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About 800 people gathered together at Sts. Teresa and Bridget Catholic Church in the city’s Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood to rally in an effort to reclaim open air drug markets on Feb. 25.
About 800 people gathered together at Sts. Teresa and Bridget Catholic Church in the city’s Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood to rally in an effort to reclaim open air drug markets on Feb. 25.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

Churches rally against drugs, violence and prostitution plaguing north St. Louis neighborhood

Sts. Teresa and Bridget hosted Feb. 25 rally and march

Nearly three decades ago, Bernarda Phillips was sleeping on the sidewalk in front of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Church.

The church opened its doors to her, helping her get back on her feet and off drugs. She started a Narcotics Anonymous group there, and today she looks for lost souls, still helping out at NA meetings there on Saturday mornings.

“I know that deliverance through the power of God is possible,” she said. “God has allowed me to pay it forward, and I let people know you’re looking at a miracle, and you, too, can be delivered — you just need to trust in God.”

God was at the forefront of a march and rally Feb. 25 at Sts. Teresa and Bridget calling for an end to the violence, open-air drug markets and prostitution that have plagued the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood of north St. Louis. “Common Crisis — Common Ground,” was hosted by Better Family Life, in cooperation with about a dozen area churches.

“This is just the beginning,” Phillips said. “It is only through us that change will be facilitated. The church is a building, but we are the Church. And the Church has to come out into the streets.”

Jesuit Father Christopher Collins, assistant to the president for mission and identity at St. Louis University, and Reverend Ralph Neal of St. Luke Memorial Missionary Baptist Church prayed in front of a motel at Grand Boulevard and Montgomery Street on Feb. 25 at the rally.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston
Several hundred people marched along North Grand Boulevard, starting at Sts. Teresa and Bridget and ending a few blocks north at Montgomery Street, where a boy was injured in a shooting in February. Carrying signs including “our community matters,” and “shut it down,” marchers listened as area pastors and leaders of Better Family Life made an impassioned plea to put faith first in making changes for the better.

“This is about us beginning to reorganize neighborhoods and put the church back as the focal point,” said James Clark, vice president of community outreach with Better Family Life. “We need to put the church back as the leadership in our neighborhoods. The churches can provide us with the point of pivot.”

For the past year, Better Family Life has partnered with Sts. Teresa and Bridget — as well as an earlier collaboration with St. Augustine Parish in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood — to provide basic needs to the community every week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the organization distributes food and toiletries and links to health care services and rehabilitation services.

Outreach coordinator Rashonda Johnson said that through that effort in 2017, the organization engaged with 3,800 people and had 250 requests for resources and 129 requests for assistance in entering rehab.

“We had 18 participants who did complete rehab services and got their lives back on track,” she noted. “I cannot stress how important it is for us to have a collective common ground with the churches and the community in rebuilding our communities.”

Father Tim Cook, pastor of Sts. Teresa and Bridget, said he hoped the demonstration would serve as a sign of hope for the community, and as a reminder that there is power in collaboration. Beyond the partnership with Better Family Life, the parish also works with the St. Louis Winter Outreach to provide shelter to homeless people during the cold weather; hosts on campus a food pantry and the CHIPS Health and Wellness Center, which provides health care and social services to the underserved; and has a relationship with the St. Louis Crisis Nursery, which leases space from the church.

“It’s important for us as a church to work with others — none of us individually have all the resources,” he said. “But together we do. This is about God bringing good hearts and really compassionate people together.”

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