Something new has come to the streets of Belltown: it is a program called LEAD, and it offers much hope.
DESPAIRIn Emmaus Road's neighborhood of gathering, few topics draw as much attention or outcry as the issue of public safety. Belltown residents and business owners often show up to community forums in much greater numbers to plead their case, protest policy, or at least offer feedback to the official du jour. Media stories on Belltown are also slanted toward crime coverage. Certain themes are repeated: not enough police presence, too great a concentration of "problem" people, etc. The common culprit for Belltown's misery is often identified, not by name, but by label: "dealer." The dealer is on the corner, in the club, down the alley. The dealer is intimidating, armed and dangerous, and has no concern for neighbors. The dealer must be removed and locked up.
When we reach the point of condemning someone who belongs to a detestable group, associating them by behavior or appearance, yet know nothing more about them, much has been lost. They are a label. They are less than human. We approach them as we might a problem pest, an illness, or some other impersonal force of nature. Their story, name, background, are all set aside so we can efficiently, forcefully, and righteously respond to the problems they cause us. The dealer is causes misery; the dealer must be removed.
But the dealer does have a name and a story. The dealer, like any of us, is a person. When the dealer is arrested, do officials they encounter in courts and corrections see them as a person? Are the individual, environmental, human factors that contribute to their lifestyle of lawlessness being addressed?
A fresh attempt is being made to approach dealers differently in Belltown: the cycle of arrest, incarceration, failed rehabilitation, repeated offense and recidivism, is being challenged by a program allowing people to speak to dealers as... people. The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program is new, experimental, and being tested in Belltown. Details can be found here. The learning curve for LEAD will be steep; hard lessons will be learned. However difficult the journey, there is promise and hope in this direction.
For Christians, the assertion that Belltown's dealers are people, too, may remind us of the way Jesus approached the "problem people" of his time and place: "tax collectors and sinners." Jesus showed his followers how people respond differently when they are recognized as... people. Jesus called these people by name. He ate their food. He remembered they had been created in the image of God. Something - several things - had gone terribly wrong, and that image has been obscured. They had wandered into darkness. Yet Jesus never lost sight of God's image in people. He approached them with hope. In the face of his mercy, people could safely acknowledge their wrongs - this is confession. But rather than ending with despair and punishment, this encounter led to the promise of new life.
Jesus still approaches people this way. Let us follow.