the county and they may be worlds apart, too.
Niagara Falls has a racially integrated police force. In my brief time here, I am aware of no incidents of police misconduct.
Lockport’s police force remains overwhelmingly caucasian and still bears the stain of Troy Hodge’s death at the hands of officers.
Lockport’s community seems largely peaceful. Niagara Falls has, of late, been beset with violence.
In addition to ministering, Sanders works in community policing, building bridges between police and citizens.
“We speak to our constituents every week,” Sanders said. “How can we be an ally? How can our schools be an ally to ourselves? Sometimes we’ve given minority children the path of least resistance. We need to give them an opportunity. Sometimes there is a low expectation.”
Chisholm’s church has been at the root of calls for reform because of how the Latter Rain congregation sees the world and because Fatima Hodge, Troy’s mother, worships there.
“It is my job to be there for the right reasons,” Chisholm said. “My position is to seek answers to everything in love.
“We build relationships with police like anyplace, whether officers or politicians or people. When we know each other we have more compassion.”
The violence in Niagara Falls seems based in a very small subset of the community and, in my research from talking to community members and examining social media, seems to be based as much on grudges and hurt feelings as drugs.
In Lockport, there is a cooperative air. Sure, there are still problems, but there doesn’t seem to be nightly or weekly shooting.
In Niagara Falls, the violence seems concentrated, and those working against violence seem divided.
“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Chisholm explained. “We can pray 24/7/365 but that’s not going to change things. Show your scars. When I know where you are, I know how you feel. This is 2021. We can’t do what we did in 1971 and expect that to work.”
I thought of those words as I meditated on the wisdom of Bishop Silvester Beaman of the AME Church. Bishop Beaman is a testament to what Niagara Falls once was, a time when large church-going families produced successful students who earned college degrees and spread their wings. When the blue collar jobs went away, so did the newly minted young adults. Today, the city is a shell of its former self.
“Poverty is violence,” Beaman told me. Sometimes the simple words are the most profound.
For Chisholm, that means finding new ways to build a better community. Mentorship plays a big role.
“Especially in the Black community, where often the household is composed of a single mom,” Chisholm said. “. . . We can’t change the whole world, but we can save some in our own community.”
Chisholm said it’s some kids being clueless, despite the efforts of public schools. They too often lack an inspirational voice helping them understand the options before them, whether it is college, the military or the trades. His church is using its youth to reach out to the unconnected and achieve common good because faith often follows. As a rule, people go where they are invited, and stay where they are welcome.
For Sanders that means changing what’s around. He sees Lockport as unique in some ways because of biracial families.
“When children don’t see opportunity, they don’t see images they need,” he said. “A lot of kids want to succeed. They just want to do better. Society isn’t colorblind. Poverty is.”
For Sanders, things begin with reasonable expectations.
“We aren’t going to resolve every issue,” he said, “but we are gathering resources where we can direct you to some help. A simple conversation that gives a different view of life can go a long way.”
A lot of those messages are parallel between Niagara Falls and Lockport. There are bad decisions. Niagara’s community leadership decries the lack of a central community center and longs for the days of “night gym” and other wholesome activity.
Sanders sees another gap in Lockport in a YMCA built where kids aren’t and an ice arena that serves only those who can afford to skate rather than those who live in the neighborhood.
For now, Spencer said, he thinks Lockport is headed in the right direction. Churches remain a crucial resource.
“Church is the information hub,” he said. “If you don’t read the newspaper or have the internet, how do we know about things?”
As for Niagara Falls, for the moment, the gun violence appears to have died down. There are a ton of good things going on in the public school system and, if developers are to be believed, hundreds of millions of dollars about to be spent on new tourist developments.
The glory days may be gone but, in both cities, there is hope for a brighter future.
Joe Genco is the regional news editor for the Union-Sun & Journal and the Niagara Gazette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 282-2311, extension 2250.