Addressing neighborhoods, untangling poverty

Editor's note: The editorial has been changed to reflect the correct the spelling of The Rev. Byron Bonner in one reference.

Even before Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., cries for peace and pleas for ending violence were being voiced in a troubled Cape Girardeau neighborhood.

Before Brown, there was Anthony Hempstead, a young black man shot in our town. His killer has not yet been identified. Hempstead, who had a troubled past but according to family was trying to lead a new, clean life, left a loving family in pieces. He also left behind a neighborhood searching for answers. For justice.

The Rev. Byron Bonner, a black pastor from the troubled neighborhood in our city, stood with neighbors and with a few of Hempstead's family members in the days following Hempstead's murder. It was a peaceful, emotional gathering. Unifying, even.

"What we're fighting is a spiritual, demonic force," he said. "I'm part of this community. We've got children, grandchildren. We've got to come together and let the enemy know we're not having this.

"This is the beginning. We're going to take our community back. ... Starting today, tonight, there's a new thing coming. If we want results, we've got to do things differently. We've got to come together. It doesn't matter if we're black, white, Hispanic, your church or someone else's church; we've got to come out of it."

Bonner issued that challenge, that purpose, on June 28, weeks before the looting and spectacle in Ferguson.

Days before Hempstead was shot, another shooting occurred about four blocks from where Hempstead was killed.

Bonner's message was purposeful and inspiring. Several weeks have passed, and the community is putting action to the words.

Last Sunday nearly 50 people participated in a door-to-door initiative to spread a positive message. The mission was simple. Knock on doors. Pray. Ask residents what they feel needs to be done to stop the violence and crime in their neighborhoods.

"We're trying to share the love of Jesus," said one of the volunteers, Kathy Senter, who hails from Sikeston, "to stop some of the bad stuff going on."

Faith is, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." Showing love and offering a perspective of hope and positivity can have a positive effect.

The roots of Cape Girardeau's troubled neighborhoods are deep and tangled. Along with prayers and love will need to come an understanding of the issues -- not just from the black community and those within the neighborhood. Understanding can lead to empathy and trust.

That's why it was equally encouraging to see another meeting held Thursday, when an "Authentic Voices" group, associated with the United Way, discussed the challenges of affordable housing in the area.

Affordable housing in and of itself is a complicated issue, one that can both help those in poverty survive and also trap them. Government-subsidized housing can keep people off the streets, but it can also prevent them from taking steps out of financial dependence.

A job, seen by most as a way out of poverty, can hinder a person due to an imperfect system. Low-paying wages can't cover childcare and the government benefits that dwindle with a payroll check. Add to the equation that some landlords don't keep up their properties and that some renters don't take care of their places contributes to a combustible mix. Housing is one of the many societal issues that makes those in poverty feel trapped. Our leaders need to hear these issues. The good people in these neighborhoods need to communicate them.

The pressure that poverty presents can push people in different directions; it can motivate people to find a way out, or it can have the opposite effect. We don't pretend to know and understand all the societal elements that went into the Ferguson uproar. Ferguson is its own community. But we think it is a safe assumption that the complicated conflict was not just about race but about socioeconomic status. We face some of the same issues in our city. Understanding poverty is key to understanding solutions.

We love what the Rev. Bonner said about coming together. We like what we see from recent police efforts, such as Coffee with a Cop that aims to engage with communities in times of non-crisis and get to know the people they are serving. Indeed, unity has taken some very positive steps in Cape Girardeau. A grassroots effort is emerging, and along with the many programs and philanthropic organizations in Cape Girardeau, we sincerely hope our troubled neighborhoods are poised for ascention. It's a long mountain to climb. It starts with sharing hope and understanding.

One small step at a time.