September, 2017. A typically busy morning on the campus of Divine Redeemer
Presbyterian Church, San Antonio (DR), a congregation that has ministered to one of the poorest neighborhoods of its city for 100 years.
Pastor Rob Mueller and a church elder were clearing a stump to make way for a donated trailer. On the sidewalk, scores of people stood in line to receive a weekly donation of food.
Suddenly, kitty corner to all of them, shots rang out in the front yard of a home notorious for drug dealing. A gang leader from a nearby housing project fell dead with 15 bullet wounds. His assailant fled. All of it in broad daylight at 11 a.m.
“I had listened to neighbors’ descriptions of other shooting incidents,” says Mueller. “I had talked with youth about the pressure to join gangs. But when I became a witness to murder, something flipped in me. I could no longer stay on the sidelines. I had to figure out how to stop this.”
Mueller began to converse more intentionally with the church’s neighbors about drug trafficking in their midst. These residents knew the players—what they sold, when they sold it, and who was buying. But they hadn’t spoken up for fear of reprisal.
Experience is the greatest teacher. As Mueller thought about the statement he had given the police, fearful questions crept into his own mind and heart. What if the gang members returned to ambush him late at night as he left the church? What if they targeted the congregation in a coordinated attack?
Listening to their community has been a mainstay of DR’s ministry, but this was a new and gut-wrenching level of awareness. “I empathized with the fear that my neighbors feel all the time!” says Mueller. “And yet we knew we had to find a solution together.”
The church and its neighbors agreed on a goal of shutting down a handful of known drug-dealing homes nearby. They began a process of engagement with local authorities. What they discovered was an array of resources they didn’t know existed. This was especially true with the city police department, which provided support through its San Antonio Fear Free Environment program, as well as two experts whose community organizing influence has helped other neighborhoods plagued by similar violence.
Together, DR and its neighbors have learned what it takes to build a case for change, not only marshaling available resources, but truly coming together as a community of witness. They are now in the process of vigilance, watching and cataloging the evidence they need to move forward. Their strategy is to collect information via neighbors, channel it through the church to protect them, and then slowly and deliberately, one by one, remove drug dealers from their area.
As for the murder? The victim, a young African-American man, becomes a grim statistic. According to detectives, the perpetrator fled to Mexico and may never be apprehended.
Yet the legacy of their violent altercation will live on in a positive, unexpected way. A sense of hope is rising in the neighborhood around DR. They are feeling their united strength, dreaming of a future when community children will not have to resist appeals to buy or sell drugs. A future when they will be free from bullying.
“We have finally begun to feel the power we actually have to transform what we previously considered an impenetrable force of evil,” says Mueller. “We now believe that together we can turn the tide from death to life.”