Unified Erie focuses on worship in new anti-violence campaign
ERIE, Pa. — The Unified Erie anti-violence initiative is looking to a higher power to help calm Erie’s streets.
It is ready to launch a six-week media campaign, called “Take Me to Worship,” that encourages parents and other adults to get children involved with a religious organization — no matter what the faith — for at least an hour a week.
The “Take Me to Worship” advertisements, funded with about $20,000 in private donations, will run from July 15 to Aug. 30 and will feature television spots, billboards and print advertising. The campaign is based on data that shows religious involvement helps reduce problematic behavior among youth.
“The social science community has done its study, and they recognize what churches have recognized all along: the importance of worship,” said Paul Macosko, a pastor with the nondenominational McLane Church and a member of the Unified Erie group, called the religiosity committee, that developed the campaign.
The campaign is the latest effort from Unified Erie, the broad-based coalition formed about six years ago to reduce gun violence, particularly among youth. It is made up of members of law enforcement, social service organizations and government agencies.
Unified Erie has, among other things, developed strategies to find violent fugitives and other criminals, track stolen guns, provide more resources for newly released prison inmates, strengthen neighborhood watch groups and offer help to parents.
Religious involvement among youth has been another Unified Erie focus. The “Take Me to Worship” campaign, though primarily meant to get youth involved in religious activities, also represents a way to leverage the resources of the county’s more than 330 religious organizations, no matter what their denomination or faith, said Amy Eisert, director of the Mercyhurst University Civic Institute, which does research and data analysis for Unified Erie.
“There is a lot of power and empowerment with faith-based institutions,” Eisert said.
She and other organizers said they recognize that discussion of religion can cause controversy. She said the “Take Me to Worship” campaign, by design, does not proselytize or emphasize one religious tradition or faith over another.
The campaign does not mention specific religions or denominations, and Eisert said it is meant to convey a message that parents, if they are interested, can “find the religious institution that best meets the needs of you and your family.”
“This is not about a specific faith,” Eisert said.
The goal was “to make the message more ecumenical,” said another member of the Unified Erie religiosity committee, Jim McEldowney, executive director of the Glenwood YMCA, 3727 Cherry St.
“We are not trying to decide for young people or their families what religion — if any — they should” participate in, said Leigh Kostis, a religiosity committee member and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Erie.
She said the data, rather than a desire to preach, is driving the campaign.
“We know from the data that young people in Erie have some serious problems,” Kostis said.
One of the leaders of Unified Erie, Randy Bowers, the police chief for Erie, said the campaign has great potential.
“I’ve seen the survey results and I’ve seen the results that prove that if youth have religion in their lives, they are more likely to be good students and stay out of trouble,” Bowers said. “I don’t have any doubt about the value of religiosity having a positive impact on the youth in our community and in any community.”
About 70 people, including ministers and other religious leaders, made up the Unified Erie religiosity committee, whose core members numbered about 15, according to Unified Erie. Local professionals produced the media campaign that the committee developed.
One committee member is Daryl Craig, an Erie minister who has been closely involved in other Unified Erie efforts as co-founder of the Blue Coats, who patrol schools in Erie to keep the peace. Craig said the “Take Me to Worship” campaign is designed to appeal to a wide audience.
“Being a man of faith myself, I know what faith has done for me and my children,” he said. “It definitely cannot hurt. I know that it will help.”
The videos that make up the “Take Me to Worship” campaign include children at playgrounds and other sites in Erie. The children urge the viewer to “take me to worship” and explain how religious involvement can improve their lives, based on research.
“If you’ll take me to worship,” the children say in one segment, “I’ll be less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to participate in violence.”
Also part of the campaign, Unified Erie is delivering “tool kits” to every religious organization in Erie County. The kits, shaped like cardboard lunchboxes, include information on the media campaign and how religious organizations can promote their programs when new participants arrive.
“They can go and add their own flavor,” said Joel Natalie, a member of the religiosity committee and culture director at McLane Church, which has three sites in Erie County. “They have total license.”
Macosko, the pastor of the McLane Church’s Erie location, at 2319 W. 38th St., in Millcreek Township, dropped off a number of tool kits to religious organizations last week. He said the response was positive, and that the organizations will be able to use the information to get ideas to draw in children and families.
“A lot of our congregations are aging, and they don’t necessarily know how to get kids in the doors,” he said.
Macosko gave a tool kit Thursday to Gail Giacomelli, office manager at Elmwood Avenue Presbyterian Church, 2816 Elmwood Ave. Giacomelli said the church needs to review the information in more detail but expects that the church will use the tool kits and talk about the “Take Me to Worship” campaign.
“It is awesome. I am definitely interested,” Giacomelli said. “It is the most important thing, getting the children in (to a house of worship) to keep them on the right path. It doesn’t matter what church you go to, as long as you go.”
Some of the funding for the media campaign came from Scott Bonnell, owner of Bonnell’s Auto Group, which includes Bonnell Collision Centers in Millcreek and Fairview townships. Scott Bonnell is not a member of the Unified Erie religiosity committee, but he has been active in religious events in the area, including as executive chairman for the Rock the Lake Erie, an evangelical festival.
“I just became aware of what they are doing, and I think it is what we need to do,” Bonnell said of Unified Erie and the “Take Me to Worship” campaign. “It is what this city needs — it is all about unifying and coming together and helping out. Churches, I think if we join together, we will get much more accomplished.”
Based on data
The need for the campaign, organizers said, is based on the same trove of data that has driven the other strategies behind Unified Erie: the Erie County results in the Pennsylvania Youth Survey, which the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency conducts every other year among students at public middle and high schools.
The poll’s latest analysis, based on 2013 data, showed about 44 percent of Erie County youth participate in a religious activity for at least an hour a week, well below national and state levels, according to Unified Erie.
The survey and other studies also showed that children and teens who participate in a religious activity for at least an hour a week perform better in school, are happier, and are less inclined to engage in violent behavior, said Andrea Bierer, who helped develop the “Take Me to Worship” campaign as coordinator for what is known as the community action plan for Unified Erie.
Religious activity, she said, often involves parental involvement, which can bring a child closer to his or her parents or guardians.
“The key in the data is participation,” Bierer said. “It is different from internal belief. This is the external, the participation. It is an hour a week that is important.”
And where that hour of activity might occur, according to the campaign, is left up to each family.
“It is not infringing on anyone’s personal choice,” Daryl Craig said. “You choose what the house of worship will be. We are just telling you that this will help your life.”
Erie Times News / GoErie.com | July 3, 2016