Any preacher worth his salt can deliver a sermon that evokes a rollercoaster of emotions. It’s an old practice, the “preacher embellishment,” which is often achieved through anecdotal stories, with the preacher as the hero and central figure who overcomes obstacles. The moral: If you work as hard and pray as hard as he does, then you too can have such inspiring victories. But the problem with a lot of these stories, routinely told from the pulpit, is that they are rehashed folktales crammed with untruths. One might call them “dramatizations,” but it’s more than that. Especially in the case of Boston area reverend Jeffrey Brown, whose recent TED Talk, now with more than half-a-million views as of this writing, merged times, places, and characters into a History Channel version of the so-called Boston Miracle.
Many have attempted to take credit for said Boston Miracle, the magical term for major drops in violent crime in the early ‘90s, and since that time they’ve been attempting to capitalize on an unattributable success. Nevertheless, the events of that era are typically credited to the TenPoint Coalition and Rev. Eugene Rivers, the latter labeled “Savior of the Streets” by Newsweek. Brown, who worked alongside Rivers in their crime-fighting heyday, was also widely acknowledged. But while scores of preachers and police have openly claimed ownership, several unsung heroes who put work into reform have been underheralded; namely: Minister Don Muhammad and several other brothers from the Nation of Islam Mosque #11, and rap artists like Ray “Benzino” Scott and Antonio “Twice Thou” Ennis, formerly of The Almighty RSO and Made Men, who were behind the genius hip-hop project “WiseGuys” that brought previously feuding “‘hoods” together for an album and tours. The latter made a significant dent in violence by introducing previously beefing crews to the music industry, and by offering a chance to find common ground while working toward a unified purpose.
For those of us who lived through these times, it has always seemed like the Boston Miracle is really a collective romanticized fantasy devised by a select group of folks who are eager to take credit. Back then I lived off of Humboldt Avenue, exactly where I live now. From the ‘80s to today, these preachers have claimed to hit the streets so hard, but I have yet to see them in person. What block are you from? Have you seen preachers who engage young people in the afternoon? How about at night? Late night? I’m not claiming no such case exists; I’m just saying that even Bigfoot and UFOs have YouTube videos. But on to the reverend’s TED Talk …
Let’s start with the church that Brown pastored for more than 20 years, from 1988 to 2009. Union Baptist is located at 874 Main Street in Cambridge, close to the Newtowne Court housing projects to which the reverend refers in his talk. In reality, it’s all nestled near the killing fields of MIT, a far cry from developments like Orchard Park, Heath Street, Franklin Field, and Franklin Hill across the river in Boston. Brown speaks about Cambridge in infamous tones, and conflates happenings there with Crack Era violence elsewhere; for example, whereas Boston had 116 murders in 1990 alone, there were 94 homicides in Cambridge between 1980 and 2013.
Of all the dramatizations, one part of the story especially got under my skin. At one point in his tale, Brown references the murder of Jesse “Jesse-Jess” McKie, who happened to be a friend of mine. Jesse was killed in January of 1990, and back then I felt as though I could have somehow stopped the tragedy if I had been there, since I also knew two of the guys from Boston who were later convicted of killing him. (At the time, it was common for Roxbury kids, myself included, to go to Cambridge and rob easy “vics,” or victims.) On this occasion, though Jesse-Jess was involved in hip-hop and was known as a “cool white boy,” these Boston guys wanted his leather jacket. He refused to give it up, was stabbed, and died.
In his TED Talk, Rev. Brown implies that Jesse’s dying steps were made towards his church—a final attempt to get help in the midst of the jungle. I don’t know the truth. Like the reverend, I wasn’t there. But I do think that his making Union Baptist out to be the central figure in the story is disrespectful to the lives ruined that evening—not only my “cool white boy” friend Jesse-Jess, but also my friends on the other side of the knife, one of whom wound up with a lengthy prison sentence, and the other of whom is doing life.
Brown left Union Baptist in 2009 to join Rivers at the TenPoint Coalition. At the time, the Boston Globe noted that while “the organization was widely hailed for its role in the so-called Boston Miracle of reduced youth violence in the 1990s, TenPoint has since struggled with financial challenges and disputes among its founders.” Such problems persisted through Brown’s sudden departure from the organization in 2013, on which occasion the Globe wrote that the organization “suffers fund-raising problems, inadequate staffing, and stymied efforts to move TenPoint to a higher level.”
A lot has happened in the time since. Rev. Rivers went on to found the National TenPoint Coalition, while both he and Brown took their show on the road in an attempt to reap credit for the Boston Miracle, and to secure funding for programs and paychecks for speaking gigs. This as the organization they have touted endlessly fell apart, and as funders walked away from TenPoint. None of that matters, as Rev. Brown continues to position himself as an expert in anti-violence initiatives.
At the end of the day, it’s a classic hustle to get paid off of something that happened 25 years ago. In that sense, you can consider Brown’s TED appearance as part embellishment, and part funding request. Lucky for him, the clicks and views are adding up, probably along with his speaking fees, as viewers believe every word Brown is saying. For those who may have missed the message, the reverend sent an email to his followers:
After watching my TED Talk (and thank you so much for your responses!), so many of you have asked the question, “what can I do to help?” I am happy to announce the first national program of my RECAP (Rebuilding Every Community Around Peace) Group. Its called the National Season of Peace campaign, and it is designed to build community strength and relationships, build partnerships, and seek a cease-fire in 7 cities across the United States …
If you live in any of the cities committed to the Season of Peace, you can volunteer … I also ask that you support RECAP financially. It is my life’s work and purpose. Over 25 years of seeing the impossible become possible has convinced me that it is time to press forward. Please join me and be part of the change that is to come. God is with us …
Jamarhl Crawford is a community activist and the publisher of the Blackstonian. A version of this column appeared on blackstonian.com.