Vowing to decrease by half the number of murders in Baltimore this summer, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, whose youth and charisma have propelled him to celebrity status in the area's Christian community, announced yesterday plans for a new crime-fighting initiative called "Stop Sinning" - a play on the infamous inner-city mantra "Stop Snitching."
Standing under a white tent before a podium on a West Baltimore street, Bryant, who heads Empowerment Temple AME Church - which began as a congregation of 40 and grew into a megachurch of more than 10,000 under his leadership - called for the city's more than 2,000 places of worship to help decrease the violence and "apathy," that he said has overtaken the city.
Bryant said he hopes to meet his goal by hosting a gun buy-back June 1, conducting "'hood invasions," in which ministers and other community outreach personnel hit the streets to talk to young people - particularly young men who lack male role models - and pushing for local businesses, particularly the ones that the church patronizes, to offer jobs and internships to people in the community.
"Men and women of God, get from behind the pulpit and get on the street," Bryant roared to a crowd of congregants, city officials and police gathered at West North Avenue and Poplar Grove Street. He declared "war" on the "Stop Snitching" campaign, which gained notoriety when NBA player and Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony appeared in a video that urged crime witnesses to refrain from cooperating with the police. Anthony later apologized.
"Don't let Empowerment Temple stand alone," Bryant said. "Don't let the mayor stand alone. Don't let the police commanders stand alone. We declare war on the violence and murder. The only thing we're burying is apathy. ... This will not be a summer of funerals. It will be a summer of revivals."
The initiative was announced the same day that City Council Vice President Robert W. Curran proposed measures in the City Council that would allow the mayor to declare large swaths of the city emergency areas subject to heightened police enforcement.
As it turned out, Curran abruptly withdrew the legislation last night when it became clear that it had virtually no support on the council. Some critics likened the proposal to martial law because it would have allowed police to close liquor stores and bars, limit the number of people on city sidewalks and halt traffic in areas declared "public safety act zones."
Police have logged 110 homicides in the city this year, up from 101 at the same time last year.
Bryant isn't the first church leader in the city to try to attack crime. For more than a decade, the Rev. Willie Ray of Save the Youth Ministries has held vigils and worked to create "safe houses," in abandoned homes to operate outreach programs. His vigils have often drawn sparse crowds.
Whether Bryant sees success might hinge on his ability to attract young people - 60 percent of his congregation is between 18 and 40, he said - to act on his message of nonviolence, a feat that could cement his role as a prominent player in the city's political scene.
Bryant said his church has pledged $30,000 for the gun buy-back and he additionally plans to go into several city schools before dismissal this year to have students sign covenants, promising to refrain from violence. He said he also will request that places of worship open their doors during business hours this summer to young people who need a structured and safe environment.
Bryant says his "Stop Sinning" movement was prompted after he watched an interview that aired last month on CBS' 60 Minutes. The rapper Cam'ron, who famously refused to cooperate with police after he was shot in Washington in 2005 while he was in town to celebrate Howard University's homecoming, said on the show that he adheres to a strict street code that prevents him from talking to law enforcement.
"If I knew the serial killer was living next door to me? No, I wouldn't call and tell anybody on him," Cam'ron said, according to a transcript of the interview.
Joseph Armstead, 53, spotted the crowd and gaggle of television cameras outside First Mount Carmel Christian Community Church and stopped to listen.
"You always have to keep trying," Armstead said. "God is on this team. Maybe everybody else will join the bandwagon. It's gotta start somewhere. Why not North and Poplar Grove?"