Keysa Franklin was inside her home on North 25th Street and outside her four children, three boys and girl, were playing in the front yard about two weeks ago when Fr. Bob Stiefvater, dressed in his black clerical clothing and Roman collar, walked up and introduced himself to the kids.
Fr. Stiefvater has been the pastor at All Saints Parish on the north side of Milwaukee only since June 16 and hasbeen taking daily walks in the community as a way for the neighborhood to know him, for him to know the neighborhood and to show the church’s presence in the area.
When Franklin stepped outside, she was surprised.
“He’s bold because I wouldn’t be walking this neighborhood,” she said, alluding to violence and crime in the area. “And I live over here.”
Halfway through 2015 the number of homicides in the city of Milwaukee has already equaled the total number from last year, 86. That violence has come within a few blocks of All Saints Parish, but that doesn’t deter Fr. Stiefvater.
“This isn’t a horrible neighborhood,” he said. “It’s kind of a little run-down and forgotten. And I think if we do things on various fronts, it will look better, it will be better, it will be safer.”
Priest’s presence brings feeling of comfort
The sight of a priest in the community brings a special kind of peacefulness to a community in need of it.
“This is my first time seeing a priest walk around in the neighborhood so it’s comfortable,” Franklin said.
For Fr. Stiefvater that’s the goal.
“You should feel comfortable in your neighborhood,” he said. “I’m not going to be a social worker; I’m not going to be a doctor or I’m not going to be a policeman. But I want to be the pastor of the neighborhood.”
Fr. Stiefvater relayed an incident when he first arrived of an individual, only a block away from the parish, being dumped from a car after being shot.
“I talked to a couple of the officers and I talked to a couple of the people,” he said, adding he was there to offer his assistance. “This is much more being at the scene and being with the families. If first responders need assistance, I’d be there for them, too.”
Tommy Lee Grant was working on his truck in the alley between 25th and 26th streets when he saw Fr. Stiefvater walking toward him.
“It’s a great idea because a lot of priests don’t do that, it’s wonderful,” Grant said. “The way things are going on now in the neighborhood, we need more priests walking around.”
Fr. Stiefvater will talk to anyone he sees and will give each person his card. If the individual has questions, he does his best to answer them. He never wants to make assumptions, but he tells them about the meal program. And he’ll always remind them about the parish’s Sunday Masses.
The walks by Fr. Stiefvater are small gestures but as the violence continues to get worse, parishes in the area are looking for additional ways to positively impact their surrounding communities and help put an end to the violence.
Parish offers ‘interventions’
Phil Kremsreiter is a member of the multi-cultural committee at Blessed Savior Parish located on west Villard Avenue in Milwaukee.
“We try to offer resources to people to try and give them options rather than going to crime,” Kremsreiter said. “The most important thing is you lead and act with your heart. People respond to that.”
Kremsreiter said he’s been involved with the committee for over eight years and the committee itself has a relationship with Milwaukee Police Department district 4 and 7.
“Every two weeks we go on walks through the neighborhoods doing some clean-up, talking to people, giving handouts on resources, trying to build a relationship so that those people feel able to come to us,” he said. “And willing to come to us if they need help or they see something going on in the neighborhood that needs to be addressed.”
Kremsreiter said they occasionally hold interventions at the parish for people willing to change and that all activities are done with a police officer present.
“Some parishioners, wrongly I believe, have trepidations,” he said adding some parishioners had concerns as elderly individuals, doing work in poor, minority neighborhoods.
“When I first tried to get this faith-based group going for these intervention circles, I went to our human concerns committee,” he said. “I explained what was going on and one of the women said ‘Are you crazy? You expect us elderly, white women to become involved with drug dealers?’”
Over time, the parish has become less fearful.
“(The interventions are) completely safe but you see the mentality and so we’re trying to change that mentality and it’s been changing in our parish,” Kremsreiter said.
However, the issue involves a lot of time and a constant amount of pressure to change things.
“You’ve got to be there, not only speak your heart, but you’ve got to be there more than once or twice or three times,” Kremsreiter said. “You’ve got to be there pretty consistently over time otherwise you’re a flash in the pan.”
Kremsreiter said there would be a stronger sense of community if the different organizations working on this issue coordinated better.
“The problem is that people don’t see the duplication of efforts,” he said. “We probably have 50 or 80, maybe even more type of organizations or groups in the city.”
Despite the rising number of homicides this year, Kremsreiter is determined to keep working.
“Once you start doing this, where does your responsibility end? It shouldn’t,” he said.
Social issues breed violence
Capuchin Fr. David Pruess is the pastor at St. Benedict the Moor and St. Martin de Porres parishes in Milwaukee’s central city.
“There’s a fair amount of crime that touches us and our immediate neighborhood,” Fr. Pruess said. “Probably most of the murders that happen in our immediate vicinity are directly drug related.”
Fr. Pruess believes issues such as unemployment, racism, lack of education and economic mobility “breed violence.”
“A lot of this is getting this whole undereducated group into some degree of skill so that they can get jobs,” he said. “When you have that racism and economic segregation, it leads to alienation.”
Strict gun laws, Fr. Preuss added, might help curb some of the violence.
“There’s a sense that sometimes people who don’t live in the city don’t understand the effects ‘gun rights’ has on poor neighborhoods,” he said. “They see it from a different perspective and here, we’re on the receiving end of it.”
Fr. Preuss said people need to feel optimistic about their future and until that happens, there will be more crime.
“You can’t have people that are poor and oppressed and hopeless and expect that it’s going to be peaceable,” he said. “Hopelessness breeds violence.”
No one parish or community group can alone completely tackle the issue of violence in Milwaukee.
“You have to repair the social fabric when the social fabric is torn,” Fr. Preuss said. “That means we have to collaborate with a broad group of people.”
Fr. Preuss said he hopes to collaborate with different faith groups and city officials in the future.
“We’re planning on having an outdoor prayer for the neighborhood,” he said adding it will happen sometime in late August or early September. “There’s certainly a spiritual part of this and we need to pray about it.”