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Faith group a catalyst for Fall River, New Bedford

NEW BEDFORD -- The auditorium at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was filled with the noise of some 750 people looking for seats and trying to figure out the headphones that would broadcast the night's speeches in Portuguese and Spanish.

 

White-haired ladies waved signs with the names of their churches. Rubber-soled shoes shrieked as they scuffed the polished floor.

Then Jack Livramento stepped before the people seated in rows of folding chairs. Suddenly there was silence.

"I ask you here tonight: Do you want safe neighborhoods?" Livramento said, sounding more like a preacher than a chemist.

"Yes!" the audience shouted, filling the room with cheering, whooping, and clapping.

By the time the meeting ended, the sea of older men, professionals, laborers, and high school students had extracted promises from some of the most powerful people in New Bedford and Fall River, two working-class cities struggling with high rates of crime and unemployment.

The pledges were negotiated by United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Massachusetts, an unusual grass-roots group run by former factory workers, religious leaders, and immigrants, and sustained by hundreds of churchgoers.

The group targets a broad range of local leaders: from city and school officials to chancellors and presidents of local colleges and hospitals.

At the meeting last week, Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. agreed to double the number of police officers in New Bedford's community policing program to 28 by July 2005.

Kalisz and a representative of Fall River Mayor M. Edward Lambert Jr. promised to add 140 slots next year to the adult basic education program -- including English classes and high-school equivalency initiatives -- which has a waiting list of well over 1,000.

In the past six years, the interfaith group has staged eight public assemblies that it calls "actions," each attended by hundreds of people. But this fall, as the homicide rate in New Bedford soared, the meeting had a new urgency.

It has been a bloody year in New Bedford. Eleven people have been killed since January, four more than the record set in 1990 and the same as last year. Some shopkeepers in the south-central section of the city keep their doors locked during business hours.

One elderly parishioner of Our Lady of Mount Carmel has been robbed three times on County Street as she walked to visit her husband, an Alzheimer's patient in a nearby nursing home.

United Interfaith, one of six similar groups around the state, was organized in 1997 to help people -- especially those who already belonged to churches -- improve life in their communities. Its members come from nearly 20 religious groups of various denominations, including Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, and Methodist.

"The idea is that low- and moderate-income people need to have some power [over] the issues that are important to them," said Lewis Finfer, a longtime advocate for affordable housing and director of Boston's Organizing and Leadership Training Center, which helped create and continues to support the six groups around the state, including Brockton and Greater Boston.

Livramento's group represents New Bedford and Fall River, two former mill cities 8 miles apart that are confronting many of the same issues. Both cities, with populations just under 100,000, are home to a large number of Portuguese immigrants.

New Bedford and Fall River lead the state in the high numbers of residents -- nearly one in four -- who dropped out of school before they finished ninth grade.

Household income in both cities hovers at just over half the statewide average, according to the 2000 census. New Bedford's median annual household income is $27,600; in Fall River, it's $29,000. And both are reeling from the departure of manufacturing jobs, especially at textile factories that have disappeared over the past few decades.

This year, the interfaith group focused on three issues: crime, education for children and adults, and jobs that pay a living wage.

"When the summer hit, we had the escalation in violence," said Ray Gagne, the group's lead organizer. "We needed to give the community a hope that it could get better."

A deadly burst of violence gripped New Bedford this summer: five killings in two months. In August, Kalisz forced the resignation of Police Commissioner Arthur J. Kelly III after a 14-year-old boy was killed at a drug house.

New Bedford, which has the state's third highest AIDS rate, is also struggling to combat drug abuse and drug trafficking, and city officials have proposed a voluntary but controversial school drug-testing program. Law enforcement officials say the coastal city is a major transit point for heroin traffickers.

At the interfaith action meetings, public officials are asked to commit to a particular project. They can answer only yes or no. Officials aren't enamored with the format. Lambert says he thinks it "handcuffs" dialogue.

Two weeks ago, for instance, Kalisz was asked whether he'd work with the United Interfaith to create 100 openings for adult education students within the next year. The mayor answered, "Yes." He then had two minutes, strictly enforced by an interfaith group member, to respond.

This year, officials from city hall, the schools, and local businesses answered yes to every question posed by the group, agreeing to expand police patrols, create more openings for adult education, and expand job training opportunities.

Still, the promises are not binding, and some may be difficult to keep in a year when municipal budgets are already stretched thin.

Kalisz said he could use the group's volunteers to meet his quota of creating 100 more adult education slots. "It's just not good enough to tell us from a sanctuary that we need to do something," said Kalisz.

Since he has two years to add the community police officers, Kalisz said, he has more than one budget cycle to find the money.

Kalisz said he does not feel obligated to bow to the interfaith group's requests; members, he said, are willing to negotiate. "It's not anything that, as an elected official, I've been either intimidated or fearful of," he said.

While some of the pledges from public officials were specific, such as adding 14 officers to the community policing program, others were not. The president of St. Anne's Hospital in Fall River pledged to help prepare more schoolchildren for careers in health care. School superintendents promised to work with the group to bring in local professionals to speak with students.

Interfaith leaders meet repeatedly with public officials before the action meetings, negotiating the pledges. Still, agreement isn't always possible.

Three years ago, the mayors of New Bedford and Fall River publicly answered "No" when asked to pledge $1 million each for after-school programs, saying they supported the concept but money was too scarce.

The city officials later raised some funds from other sources, including grants from the state and federal governments. Now, the group considers the expansion of after-school programs one of its greatest successes.

But can a group of worshippers make a difference? New Bedford and Fall River officials give United Interfaith mixed reviews. The two mayors agree the group is good at focusing attention on a problem.

"It's more of an opportunity to help people at the local and state government focus on certain priorities," Lambert said. "One of the good things about UIA is they tend to adopt an issue or two and stay with it until some measurable progress is made."

But they say that UIA leaders need to do more than lay problems at the feet of city officials. Though the group raised awareness about the need for after-school programs, Kalisz said, "We need them to be participants as well."

Still, the mayors know that the group, which has helped register voters in the past, represents a large block of constituents. And Kalisz said he often mentions the group in communications with federal officials, as an example of the faith-based initiatives favored by President Bush.

Three days after the New Bedford meeting and 20 blocks away, shots fired into the night signaled difficult problems ahead.

A 20-year-old man was hit near his family's house during a drive-by shooting. Wounded in the torso, he ran away, and for more than an hour lay bleeding and alone behind a neighbor's house.

After a relative found him, he was rushed to St. Luke's Hospital. That night, Alberto L. Gonzalez was pronounced dead. He left behind two young children.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com

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