The Sunday school teachers at New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church in Miami Gardens are well-versed in Biblical tales such as the Good Samaritan or Noah’s Ark.
But this year, a police officer will preach to the youngest members of the flock, telling them about a contemporary version of the Golden Rule: to respect their neighbors and their neighborhood, and to report wrongdoing rather than uphold the informal no-snitching code.
In a city that saw 25 people killed last year — grandfathers, mothers, fathers, a college-bound freshman — city leaders and community elders have not only been grappling with how to stem the violence, but how to shift a pervasive culture of not cooperating with police.
So far, this year, three people have been killed in Miami Gardens — a man killed on New Year’s Day, a 15-year-old boy who was shot multiple times and a man killed Sunday night after a Super Bowl party.
At New Beginning, a working class congregation, the head pastor is hoping to start small, with a monthly visit from a Miami Gardens police officer.
“It is very necessary,” said senior pastor Eric Readon, of his nontraditional approach. “It’s not just about preaching Jesus, we need to change our methods to get to these kids. We need to save them before they go in the wrong direction.”
Even as overall crime rates have steadily declined in Miami-Dade County’s third largest city — and Florida’s largest predominately black city —Miami Gardens is burdened with a high murder rate per capita.
In the past five years, Miami Gardens has ranked among the top Miami-Dade cities with the highest murder rates per 100,000 residents. In 2011, the city was second in murders per capita in the county, with 24 murders. First was nearby Opa-locka, according to statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. By comparison, Hialeah, which is roughly double the size of Miami Gardens’ population of 110,000, had four murders in 2011 and seven in 2012, according to records.
Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, a lifelong resident, said his city, as with many communities, is not immune to crime.
“We won’t allow an entire community of people to be identified by the horrible actions of a small minority of people,” said Gilbert. “Most of the people in Miami Gardens are great decent people. This isn’t a bad area because some bad things happen here.”
And so clergy members called for an end to the violence at a press conference, police hosted meetings with local crime watch groups and at an all-night prayer vigil last month, pastors and city leaders memorialized the victims killed in the city last year.
Among the casualties:
An eight-month pregnant mother who succumbed to her injuries after being shot on her boyfriend’s porch. The unborn baby did not survive.
A Carol City high school football player who was gunned down while he sat in a car in front of his friend’s house. On the same day, blocks away, a 26-year old woman was walking on the sidewalk when she was approached from behind and was shot several times in the head and torso.
A local car wash owner was killed while trying to stop a robbery; a corrections officer was shot dead in front of his home.
Lost are the days when neighbors bought into the idea, “I am my brother’s keeper,” said Bishop Sylvester Sampson, whose son-in-law, Andrew Johnson, the corrections officer, was fatally shot near Northwest 211th Street and Northwest 27th Avenue in his driveway.