Fiery Dorchester pastor undeterred by controversy

Rev. Eugene Rivers, admired and reviled in his home city, expands his role on the national political stage

Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III has been a magnet for controversy since cofounding the TenPoint Coalition in the 1990s. Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III has been a magnet for controversy since cofounding the TenPoint Coalition in the 1990s. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Keith O'Brien
Globe Staff / June 21, 2008

One recent morning, his coffee and newspaper in hand, the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III stood in the stairwell of a bullet-riddled Dorchester apartment building, calling out for an answer.

"Hello?" he hollered. "Yo, who's that?"

No one replied. Rivers, there to visit the mother of a troubled 13-year-old boy, leaned against a banister and sighed as he waited in the shadows. This is what he calls his pastoral work. It's the stuff that rarely makes headlines, in part because the controversial preacher always seems too busy making them in other ways. The recent headlines are no exception.

Twice last month, Rivers, 58, found himself back in the news: first, after an arsonist set fire to a community center that Rivers founded for children, the Ella J. Baker House, and again when Rivers was allegedly assaulted by a former Baker House employee.

The events - occurring just four days apart - seemed to stand as yet another reminder that Rivers, by his own mistakes or the mistakes of others, can't seem to shake trouble for long. He remains a man of great contradictions. Often reviled locally, he is embraced nationally.

Rivers's church, the Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, is tiny, boasting just a couple dozen members, yet he has appeared on the cover of Newsweek and "The Oprah Winfrey Show." And for all his battles at home, the fiery Dorchester preacher is emerging as a player on the national political stage.

He was outspoken in criticizing both the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Senator Barack Obama over Wright's radical sermons and Obama's failure to quickly distance himself from his former pastor. He recently joined other national spiritual leaders in a private meeting with O bama in Chicago after the Illinois senator had sewn up his party's presidential nomination. And in the weeks ahead, he and other national black leaders hope to persuade both parties' nominees to focus on urban problems - trying to get Obama and Senator John McCain to do, Rivers said, what Governor Deval Patrick has failed to do.

Obama's campaign, he says, offers a mixture of hope and anxiety.

"I've had old black men say to me about Obama, 'Watch what you pray for because you might get it,' " Rivers said recently. "The point being: Black people have to be much more pragmatic and realistic and not impose unrealistic expectations. Because if Senator Obama is president of the United States, one thing he'll have to show the American public is that he did not run to be president of black America."

Meantime, back in Boston, Rivers plans to keep doing what he does best: survive. He was dismissive this week as he surveyed the charred exterior of the Baker House on Washington Street in Dorchester.

"It's the back porch of the building. The guy didn't even burn the building down," he said. "This is nothing. I've had a couple punks threaten me. This is nothing. As things go, this is an easy day at the office."

Rivers, educated on the tough streets of Philadelphia and later at Harvard, came to prominence in the 1990s as cofounder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition. The organization, launched in 1992 after gang violence disrupted the funeral of a young homicide victim, sought to confront child criminals in the streets and offer alternatives to gang life.

The work succeeded, bringing a sharp drop in homicides in the mid to late 90's. The period became known as the Boston Miracle and in press clipping after press clipping Rivers was dubbed its architect, while other organizers received far less attention. Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, calls Rivers "a national treasure." But with success, also came criticism - and fallout.

"I think he means well," said Kevin Phelan, a civic leader and president of Colliers Meredith & Grew, a Boston-based real estate firm. "But some people aren't going to buy his act. Some people think it's too much Gene and not enough about the kids."

By his own admission, Rivers has a big mouth - and an ego to match. He often refers to himself in the third person. And his meteoric rise a decade ago, from neighborhood preacher to Newsweek cover subject for his role in helping to stem the tide of slayings in Boston, made him more than a few enemies in town. Rivers - married for almost 22 years with one child at Harvard and another set to start there in the fall - clashed with the other founders of the TenPoint Coalition. He was accused of sending minions to threaten other preachers - a charge that Rivers denied. And then came the 2006 rape charge against Baker House employee Derrick Patrick.

Patrick, a teen mentor, was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl in the house, raising questions about the whole program and Rivers himself. The city, which had given Baker House more than $500,000 since 2000, ordered an audit of the organization's finances. State funding, pledged by then-Governor Mitt Romney, disappeared, and Rivers was publicly skewered.

But he took the beating - without complaints, he said. The city audit came up clean, and the rape charge against Patrick was dropped as he pleaded guilty to four counts of having sex for a fee - a misdemeanor.

"This is the view, doc," he said one day last week, standing on the third floor of the Baker House. "This is the view."

From the window, looking east, Rivers peered down across Dorchester, over the rooftops, and all the way to the sea. It was raining and Rivers was spinning, getting worked up in the way he often does. He curses, when necessary. "Dude," he says - a lot. He rambles, quoting from the Bible at times.

The troubles of 2006 were just a test, Rivers believes, quoting James 1, verses 1 through 4. And he believes the same thing about the May 21 arson and the May 25 incident in which former employee Andre Norman allegedly assaulted Rivers on Washington Street in Dorchester and threatened to kill him.

"I run into Mr. Norman," Rivers said, recalling the incident. "Mr. Norman runs up on me and there's an assault and that's as much as there is to say. That's it. I'm not in the business of reading people's minds, of looking into their hearts. That's it. And frankly, in the scheme of things, given the range of things I'm involved in, this is really, like, trivial."

He has his national goals, working to inject urban issues into the presidential campaign. He has speaking engagements and television appearances. One reason why he shaved his salt-and-pepper beard a couple years ago, he said, was that he was told he would look better on television without it. And in Boston, his street ministry continues.

He continues to serve as pastor at the Azusa Christian Community and preaches on Sunday. He has dreams of opening a boxing gym for troubled youth and remains on the board of the Baker House, even though the board itself has taken pains to divorce the programs from the man who started them.

"The Baker House should be viewed as a brand that's separate from the Eugene Rivers brand," said Baker House executive director Kevin Peterson. "While we all recognize his ingenuity and creativity in birthing the Baker House, at one point the child has to gain its own legs and move independently in the world."

That time has come for the Baker House, where the annual budget is about $475,000, or roughly half what it once was, Peterson said. But no one expects Rivers to fade away. After 20 years of working with Boston's most troubled families, the preacher is part of the fabric of the city, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said, a man who gets things done in a way that's sure to upset someone.

"He wants to be controversial and sometimes he gets too controversial for his own good," Menino said. "But with Gene Rivers, you take the good with the bad."

Back in the stairwell of that Dorchester residence one recent morning, Rivers waited until the mother of the troubled 13-year-old boy finally came to the door and let him inside. On the couch, still in her pajamas, she explained her son's legal problems and the preacher, dressed in a gray suit with a pink pocket square, nodded and listened.

He understood. He told the woman he'd find out what was happening with her son and set out to get some answers, greeting the people of Dorchester as he passed them on the street.

"Black man, how you doing?"

"Bless you, man."

"Yes, sir!"

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