A great divide has developed in America between law enforcement officers and the citizens in the communities they serve. This is particularly true after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 sparked a vigorous debate about the relationship between law enforcement officers and African Americans concerning the use of force. Seeking to bridge that gap, one national initiative is strengthening those relationships through home repair projects and community meals together. Titled “Building Community,” the program gained traction in Fort Lauderdale in November when members of the local Fraternal Order of Police stepped out of uniform and picked up paintbrushes.
“The strategy is simple. When two people voluntarily break bread together and then sweat together, it breaks down barriers and builds bridges,” said Rev. John Revell, who started the program as a ministry of Life Line Chaplaincy, based in Stamford, Connecticut. Offering spiritual support, Revell, who was raised in South Florida, has helped first responders deal with various crises, including the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
“Most often when police show up at a scene, it’s not because they’ve been invited to the birthday party. They have their game face on because they need to be prepared. And on the same token, cops don’t see people at their best. These meals give people a chance to see each other as people,” Revell said.
A relatively new thing, Building Community, in conjunction with national partners Charter/Spectrum and Rebuilding Together, has also linked law enforcement officers to their communities in Charlotte, NC; Columbus, OH; Pagedale, MO (a St. Louis municipality); Stamford, CT; Cincinnati, OH; and Ferguson, MO.
“The goal is not to have this be a one shot deal. We’re looking at raising resources to have two of these a year and then eight community breakfasts at churches to have fellowships [in the South Florida area],” said Revell. There is also talk about hosting similar events in Liberty City. “Relationship building is not done over programs or lectures, it is done over meals… It’s hard to hate up close – face to face. When you get to know someone, you know that person, not the stereotype.”
In advance of the work day, Revell arranged a dinner hosted at Mount Bethel Baptist Church on Friday evening where volunteers from the police department, church members and homeowners could share a meal together and get acquainted.
“At first when you have a bunch of police officers in uniform in a minority population there’s separation. It’s quiet and cold,” said Robin Martin, executive director of Rebuilding Together Broward, who attended the dinner. After Revell led them in an icebreaking trivia game on the history of Fort Lauderdale, Martin said, “The room went from tense and quiet to jovial and more like family.”
Rev. Ron Perkins, President of Public Safety Chaplaincy, Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, said he observed a conversation between a police lieutenant and an elderly homeowner who had never talked to a police officer other than during a police action in her neighborhood. She was interested in learning about this family and why he got involved in police work, and he gained a new understanding of her.
Rosby Glover, director of Mount Bethel Human Services, said, “We were just ecstatic that we had an opportunity to work together with all of the groups and I know the homeowners were just very excited about having that done… to them it was huge. They got an opportunity to really see their house in a different light because a lot of them had suffered over the years for lack of resources, so it was a great blessing of God.”
While Glover said he feels they have a nice relationship with the police department, “it can be improved upon. The idea of community policing was done some years ago and, of course, it works. So when you have regular officers working in the community coming around and the people living in the community get an opportunity to know them, they see police in a different light. And this event went a little farther because they actually saw police not just in their uniforms and riding through it and talking with them, but actually working on their homes, getting involved and getting engaged. So I just thought that was excellent. It really brought hope and pride to the homeowners.”
Glover added, “I hope this will become an annual event because it’s needed for one thing, and it really highlights what community is all about. It’s not just the police coming in doing policing. It’s about coming together and that’s what that event did. It brought everyone together.”
To learn more about the Building Community project, visit llchaplaincy.org/building-community.