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Beset by violence, East Side church reaches out to ‘heart of the community’

Ora Smith was in her element Sunday afternoon, scurrying around the side lawn of Calvary Baptist Church on the city’s East Side – enjoying fellowship, chatting with residents and children – trying to spread a message of goodwill and hope.

“We have people here from all walks of life – the suburbs and shelters, and children from down the street,” she said.

In the backdrop were a petting zoo, pony rides, a Bounce House, picnic food, praise dancers and representatives from community agencies – and of course, a large-screen television showing the Buffalo Bills game.

Smith was in good company with the many others during the church’s first Community Outreach Sunday event that became a day of positive energy at the Genesee Street church, located in the heart of a neighborhood that is no stranger to the type of gun violence that has occurred in the last three weeks.

Jacqueline Jones sat with daughter Zion on her lap, as the 7-year-old enjoyed a blue snow cone. “I think every community of faith needs to come together,” Jones said. “We need to share the Gospel with people, and that’s what makes the change.”

Drawing at least 200 people, the event was largely aimed at getting more residents involved in the 800-member church, but it served a dual purpose – also showcasing the church as a beacon of hope in counteracting the fear among people over the recent shootings and finding a better way to combat the problems that breed such violence.

Since late August, the city has seen deadly violence and shootings numbering at least 15, the five most recent ones occurring since Friday and the latest reported at 12:45 a.m. Sunday when a 21-year-old man suffered non-life-threatening wounds when he was struck by gunfire while sitting in a vehicle near Bailey and Hewitt avenues.

“This is how we fight violence. We let them know there is an alternative to what’s going on,” Smith said. “This is not all negative. This event is positive to what’s going on ‘out there.’ ”

Some parishioners – spanning four generations of their families – were the backbone at the community outreach. There were young children, teenagers, senior citizens, people from the suburbs and women from a neighboring shelter just down Genesee. “It’s really fun. We get to gather around with the rest of the church,” said Victoria Culp, 10, who liked the face painting and petting the llamas.

“We’re trying to make a positive impact in the community and on the East Side,” said Kristie Foster, wife of Calvary Baptist Church’s pastor, the Rev. Quinton Chad Foster.

And the pastor was passionate. “I pray that this effort is reflective of a group of people whose hearts have been changed by the power of Jesus Christ and our presence here today,” he said. “I pray it would express to the community that the power of Jesus Christ can quell the violence in our community. That’s what it’s all about.”

The church and adjacent parsonage where the Fosters live are near Martin Luther King Jr. Park.

“This church being in the heart of the community can change the heart of the community,” said Foster, who has been pastor at Calvary Baptist for five years. “You can take the gun out of a hand, but if a heart hasn’t been changed, it’ll pick up a knife.”

Judy, who lives at a nearby women’s shelter and declined to give her last name, was saddened by the recent shootings. She found the community outreach to be “a good idea” that should be expanded to other areas of the city.

“Violence is not an answer,” she said. “You have to have a more positive attitude. If you have a problem, you work it out, not pull a gun out and shoot someone. I’m 67 years old and have never seen so much violence. It’s sad. Really sad. I feel badly for the people who get shot, but also for the families left behind.”

Maria Reid, 32, said she hopes the community begins pulling together. “To me, the shootings are just sad. All we can do is try to spread the gospel to everyone,” she said.

Buffalo Community Police Officer Robert Lee III praised the gathering. “I think things like this need to happen more often, and encourage other citizens to come out,” he said.

Jones said she doesn’t worry about the violence occurring around her. “We need to be vigilant and connect more with young people in the neighborhood. We shouldn’t be afraid of young people with problems,” she said.

“Fear has torment, and God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind,” she added, invoking a verse from the Bible.