'Build churches, not jails."

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This article was published 23/2/2010 (4301 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


'Build churches, not jails."

That mid-1990s quip, from John J. DiIulio Jr., the first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, came back to me last week as I watched the controversy unfold over the proposed Youth for Christ youth centre at the corner of Higgins and Main.

Back then, DiIulio was concerned about rising rates of youth crime in the U.S. He was so worried about it that he "got religion," arguing that jacking up prison terms would not deter impulsive juveniles "with no hope for life past their 30th birthdays."

What was needed instead, he argued, was the presence of "loving, caring adults actively and persistently present in their troubled young lives," and that the best source of that kind of help would come from religious communities.

In a column in this month's issue of Sojourners, a progressive U.S. Christian magazine, DiIulio reiterated his comments from over a decade ago. "There is a critical mass of evidence that diverse faith factors -- believing in God, churchgoing, participation in a religious substance-abuse program, ministries that mentor adjudicated youth, and more -- significantly reduce felonies and other illicit high-risk behaviours by (and against) juveniles," he writes.

DiIulio isn't the only one who has pointed out the connection between religion and the reduction of youth crime. As I have written in these pages before, there are many studies showing the positive effects of religion on inner-city and other youth -- that church attendance has been found to be a better predictor of who would escape drugs, crime and poverty than any other single variable, that it serves as an insulator against crime and delinquency, and that religious youths are less likely to commit crimes, fight, drink and drive and carry weapons or use drugs and alcohol.

Of course, it doesn't have to only be evangelistic Christianity that helps youth avoid crime and addictions. Aboriginal youth could recover traditional spiritual practices, while newcomer youth who are struggling to find their way in Canada and avoid gangs and crime could become reconnected to their own religious backgrounds. But one thing seems to be clear: When it comes to crime and destructive behaviours, religion seems to make a significant difference in the lives of youth who embrace it.

While religion of any kind may be helpful, there's no denying that there is something unique about the evangelical brand of Christianity -- and it has nothing to do with who they know in politics or in the corporate world. Instead, it grows out of their deep sense of mission and commitment to God.

To put it simply, their zeal for God and for others prompts them to go where many others don't or won't, and often in greater numbers. They don't always do it as well as they could, and sometimes mistakes are made. But when all is said and done, they do it, and mostly with their own money.

This point was underscored in 2004 by former CBC journalist Brian Stewart in his commencement address at Knox College in Toronto. From his "ringside seat" of watching world events for a number of decades, Stewart stated that there "is no movement or force closer to the raw truth of war, famines, crises and the vast human predicament than organized Christianity in action. And there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, ordained and lay members, when mobilized for a common good."

It is these people who are on the "front lines" of human need at home and overseas, he says, adding that "I have never been able to reach these front lines without finding Christian volunteers already in the thick of it, mobilizing congregations that care and being a faithful witness to truth, the primary light in the darkness and, so often, the only light."

Of course, Christians aren't the only ones on these front lines -- many other groups, including those who don't operate from a religious base at all, are also helping people in Winnipeg's inner city. But whether religious or not, one thing seems to be true: Religion has an important role to play in helping inner city youth become productive, healthy citizens.

Instead of criticizing groups that employ it, maybe we'd be better off if we held an honest discussion about religion's role and potential -- not just its pitfalls and problems. Who knows? We might end up agreeing that the inner city needs more churches, mosques, temples, sweat lodges and, yes, even faith-based youth centres.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.