Fighting crime with faith
Can prayer reduce crime? A number of Chicoans believe they’ve shown that it can.
They call themselves “prayer walkers.” Together they walk their neighborhoods at night praying for peace and serenity.
Prayer walker Derek Hastings, a member of the Neighborhood Church, says that there is no doubt that praying brings peace. Hastings points to crime statistics in Chico as proof.
Church members first started doing prayer walking in 2001 in an effort to counteract Chico State University’s reputation as a party school. That same year, the Chico City Council and Chico Police Department decided to take a stand against out-of-towners coming here to party.
For the next four years, there were loosely organized prayer walks around the major party holidays: St. Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and Halloween. Church members walked through downtown and the Fifth and Ivy neighborhood, among other areas, praying for peace to descend over Partytown USA.
Also, during those years, small groups of people would huddle around a police scanner on the weekends to pray as police officers responded to calls.
Far from being incredulous, the police appreciated the support. Bruce Hagerty said it has been an honor working with the prayer walkers during his years as police chief. “They’re kind of unsung heroes,” Hagerty said. From what he saw, the prayer walkers were unobtrusive and modest. They were positive-minded civilians who wanted to help make Chico safe.
During Halloween, the prayer walkers would gather outside City Council chambers, where the police held their pre-holiday pep talks. “When they came out we were waiting for them, cheering them on,” Hastings said.
Although there is no “proof” that prayer is what lowered crime over those years, Hagerty said he’s positive it helped. If nothing else, the prayer walkers helped by giving police moral support. “I just believe things would be a lot worse” without them, Hagerty said.
Although the prayer walkers were out only during the holidays, overall crime dropped by about 20 percent between 2002 and 2005.
“I know you can’t prove it was prayer that did it,” Hastings said, but in his opinion it was the prayer “and the actions of the police—don’t get me wrong” that lowered the overall crime rate in Chico.
In 2005, the churches stopped holding regular prayer walks because Halloween was no longer a major event and the police seemed to have it under control.
The following year, crime in Chico spiked to the highest it has been since 2001, as evidenced in the annual crimes report available on the Chico Police Department Web site.
“The increases in rapes, robberies and assaults are alarming,” crime analyst Robert Woodward wrote in the report. “We can also see that Chico still exceeds the 2005 national average in rapes, burglaries, and auto thefts.”
The report cites increased gang activity, population growth and not enough cops on the streets as the reasons crime has gone up.
But church members think there’s another reason the crime rate shot up after four years: because they stopped praying.
“We dropped the ball,” Hastings said.
Now they are working to restart the prayer groups. They anticipate pulling things together early next year. This time Hastings wants to see prayer walking as an event that happens all year long, not just on the holidays. He is also working to make the prayer walkers more organized so that the groups include a larger variety of churches, ethnicities and ages.
“Any good thing done by anybody for our community is going to bear fruit,” Hastings said.When retired art-history professor Delores Mitchell came to the podium Tuesday night (Dec. 18) to ask the Chico City Council not to cut funding for the arts, she told a story about English Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
During World War II, when England faced “a tremendous financial crisis,” she said, Churchill continued to insist the government support symphonies and theater groups. When asked why he didn’t spend the money instead on armaments, he replied: “The war we’re fighting is to preserve our culture.”
“I hope the city will follow Churchill’s example,” Mitchell said, and then sat down to the applause of many in the capacity audience.