Rev. Jeffrey Brown was named a Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life
If it was unclear before, Rev. Jeffrey Brown has established that miracles really do occur.
Brown spoke at Brandeis University after receiving the annual “Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life” award on Wednesday, March 22. Brown was recognized for his work fighting youth violence in the streets of Boston, which led to what is known as the “Boston Miracle,” a twenty-nine month stretch which contained zero juvenile homicides. The award presentation took place in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall in Goldfarb Library.
The afternoon began with an introduction from Brandeis President Ronald Liebowitz, who briefly discussed Brown’s work in the Boston community. Liebowitz began by formally presenting the award and explaining its significance: “This is in recognition of your exemplary contributions to public life, having a significant impact on improving American society, strengthening democratic institutions, advancing social justice and increasing opportunities for all citizens to realize and share in the benefits of this nation.”
Brown began his talk: “It is such a pleasure and honor to be standing here before you this afternoon. … I am very grateful to be chosen as this year’s Richman fellow.” He explained to the audience that his speech was intended to “help you in your leadership journey as you move and grow and come to the directions of what god has for you.”
Brown articulated why this award means so much to him and began to tell his life story. As a teenager, he attended Andover-Newton Theological School and, after graduating, became a pastor at the Union Baptist Church. He also attended Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge. While working at the Union Baptist Church, he saw that other religious figures were deserting the inner cities.
He discussed that when working as a pastor, “Many of them [the other pastors] left the inner cities, … where I saw the social and economic structures crumbling before my eyes, and I thought that drain of talent and of energy and of economic power was wrong.”
Brown associated the shift of religious figures out of the cities with an increased level of violence. He recalls, “As I was pastoring, it’s true I saw that there was this phenomenon in the community of homicides that were occurring.” He was beyond devastated to work in an area in which such horrible things were happening, explaining that not only gang members, but also all members of society — including innocent civilians — were being targeted as well.
As Brown put it, “bullets don’t have names on them, so some people get hit very tragically.” He knew that at this point, something needed to be done.
Brown spoke about his first attempts to create new church programs that drew in kids from the streets, in an attempt to improve their attitude through religious work.
Unfortunately, this plan did not work, and homicide rates stayed fairly high. He explained his frustrating thought process: “During that time I was searching all of the literature and reading the newspapers and watching on television, looking for innovative programming, trying to employ the programming. I restarted the midnight basketball in the Cambridge-area and looked at some of these other best practices that were occurring, but nothing seemed to be making a dent to the violence.” Brown realized that despite his strong effort, he was missing something in his thought process.
Brown then told the audience of one moment in which everything changed for him.
At a certain point, he realized that he was treating those on the streets as if they were completely different. He was trying to distance himself from them, which did not allow them to feel safe and did not make them feel welcomed by him or the church.
This moment transformed him: “As I started to walk in Cambridge and later on in Boston, it became clear to me that there was this part of doing this work that enables you to overpower or see through or overcome whatever fears that you may have in order to see the authenticity of your work and the authenticity of yourself.”
He realized that he had a previous fear of the work that he had to overcome, and that is what he did. He understood that “it was not enough to bring youth within the four walls of our sanctuary; rather, we had to come out of the four walls of our sanctuary and meet the youth where they were.” He then took a new form of action: “We started to walk collectively within the Four Corners area of Dorchester on Friday nights and on Saturday nights” to talk to and interact with these kids.
After taking this new form of action and integrating a mindset that was not driven by fear, Brown really did begin to notice change in the community. He explained what happened as a result of listening: “There is a fear of listening that forces a person to stay within their own comfort zone, and once you’re able to live with that fear and step out on faith, if you will, you can consider possibilities you hadn’t even imagined, and it begins to force change.”
He described the many myths that he had previously associated with the streets and how they all “melted away” when he spoke and got to know the kids who live there.
After a long time spent speaking with these men, it became clear to Brown that he should no longer view “the youth as a problem to be solved, and start looking at them for who they are; as human beings, engaged in a struggle and are in need of people to help them through the situation.”
Brown began to spread this word to leaders within these troubled communities to create a feeling that change can come.
Soon, a statistic was released that amazed the entire country, to the extent that it was named “the Boston Miracle.”
The statistic measured a twenty-nine-month long stretch of time in which the juvenile homicide rate held at zero. Such a result was unheard of and catapulted Brown to fame. As he describes it, “The real miracle was folks getting out of the blame game on the adults’ side, and being able to come together and do business differently.”