Tuesday, August 14, 2001

Lynch walks the walk in Over-the-Rhine

Minister hopes presence calms neighborhood

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The police cruiser, its blue and red lights flashing, screeches to a stop at 14th and Vine streets in Over-the-Rhine.

The Rev. Damon Lynch III walks the streets between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m.
(Steven M. Herppich photos)
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        Two Cincinnati police officers — one white, one black — hop out of the car and quickly close in on two young black males walking down Vine. It's after 10 on a warm and humid Thursday night.

        “Hey, what are you doing?” the black officer yells as he jogs toward the two. “You're not supposed to be out here.”

        The commotion catches the attention of the Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in the neighborhood.

        As he has since July, at the height of a wave of shootings in Over-the-Rhine, the Rev. Mr. Lynch is walking the streets with church volunteers, hoping by his sustained presence to calm a neighborhood. “Excuse me,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch says as he approaches the two officers, by then returning to their squad car after shooing the boys home. “How're you doing, officers?”

        “Yes, what can I do for you?” the white officer says as he turns abruptly toward the minister.

        “Bottle of water?” the Rev. Mr. Lynch asks as he reaches into a white plastic bag and offers two ice-cold bottles.

        “Thanks,” the white officer says as he takes the water and gives the minister a nod.

        “Curfew violators,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch says as he rejoins his group that has been waiting patiently for him about half a block away.

The Rev. Mr. Lynch has incorporated a church service and buffet for the homeless into his nightly tour.
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        Within moments, more commotion.

        A man starts running down Vine Street and darts into an alley. The same two police officers chase him on foot. The Rev. Mr. Lynch sprints after the officers and the man.

        The officers soon emerge from the alley with the man in handcuffs. The Rev. Mr. Lynch follows closely.

        “Who did you think you were, running after them like that? Superman?” says Jasmine Salguero, one of the volunteers who walks with the Rev. Mr. Lynch. “All you were missing was the cape.”

        Slightly winded, the Rev. Mr. Lynch replies: “If you're going to talk about it, you've got to be there so you can see what goes down.”

        So it goes on a typical night.

Different side

        People might know the Rev. Mr. Lynch as the minister who emerged as a community leader in the days following the April 7 shooting of Timothy Thomas, which touched off days of sometimes-violent unrest. They might know he was appointed by Mayor Charlie Luken to co-chair Cincinnati Community Action Now, a broadly constituted group trying to lead the city toward racial healing following the violence.

        Or they might know him as the leader of Cincinnati Black United Front who has criticized restaurants for closing during black festivals and who has sued police over alleged racial profiling.

        But anybody who makes these nightly 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. journeys through Over-the-Rhine with the Rev. Mr. Lynch knows a different side of the minister rarely seen on television or captured in a sound bite.

Volunteers join The Rev. Mr. Lynch on his walks.
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        A native Cincinnatian who grew up in Avondale, the 41-year-old pastor began walking through Over-the-Rhine in July after a shootout took place in front of his church on Elm Street. The crackling of gunfire so close to home made the Rev. Mr. Lynch realize that simply denouncing the violence wasn't enough. There have been 77 shootings since the April unrest; 19 people have been killed.

        “I knew we had to get out on the streets and spread the message that the violence needed to stop,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch says. “People had to love God, love themselves and love each other enough not to take someone else's life.”

        After two weeks of just walking the streets, the Rev. Mr. Lynch realized he had to take his efforts to another level. That's when he incorporated a late-night church service and buffet dinner for the homeless and residents of Over-the-Rhine into his nightly tour of the neighborhood.

        During his walks, the Rev. Mr. Lynch encourages people to come back to the church at 11 p.m. for prayer and Scripture readings. After the church service, people can stay for a buffet-style meal and are even provided with a place to sleep if they need one.

        “The walks have put a calming Christian presence on the streets,” the pastor says. “It brought the church outside of the walls and now it's bringing people into the church. It's the first step in transforming the community. We give love and we receive nothing but love in return.”

        On a recent muggy Thursday night, the Rev. Mr. Lynch was joined by about 10 volunteers from New Prospect and other churches.

        Each volunteer takes a plastic bag filled with bottles of water. Walkers hand out the water to everyone they see on the streets.

        “Basically, we give the water to the people because it's hot out here,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch explains. “A lot of people are out on the streets because its cooler out here than it is in their homes.

        “But there is also a lot of symbolism in the water, too,” he adds. “Water symbolizes life and the sanctity of the baptism. It also symbolizes love.”

A learning experience

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch and his crew of walkers on this night travel up and down Elm, Pleasant and Vine streets, then proceed to Washington Park. Another group of about seven volunteers covers Race Street and some of the small alleys in between.

        Walking the streets and talking with residents in Over-the-Rhine has been a learning experience, says Chris Battle, pastor of New Creation Community Church in North Fairmount. The Rev. Mr. Battle walks with the Rev. Mr. Lynch about twice a week and sometimes preaches at the late-night services.

        “The people out here respect the reverend a lot,” the Rev. Mr. Battle says. “Plus, I think the pastor has learned that these people know what's going on and are informed.”

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch stops at Race and West 15th streets and hands a bottle of water to a couple of young black men riding bicycles.

        “If you drink that, it means God loves you,” he tells the two youths. “Y'all be safe.”

        A few blocks farther down on Vine Street, the Rev. Mr. Lynch offers a young man a bottle of water.

        “How much does it cost?” the young man says, hesitant to take it.

        “It's free. It's out of love,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch replies.

        As he continues along Vine Street, passing abandoned buildings, boarded-up storefronts and graffiti-scarred brownstones, the Rev. Mr. Lynch sighs.

        “What you've got here is a spirit of Mardi Gras, except that it isn't formal,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch says, pointing to the hundreds of people outside. “The streets are alive and there is a lot of action. There is almost a festive mood out here.

        “All of the life on the streets of Over-the-Rhine is not negative,” he says. “We have to look at how we can capitalize on that and give people productive things to do with that energy on the streets.”

"Don't get down on yourself'

        Back at the church, about 75 to 100 people are already waiting, clapping their hands and singing hymns.

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch steps into the pulpit to deliver his sermon. A banner overhead reads: “Our Motto: To build a healthy community one soul at a time through worship, word, witness and work.”

        The pastor tells how Jesus once had to use his healing touch twice on a blind man in order to restore his sight. The Rev. Mr. Lynch compares many in the audience to the blind man, saying they need a second touch from God in order to bring focus back into their lives.

        “Ain't none of us got it all together,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch says, pounding his fist on the pulpit podium. “Don't get down on yourself because you are still drinking and smoking.

        “Every night you're in here is a night you are not out on the streets drinking and acting crazy. You're taking a step in the right direction.”

        God is strengthening them right now, he says. Soon they'll be dropping some of their bad habits. God will give them focus.

        “The problem with a lot of brothers out there now is that they're just living,” he says. “They don't have no focus.”

        Following the sermon, those in the audience are invited to come forward and give their lives to Christ by becoming Christians. On this particular night, about a dozen people — young and old — come forth.

        “What Rev. Lynch has done is beyond words,” says Denise Allen, 50, of Clifton. She became a member of New Prospect in June and has been coming to the nightly worship regularly since it started. “It's stopping the fighting and arguing. People come in here and they rejoice and everything is good.”

        Following the service, everyone is invited into the church basement, where volunteers have prepared a meal of lasagna, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, corn bread, rolls, salad, fruit and cake.

        The homeless are invited to spend the night at the church on cots. Church volunteers take turns staying with them. This night, it was the Rev. Mr. Lynch's turn.

        “I'm spending more and more nights in places that are not my home,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch says. “Many nights I sleep right here in the church on chairs.”

        Paul Wowell, 44, who was attending the worship service for the second time, is homeless. He is also struggling with drug and alcohol problems.

        He applauds the Rev. Mr. Lynch's efforts to heal the community, but he thinks that without programs designed to deal with problems like his, the pastor's successes will be marginal.

        “I could really use that compo nent myself right now,” Mr. Wowell says. “You can't be an addict and beat your problem without some help.”

        The Rev. Mr. Lynch agrees. He says that's why his role with Cincinnati CAN is so vital.

        “There are major substance abuse, unemployment, family, homeless and mental health issues to deal with in this community if we are going to have any long-term success,” the Rev. Mr. Lynch says. “Right now (this program) is saving souls, but we also have to save lives as well.”


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