By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor
PROVIDENCE — If kids are having problems in the city’s schools or on its streets, there’s a good chance that Brother Ray Smith knows about it.
Though he has five children, 16 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter, he says his family’s a lot bigger than that. “My kids? I guess you’d say it’s everybody in Providence. My job is to help address the spirit of abandonment and rejection that comes when your mom’s on crack and your dad’s in jail.”
He’s a busy, multi-faceted man: licensed by the International Bible School in Rumford; ordained by Barbara Thorne Ministries; serves as a wellness specialist at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School; founder of the Young Leaders Fellowship; activist with organizations such as 300 Men RI, Amos House, the NAACP and the Davey Lopez Recreation Center, where two of his granddaughters are regulars.
But mainly, he explains, “My ministry is the streets. You’ll see me in all sorts of places doing all sorts of things. Lots of the time it has nothing to do with scripture. ... We have people who don’t take care themselves. We have to help them learn to respect themselves.”
It wasn’t always this way for Raymond Smith. Long before almost everybody in Providence knew him as “Brother Ray,” folks on the South Side of Chicago knew him as just another man living another wasted life.
“I’d been doing everything that’s wrong for forty years,” he says. “I was living amid drug dealers and prostitutes. You can imagine the rest.”
But one day he escaped. His younger brother’s murder in 1996 pushed him into a state of depression. He would emerge from this state only after he came to stay with his sister and brother-in-law in East Providence, in 1998.
“I came to live differently. I walked away from everything,” he says. “I didn’t even pack a bag. My sister took me in, I began studying in Rumford, and on June 16, 2000, I was ordained to go into the streets to preach the Gospel.”
The Gospel didn’t turn out to be, he says, the turn-on for alienated young people that it had been for him.
George Lindsey, director of the Davey Lopes Recreation Center, recalls when Brother Ray showed up to offer his services more than a decade ago. He had given a young man a ride to wrestling practice at the center, then came back to ask Lindsey how he might help.
“We have a ‘gotta git where you fit’ philosophy here,” Lindsey explains, “so Brother Ray started coming around. But he had a really strong church emphasis and the kids shied away from him.”
Then one day Brother Ray went upstairs where some kids were playing pool. He challenged one of the best players and wiped him out in no time.
“In another life he’d been a pool shark,” Lindsey says. “That was his in.”
Brother Ray suggested bringing the pool table downstairs.
“Before you knew it,” Lindsey recalls, “the whole neighborhood knew who he was. That’s when his neighborhood ministry began.”
It’s a ministry that involved getting what Lindsey refers to as “four or five serious neighborhood factions who were harming each other” to back off, lessening the level of tension and the potential for violence.
Smith, who is now deeply involved not only with the Davey Lopes Center, but with the Providence public school system, clarifies how he deals with circumstances like this.
“In my position at Jorge Alvarez,” he says, “we work on things like conflict management. Notice that I call it ‘conflict management,’ not ‘conflict resolution.’ A lot of the time you can’t resolve it, but you can get people to tolerate each other. Managing it may be the best you can do.”
His involvement with the city’s public schools was almost as serendipitous as the one with Davey Lopes.
“I was working with a youngster,” he recalls, “and stopped into the office at Harrison High School. A student was being really disrespectful to the staff. I just said, ‘That’s disrespectful. This is a professional office. I know you have something good and great in you. So let’s see that instead of this.’ The student settled down.”
Principal Wobberson Torchon watched this encounter. “He saw the effect I could have,” Smith says. “So he asked me to come back, first as a motivational speaker, and we’ve continued to work together since then.”
Smith now works in every Providence high school, along with serving as wellness specialist at Jorge Alvarez. There, in addition to helping pick up the pieces when difficulties arise, he teaches peer counseling and positive character building.
Along the way, he got involved in 300 Men RI, a community-based men’s group that works with middle- and high-school-aged boys, helping them with academics by providing them with adult male mentors.
Among his 300 Men RI colleagues is Dewayne “Boo” Hackney. Hackney is a co-founder of No More Murder in Providence. Both also participate in It’s on Us, a national program against sexual assault.
Brother Ray, Hackney says, “is like everybody’s mentor, surrogate uncle, surrogate father. He understands that the victory is in the consistency. He knows that everyone is a Division One player, and they deserve to be treated like that.”
Brother Ray, Hackney goes on, “knows you have to have a spiritual foundation. He’s getting somewhere.”
Among Smith’s large-scale efforts to “get somewhere” is the creation of the Youth Leadership Foundation (YLF), which was recently awarded tax-exempt status by the IRS. The foundation focuses on character building, peer mediation, after-school programming, and professional development for local activists.
The organization’s mission statement explains that its goal is to provide young people with skills and attitudes that will help them avoid leading “lives similar to those of their adult caregivers. It is our goal to avoid such misfortune by providing young people with the individualized support needed to aid them in reaching their potential.”
Among other YLF programs is an effort to get adults to offer resources for youth such as jobs and internships. At the drop of a hat, Smith will open the trunk of his car and hand out forms on which adults can list the resources they can offer.
“We need to collect information so that when we meet a young person who needs help we can just turn to our database and put them in touch with whatever they need,” he says.
Working with a small grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to build YLF’s infrastructure, the organization, Smith explains, is trying to address the needs of “so many young people plagued by violence, neighbors killing neighbors. We haven’t done enough to fix it. They’re wearing $150 sneakers and $100 pairs of jeans, but they don’t have enough to eat. We have to figure out how to do something.”
That something, in Smith’s view, has to do with establishing and maintaining relationships.
It was by inserting himself into a local young man’s life a decade ago that he helped the teenager graduate high school, attend and graduate from college, and find a job as a bank manager in California.
Or by mentoring a young woman who was involved with an older man, helping her graduate from high school and go on to receive training as a certified nurse’s assistant.
“She’s living independently now,” Smith says. “She always tells me it was because I ‘got into her business.’ She used to call and say, ‘I don’t need you to tell me I told you so. I just need to talk.’ So I listened.”
Brother Ray’s greatest success story, he insists, has been himself. “The biggest thing I ever did was turning my life around, becoming a community advocate, serving the community,” Smith says.
His greatest frustration is that, “I can get them to respect me so they behave when I’m there. But how can I get them to respect themselves when I’m not around?”
He remains hopeful, though. “I was infected and affected by drugs and alcohol. Now I’ve overcome all that. I just keep trying to challenge others to do the same.”
Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international development worker who lives in Providence. He blogs at waitingforthebarbarian.wordpress.com.