|Pastor Al Yanno Jr. at an Increase the Peace rally earlier this summer.|
Youngstown, Ohio, has had a well-deserved reputation for crime. The mob controlled much of the city (if not all) for decades. However, in 1996, Youngstown gained national attention when the FBI swept in and cleaned house, indicting and convicting dozens of mobsters - along with crooked judges, police officers and other officials - ultimately including a congressman.
Despite the effort to restore law, Youngstown has continued to struggle with crime issues. As of 2010, it was rated a "2" out of "100" - meaning 98 percent of the cities in America were safer places to live. The chances of experiencing a violent crime or property crime are both at least twice as likely in Youngstown as compared to the national median. The city itself has also seen a steady decline in population, from about 95,000 in 1990 to just under 67,000 in 2010.
Into that kind of history, steps the church and "new approach" city leaders.
Al Yanno Jr., a graduate of Southeastern University (AG) and senior pastor of Metro Assembly in Youngstown, says for the last 15 years, he, with his wife, Paris, and his church of about 150 people have been ministering to inner-city Youngstown residents. "If you look on a police map and see where most of the violent crimes take place in Youngstown," Yanno says, "our church is dead center in the middle of it all."
Undeterred by criminals and crime, the church has established an adopt-a-block program, where for the past 6 years, volunteers go out on weekends to clean up trash in neighborhoods, cut lawns and do whatever they can to help residents. This ministry, along with block parties and bus ministry, has resulted in Yanno and Metro Assembly not only being a recognized and trusted resource in the neighborhood and projects, but has now placed them at the forefront of a cooperative city and church effort to make a change in Youngstown.
"Homicides have been an issue in this city," Yanno says. "But in the last few years, we've seen a significant increase in homicides among young people, and that has really concerned us."
The concern was not only shared by Yanno, but by the city of Youngstown. Spearheaded by Mayor Chuck Sammarone and in cooperation with the FBI, chief of police, the violent crime task force and court system, a Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV) was created - and area churches were invited to the table.
"Churches from all different denominations were asked to be a part of the solution and part of the dialogue," Yanno shares, still a bit shocked by the unexpected invitation. "They asked us to sit down with them all and discuss with them how we can contribute to this process."
From the CIRV meetings, Yanno says a team of churches was formed that would concentrate on bringing about programming for people who wanted to get out of gangs, drugs and the violent lifestyle of the streets. Also, Increase the Peace carnivals/rallies were developed and launched this summer - right after the aforementioned city leaders met with key "individuals of interest" in violent crimes to let them know of the coming opportunities . . . and consequences of continuing along their current path.
Yanno says that Mayor Sammarone's initiative has been revolutionary for the church community as it has brought together different denominations and ethnicities - Spanish, African, Baptist, non-denominational, AG and others - to partner in making a difference for Christ and the community. "Before this, everyone was kind of doing their own thing," Yanno explains, "but now, it's so much easier - when everybody gives a little bit, a lot gets done."
|Young and old — and all ages in between — attend the Increase the Peace rallies in Youngstown.|
The Increase the Peace rallies are held every weekend at different crime "hot spot" locations during the summer. Along with carnival games, food, live music, social service agencies (including the pro-life Pregnancy Health Center) and other activities, Yanno says Teen Challenge participates, with members sharing their testimonies - revealing how through Christ, transformation is possible. Yanno says that the rallies have been well received by the neighborhoods and the participating church nearest the rally area follows up on attendees in an effort to maintain connection.
Although the rallies are held in some of the most crime-ridden areas of the city, Yanno explains the ground has been prepared ahead of time. A week before the rally, a team of people prayer walk the entire area, praying for the neighborhood and with people they meet along the streets. The morning of the event, the church goes in and does an adopt-a-block outreach.
"We've gained rapport on the streets, because we've been doing adopt-a-block for so long," Yanno says. "People are always very supportive and very protective of us - and get very offended if criminals try to bully people who have come to serve."
Yanno says that the rallies are the first step in making a change in Youngstown. This fall, the initiative goes into the school system where faith-based sports league will be able to utilize gym facilities, providing not only coaching, but mentoring of young people. Also, churches will be involved in providing reentry programs for people coming out of jail, prison or the juvenile justice program.
|Paris Yanno, Pastor Al Yanno's wife, shares her heart with Increase the Peace rally guests.|
"We're not reinventing the wheel," Yanno says, "but we're putting together resources churches of Youngstown already have in a more strategic, collaborative manner in order to make a real difference."
For Yanno and Metro Assembly, the last few months have been filled with wonder and work. "It is a God thing," Yanno says. "God started opening up doors, giving us rapport on the streets and with the city. There are really good people in these neighborhoods, but they just lacked the leadership to make a change. The churches (involved in CIRV) want to make a difference from the center of it all, not the outside. When you get involved in the community, become friends with the community, they'll come to you and ask you to lead the way - and they have . . . and now, we need to deliver."
For more information about Metro Assembly, see its website.