Syracuse’s face-based initiative

It’s a cold Saturday afternoon on Syracuse’s south side, the area’s outdoor basketball courts have long since shed their nets and youth in search of a game are usually out of luck.

Without a place to go at times south side area young teens are found in groups, in front of stores or riding around looking for something to do.

Led by several members, People’s AME Zion Church began opening its gym to young teens on Saturday afternoons for basketball and other activities targeting the area’s youth.

The gym was not in general use until recently when church member Chris Barr pitched in and bought new netting to dress the naked rim. Two ladies donated a Ping-Pong table, another person donated a television for games.

It’s early in the afternoon and there’s a steady stream of kids from South Salina Street coming through the main doors of the church, down stairs and upstairs and onto the gym floor. It’s chilly but it doesn’t matter to the dozen participating in a game of pick-up ball. It’s cold only to a spectator, those playing ball have shed their winter coats oblivious to the chill in the church gym air.

On any given Saturday afternoon, there are between a dozen and 35 young men playing basketball in People’s gym. Kenneth Frazier started coming to play ball two weeks ago. “I heard about a church where they were playing basketball and I rode around trying to find it,” he said. A member of Bell Grove Missionary Baptist Church, Frazier intends to be a regular attendee to People’s Saturday basketball.

Nate Smith has been involved for over a month and seems enthused about the possibility of playing for a church basketball league. When asked about how many people attend Saturday afternoon sessions Smith replies with a smile, “It’s mad people in here.”

Church member and gym coordinator Chris Barr is enthusiastic about the work they’re doing.

“The Open Gym Ministry a program is under the newly formed Sports and Recreation Ministries here at People’s, Barr said. “Under the guidance of the former Pastor Sherman Dunmore and current Pastor Darren C. Jamie, Brother Marcus Jackson and I started opening the gym up to local youths about two months ago. At first things went slow, but as word spread and we saw attendance rise as high as 30 youths at one session.

“We currently serve a pizza lunch with soda about half way through the open gym time,” Barr continued. “This gives us time to speak with the young men and get to know them. When I came here the gym was in shambles and there wasn’t anything going on and I know money is a commodity that most churches don’t have, so Brother Jackson and myself asked the pastor for permission to open the gym and we cleaned up the gym.

Could league play become a possibility? Perhaps.

“I just finished speaking with someone about a church basketball league going from January to June this will give our boys a chance to get into some organized constructive basketball because right now it’s just come in and play,” Barr said.

Marcus Jackson’s another fixture of Saturday’s program he’s been there from the beginning, “One of the reasons we decided to do this is because everybody talks about the problem people hangin’ out in the streets, gang activity and no one does anything about it. We’re trying to do something about it. We’re trying to do something positive.

We’re getting them to play competitive sports, they have rules and regulations, no swearing and no fighting because this is a church and ultimately we want to be their friend and role models for them, it doesn’t matter if they belong to a church or this church.”

Rev. Darren C. Jaime, the new pastor at People’s AME Zion, is from New York City is a former professional basketball player, who at one time played in Barcelona, Spain. Barr is optimistic: “I hope he’ll help us with this, given his background”

“My vision for the program is to start a church basketball league with many of the surrounding churches like Bethany Baptist and many others,” Barr said. “Our goal is to meet the people of the community where they are, and try to meet their needs. Through our kindness and persistence, I hope that many will see Jesus not only in what we say but by our actions.”

At some point late in the afternoon Marcus or Chris will take off to the pizza place and return to a gym full of kids who you’d never think would hang out in a church on a Saturday afternoon.

It could be called a face-based initiative.