Michael Nagle for The New York Times The Rev. Gilford Monrose, center, took part in a prayer during a vigil in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, on March 11 for Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old man who was shot and killed by the police. The council was formed in 2010 to try to improve relations between the police and residents in the area.
The Rev. Gilford Monrose was asleep in his Brooklyn apartment on March 9, when a text message from another pastor knocked him from his slumber: BROOKLYN: *POLICE SHOOTING* E52 ST X SNYDER AVE, LEVEL 1 MOBILIZATION CALLED. It was 11:39 p.m., and Mr. Monrose was about to begin the most trying week of his life.
Since 2005, Mr. Monrose has been the pastor at Mt. Zion Church of God on East 37th Street in East Flatbush, a densely populated neighborhood where many residents have roots in the Caribbean. His church is within the 67th Precinct, long referred to as one of the two deadliest precincts in New York.
The facts — 75 shootings and 15 murders in 2012 — back up that claim. Death notices by text messages are nothing new to Mr. Monrose. The victims’ names haunt him: Patrick Mondesir, 21. Shantel Davis, 23. Trevonne Winn, 24. All killed within the 67th Precinct.
What is notable about Mr. Monrose, 37, is how involved he’s become in the aftermath of these violent deaths. In late 2010, he helped found the 67th Precinct Clergy Council, an affiliation of local clergy. The group’s goal was simple: religious leaders would act as liaisons between residents and the police in an area where tensions between the two groups run high.
The clergy council appointed Mr. Monrose as president. From the beginning, he insisted the group would be hands-on. When there is a shooting, members head to the scene, wearing yellow rain slickers emblazoned with the council’s name. They speak to the press, comfort mourners, soothe angry witnesses. They visit wounded shooting victims. When a family cannot afford a funeral, they raise money. “Our role,” Mr. Monrose said, “is to diffuse a potential disaster in Brooklyn.”
Mr. Monrose quickly divided the 3.4-square mile area into 14 sections, assigned each part a sector head, and christened his response team the God Squad.
On March 9, police officers shot and killed Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old who the police said had pointed a gun at officers. Mr. Gray lived and died within the 67th. He was petite, baby-faced and popular. The shooting tipped off what Mr. Monrose called “a perfect storm” in the area. For days, the neighborhood roiled with anger, and young people met nightly to march down the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, Church Avenue. Sometimes, they turned violent.
“We’ve been saying that this type of thing could happen for a long time,” said Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, who described a neighborhood strangled by a lack of resources and heavy-handed police officers. “There is a breaking point where people say, ‘We’re tired.’ And when you’re in pain, and when you’re angry, you do things that are counterproductive.”
The clergy council had been tested before. On June 14, 2012, officers shot and killed Shantel Davis, an unarmed woman traveling through the precinct in a stolen car. A crowd quickly gathered at the site of her death. They chanted “murderers,” as investigators worked the scene.
Clergy council members dropped everything and ran to the crowd. “It was an emergency situation,” said the Rev. Charles Galbreath, 29, the group’s treasurer. “Being present, being there to offer prayers,” he said, “was critical.”
But the events of Mr. Gray’s death would test the council like never before.
Mr. Gray died on a Saturday night. The next Monday, said Mr. Monrose, “all hell broke loose.”
“I’m in a board meeting at the church and my phone starts to ring off the chain,” he said. Some of Mr. Gray’s supporters were marching down Church Avenue, overturning trash cans and throwing debris at officers.
Mr. Monrose ran outside, where he met Mr. Williams. As the group whipped past neighborhood institutions — the Trini Breakfast Shed, advertising hot roti; the Botanic du Roi Salomon, selling religious knickknacks — the pastor and the politician followed on foot. “We literally ran from Nostrand Avenue up to 55th Street behind the crowd, trying to get in front of them, yelling, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do this,’” Mr. Monrose said.
The group stopped at 55th Street. Officers in riot gear surrounded them. Police helicopters buzzed overhead. “I went to the police,” said Mr. Monrose, “and I said to them, ‘Please, let me talk to the young people so that no one could be arrested, and we don’t have a blood bath in the streets.’”
Eventually, an officer handed Mr. Monrose a bullhorn. “I had that bullhorn in my hand for about three hours,” he said, “praying, giving instruction, giving the microphone to a few community leaders, young people, just trying to maintain the crowd. And we maintained that crowd.”
Around 11:30 p.m., Mr. Monrose instructed everyone to join hands. They obeyed. The Rev. Terry Lee, another clergy council member, took the horn and silenced the group. “What we need is love,” he shouted. “Everybody say ‘love.’” The crowd responded: “Love.” They prayed. And then the group erupted into shouts: “Justice!” A woman fell into her neighbor’s arms. “Justice! Justice!” By 12:05 a.m., fewer than a dozen supporters of Mr. Gray remained at the corner.
While other precincts have clergy councils, Mr. Williams said this council stood alone in its street-level approach.
Tracey Winn, 41, first met council members when her son, Trevonne Winn, was fatally shot outside his uncle’s Crown Fried Chicken shop in 2011. She lives in Rock Hill, S.C., and flew to New York the day after his death. “On the news I asked to find out: ‘Who is the person in charge of the 67th precinct?’ This was Pastor Monrose,” she said.
The council raised the money to send Mr. Winn’s body to Rock Hill. Mr. Monrose and Ms. Winn are in constant contact. “He’s been a person who, like no one else, has kept me going,” she said. “It’s been two years and he understands: It feels like it happened yesterday.”
The council has faced challenges. The group operates independently from the Police Department, and has no funding. Their efforts are also limited: On March 13, two nights after the march for Mr. Gray, a rally ended in more than 40 arrests, despite the clergy’s presence.
Mr. Monrose said the council’s role was not to assign blame — Who had a gun? Who pointed first?
“That’s going to be hashed out in the court of law,” he said. The council’s job is to keep the peace and provide comfort, he said. “And how we do that is we have to be in the streets.”