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Turning funerals into outreach events to save young lives

Raekwon R. Jabbar was the “most beautiful and bubbly baby” before growing into a young man who was always laughing and smiling, loved ones recalled. When he graduated last year from West Seneca West High School, his message for the family was, “I told you I would do it … Look, I did it.”

But out on the streets, another Jabbar emerged.

His life turned violent and he was known by police, who arrested him in March along with four other young men after a fight erupted outside a Bailey Avenue apartment early one Saturday morning. A gun was thrown out the window and police seized seven bags of marijuana.

Then, on May 4, Jabbar was one of four teenagers shot in an attack on Roosevelt Avenue that appeared to be gang-related, according to police. The other three suffered superficial wounds. Jabbar was not so lucky.

He was just 19.

His death prompted the Rev. Darius Pridgen to try something new to reach the gangbangers at Jabbar’s funeral over the weekend, where mourners – including about 300 young people – nearly packed the 800-seat True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry Street. They included family, friends and – presumably – other gang members.

Pridgen wondered aloud where the gangbangers were headed in life and whether they wanted to change. Nearly all of the young men and women stepped forward to sign their names on the purple wall behind the stage, indicating they were ready for something better.

That is what Pridgen has done at all the funerals he has held for gang members; but this time, there was something more.

He performs about 40 such services each year. He officiated at one last week and has another one coming up Tuesday. Inevitably, the young people who pause for peace for a few moments to honor their friends head back to the streets and the violence.

“I’ve done so many homicide funerals of young people that I have lost count,” said Pridgen.

Why don’t they change? Pridgen may not have the answer, but at Jabbar’s funeral, he and Arlee Daniels, program coordinator at Stop the Violence Coalition, tried a new approach to reach the hundreds of young mourners.

Everyone who came to the funeral signed the guest book and received a card with a picture of Jabbar and a comforting Bible verse on the front.

But listed on the back are the names, telephone numbers and addresses of service agencies where young people can go for help. Organizations like Crisis Services, Boys and Girls Club of Buffalo and others offering youth employment, parenting help, prison prevention, counseling and mentoring as well as GED and job-training programs were represented.

In addition, the Youth Intervention Program and the Boys and Girls Club set up tables outside the sanctuary for young people to visit after the funeral for more information.

The idea is that somewhere down the road, the cards might come in handy for a young person who wants a better life.

“I’ve realized we’re great in the hope department, but I feel recently we have to do better in the help department,” said Pridgen, the Buffalo Common Council president. “I want to immediately plug in some help to these funerals. They might not go to the tables, but by giving them a card to look at later and to remind them who they came to honor, hopefully they won’t throw the card away.

“My prayer is at least one young person, who would have been locked up had they stayed on a bad path, will be free because of our efforts,” he continued. “I pray that I won’t have to bury another homicide victim, but in case I do, we will work for freedom,” he added.

Saturday’s card and information table initiative was just a start that hopefully will include more service agencies and expand to more churches, Daniels said.

“As visionaries, we have to use more vision and get more creative to help these young people know there is more to life than guns, drugs, gangs, hanging on street corners,” Daniels said. “There’s education, engineers, doctorate degrees. We want to offer more than a service. We want to provide them with resources.”

He also set up a table with additional information about the services mentioned on the back of the funeral card.

Through his work on the streets, Daniels knew many of Jabbar’s older male relatives and many of the hundreds of young mourners who streamed into the service, most of whom presumably were gang-affiliated.

Dressed in blue jeans or white pants, nearly all of them wore shirts to memorialize their young friend’s life. Some donned white T-shirts featuring hands folded in prayer and doves’ wings with the words “Rest in Peace, The Gang” inscribed on the back. Others had on black T-shirts with photos of Jabbar in happier times, while many wore white T-shirts with various photos of Jabbar.

As young girls ran out the sanctuary sobbing, the wails of one drifted back in and blended with the soft music playing through black speakers suspended from the ceiling.

One young man stood in the line to view the body, but halfway to the casket he turned around, sniffling, and walked out.

Jabbar was the city’s seventh homicide victim so far this year; last year there were 62, most of them black males. Pridgen and Daniels hope the new initiative can lower that number and reduce the need for so many such funerals.

Jabbar’s aunt remembered him as a lively little boy, while an older brother was amazed that Jabbar – once a chubby little kid – had grown up to tower over him. A family friend vowed to help out any way she could.

But throughout the two-and-a-half hour service, there were other, obvious signs that Jabbar’s young life also had a violent element to it.

Buffalo police cars were posted throughout the church parking lot. The Buffalo PeaceMakers and FATHERS antiviolence groups were on hand, directing traffic.

Another hint came from a lady wearing a red Stop the Violence Pin on her white T-shirt. She made a point of walking to the back of the service to instruct three girls to pay attention to the exits in case an emergency broke out.

“Why?” asked one of the young women, puzzled.

“Because some people are here that might not be welcome,” the woman answered. She then pointed to the right. “So if something happens, use that exit.”