Thursday, December 06, 2007

Religion can help Allentown, mayor says

The souls of the city find sanctuary in Allentown's 140 houses of worship, but Mayor Ed Pawlowski and a broad coalition of clergy say the community of faith can offer something else: a united front against gangs, guns, drugs, despair and untold other problems afflicting the urban core.

Faith leaders have always been involved in such efforts, but in sometimes fragmentary fashion unaided by city government, Pawlowski said at a news conference Wednesday in announcing the formation of Allentown's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

While individual congregations serve as forces of good in their own neighborhoods, ''the goal of this new office is to link them together,'' said Pawlowski, painting the office as a clearinghouse where ministers, rabbis, priests and imams can share resources and ideas, and learn how to pursue federal and state grants for social programs. ''We want the city to be there, not as a hindrance but a resource.''

The mayor, a former pastor and social worker, began reaching out to religious leaders more than a year ago, inspired by similar programs in Philadelphia and elsewhere. He said he made a special effort to involve Latino clergy, because 37 of the city's houses of worship are Latino.

He held three meetings with representatives of 46 churches and synagogues, and said the effort has already borne fruit: In May, when 4-year-old Daviay Legrand was killed by a police cruiser in center city, several clergy responded to the mayor's call for help to calm simmering street tensions that threatened to erupt into a riot.

Religious leaders also have given a boost to a program called Chec Mate, which enlists residents to alert police to crime and suspicious activity. Pawlowski said ''enormous numbers'' of people have signed on after hearing their pastors promote the program.

Indeed, after the news conference, Gus Al-Kahl, a minister at Bethany Evangelical Congregational Church and several Arabic churches in east Allentown, handed the mayor two dozen Chec Mate cards filled out by his congregants and said he would deliver 17 more later.

Al-Kahl and other clergy praised the mayor for recognizing the potential strength congregations can bring to the fight against gangs, broken families, and other causes and symptoms of municipal decay.

''Our mayor is a person of great vision and he is providing moral leadership in a time when there is a vacuum in moral leadership,'' said Rabbi Robert Lennick of Congregation Keneseth Israel, characterizing Allentown as a city of ''two universes'' -- the relatively well-to-do west and the poorer, more troubled east. The office can help bridge that gap, he said.

''The congregations can no longer afford to hide behind the doors of their sanctuaries,'' Lennick added.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, an Allentown native who lives in San Diego and heads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said the promise of Allentown ''can be realized only when all shareholders coalesce around that purpose.''

He added that many Latino congregations in the city will soon begin a program called Generation Fuerza. Translated as ''Generation Strength,'' it dovetails with the city's aims by targeting Latino dropout rates and promoting gang prevention, Rodriguez said.

The new city office will be overseen by Ismael Arcelay, the mayor's special assistant, and won't require the addition of city employees or space, Pawlowski said. An office Web site, to be launched next year, will display all faith- and community-based institutions with an outline of their resources.

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