Now is the time for giving — to the community

Saturday, December 22, 2007 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:20 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Christmas is upon us, but there wasn’t much festivity among the 200 or so who gathered last Tuesday evening at the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church up on Smiley Lane. Expressions were mainly grim, and words were heavy with warning.

The announced topic of the “community forum” was crime. That came up in several comments from citizens and more often in responses from our mayor. The city’s leaders have always been concerned about and working to prevent crime, he said — even before it moved out of the central city and into middle-class residential neighborhoods such as the one that surrounds the church.

When I approached him after the session, Police Chief Randy Boehm said there are some new elements that have heightened that concern. One is a spike in the statistics. Another is a change in the kinds of crime, with more shootings and such big-city novelties as carjackings. And a third is that the crime scenes have shifted, often into the northern reaches of the city.

For the first 15 years we were in Columbia, my family lived just a half-mile from where Friendship Baptist now sits. Our house overlooked Bear Creek. We could gaze across the creek at Jimmy Sears’ soybean field. The church parking lot was pasture then. Now it’s all subdivisions. That’s growth, you know, and growth is good. Or so we’re told.

Anyway, the crowd Tuesday was an interesting mix of black and white, young and old, dignitary and ordinary citizen.

When those ordinary citizens got their chance to speak, the focus seemed to shift from crime itself to the social and economic forces that foster crime. We heard from a self-identified evangelist who blamed the churches for a lack of presence in the streets. There are no Christians on the streets after 9 p.m., he said. Another preacher blamed a breakdown in parental authority.

Moderator Teresa Snow of KRCG-TV noted the important role journalism plays by what we choose to emphasize or to ignore.

To me, the most interesting and important theme was an old familiar one — jobs, or the lack of jobs and opportunity for the young and poor. Lorenzo Lawson, who runs an organization called the Youth Empowerment Zone, voiced what many in the crowd seemed to be thinking: “There’s going to be more to come if we don’t solve these problems.”

A telling moment came with Teresa’s request for all those who favored more spending on police to stand up. Maybe a quarter of the crowd did. Then those who favored more spending on job creation were summoned. More than twice as many rose.

Phil Steinhaus, who directs the Columbia Housing Authority, repeatedly promoted something called the Youth Community Coalition, which its chairwoman told us works “to empower youth to make healthy choices.” I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing about it. That seemed to be true of most other attendees as well.

After the forum ended, inconclusively, I was left thinking about Mayor Hindman’s observation that “We’re in this together” and an audience member’s anguished question: “Who’s prepared to get involved?”

Merry Christmas.

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