It is a cold January afternoon as Father Richard Conway walks through the neighborhood surrounding St. Peter’s Parish in Dorchester like he does every week.
As he walks, he is constantly stopped by the many people he knows around the block and, in turn, he offers them the Portuguese blessing.
This regular exercise, often with a police officer by his side, isn’t for the 79-year-old’s own health. It is meant to diagnose and calm the troubles in his community that might need some spiritual medicine.
This Boston neighborhood certainly has its fair share of problems, and Father Conway has seen them firsthand growing up in the city. He is not one to sit around and wait for solutions to arrive.
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“You look at the gospels, and what was Jesus doing? He was out there talking to people,” said Conway. “You can’t do it behind the desk, you can’t do it in the office. I think you have to be out where the people are.”
Speaking in Portuguese, he stops into the local stores to see how the owners are doing and share a few jokes, but Father Conway is focused on a particular group of people in this neighborhood - gangs and the young men who might join them.
Here, the gangs are usually named after the streets on which they are formed, like Norton Street. It is these same streets that Father Conway has walked throughout the week to reach out to the gang members since he took a position at the church here nine years ago.
Some of these young men won’t even cross through another neighborhood “territory” for fear of setting off a rival gang.
While things have improved in recent years, Dorchester is another Boston neighborhood struggling with the realities of gang violence.
Conway’s solution? Get to know the young men and their families, offer the, alternatives, and let them know the church is here to help them. He is armed with a booklet of after-school activities, job openings and other resources that will help keep them out of trouble.
“The biggest problem we have, especially in neighborhoods like this, is single-parent families,” said Conway. “Fifty percent of the families in this neighborhood here are single parent. They don’t have the time to get involved.”
That is where Father Conway sees the church taking a role to fill that gap. He often visits young men in jail to show support during their incarceration and after they are released.
Many of these men don’t see a bright future in their lives, like one 25-year-old he visited who was in prison on a murder charge.
“I asked him, ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years and how can I help you get there?’ He laughed and said, ‘In 10 years from now I’ll either be dead or doing hard time.’”
That man was soon released and moved out of town to escape the gang influence, which is what many in the neighborhood are forced to do if they want to stay out of trouble. Others don’t escape this life and end up becoming victims of gang-related violence.
This means there are far too many visits to jail, the courthouse, and funerals. Father Conway has seen it all - a young man jailed for defending himself against a gang member, a college-bound man shot for being in the wrong neighborhood and a young man shot after being mistaken for his brother.
He constantly tries to work with different gangs to come up with truces to prevent further violence, but a ceasefire is usually impossible. He even had one man approach him asking God’s forgiveness prior to going after a rival gang member who had shot him in the foot.
Of course he refused that request, but he does often seek help from a higher power to help him with his work here in the city.
“I pray for the neighborhood every day. I pray for the neighborhoods of our three parishes, two of the neighborhoods have had a lot of violence, I also pray every day for the people who have to work in those neighborhoods. The police, the fire, the street workers. They are there all the time and you hope they are going to be safe.”