By LINDA M. LINONIS
Three pastors who collaborated to form NOW Youngstown and organized the Increase the Peace Rallies, refer to themselves as the “three hermanos,” that is, brothers.
Pastors Rafael Cruz of Unity Baptist Church in Boardman and Pastors Rolando Rojas of Spanish Evangelical Church and Al Yanno of Metro Assembly of God are bonded as brothers in spirit. They share a belief in God and commitment to street ministry.
“God made a difference in our lives,” said Pastor Rojas, who noted the pastors understand street mentality because they were once part of it. “We know what God has done in our lives.”
For the third summer, the three are coordinating outreach rallies in conjunction with the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence.
Key to success will be training Sunday and Monday for volunteers from church partners. “The training helps volunteers understand the purpose,” Pastor Yanno said. “That’s to bring peace to the streets of Youngstown and preach the Gospel.”
Volunteers, who assist with entertainment, food and games, “have to be on the same page and working in the same direction,” said Pastor Cruz. For some, the outreach will be a new experience. “We want them to know how to respond,” he added.
The tone will be set during a citywide prayer meeting June 16 at Metro Assembly. “That’s ‘preparing the soil’ and paving the way with prayer,” said Pastor Yanno.
Prayer walks also will be staged in the days preceding each Increase the Peace rally. “Volunteers will pass out fliers to invite people to the rallies,” Pastor Cruz said.
Pastor Yanno said NOW Youngstown also will partner with the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods for “Holy Ground” walks. “It’s a connection of community organizations,” Pastor Yanno said.
Increase the Peace rallies focus on crime-ridden areas of the city. The pastors said the rallies are in the summer because crime often escalates then. In previous years, they said, the rallies have succeeded in decreasing violence around the times they take place at various sites.
“Some people don’t see value in life,” Pastor Cruz said. “When a person places no value on his life, he sees no value in the lives of others.”
“Hopelessness is a common feeling,” added Pastor Yanno.
To combat that, the pastors said the rallies offer a vehicle to “give people a second chance.” “We want to send the message, ‘there’s a way out,’ and help to do it,” Pastor Yanno said. He said there are some success stories with people receiving help from Pregnancy Help Center and Teen Challenge.
“When lives change, the community changes for the better,” Pastor Rojas said.
In January, Spanish Evangelical dedicated its new church at 369 Keystone Ave., near ESA Park Apartments. The church in the East Side neighborhood has had an impact. “We’ve seen people from there attend church ... I know it’s the outreach we’ve done,” said Pastor Rojas, noting Sunday attendance has gone from 125 to 200.
The pastors said they believe they are seeing some success because they are armed with the truth. “We’re challenging the streets, but we’ve earned the right to be heard,” Pastor Yanno said. “We bring many cultures, different denominations and various backgrounds to the ministry.”
“What’s important on the street is to talk straight. We don’t water this down,” Pastor Cruz said. “Being violent is being out of control. Using a gun isn’t being strong but choosing a life of cowardice.”
Pastor Cruz said he and the other ministers “represent the Lord and His love,” and because of that, they’re compelled to help people. “We all need to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves,” Pastor Cruz said.
“The Church of Youngs- town is the lighthouse in the community. ... If we’re not part of the transformation, we’re part of the problem,” Pastor Yanno said.