When a young person dies due to street violence, it’s often ‘Pastor P’ who presides over their funerals

In his 18 years in Minnesota, the Rev. Runney Patterson Sr. has presided over funeral services for some 70 young Black men, most of them victims of street violence. Too often it’s a gunshot, a fatal flicker of light in the dark, but sometimes a stabbing, like the one that took a 15-year-old boy’s life this month at St. Paul’s Harding High Schoolwhere his own child attends.

In mere moments, a son or grandson or brother is taken. Patterson, under the tenets of his faith, is there to eulogize their souls.

The Baptist pastor — who grew up poor in Mississippi, the product of an extramarital affair, rejected by his own father and raised by his grandmother alongside her nine other children — makes no excuses for youth violence. At the same time, he doesn’t reject those most at risk of being caught in his grip, and he sees too many people who do.

When his own children attended Hazel Park Elementary School in St. Paul, he and his wife were frequent volunteers. These days, through an outreach contract coordinated by Miki Frost’s anti-violence Truce Center, the man dubbed by kids “Pastor P” — after 1990s rapper Master P — spends three mornings per week at Harding High School on St. Paul’s East Side, just two miles east of his parsonage at New Hope Baptist Church near Payne Avenue. With every visit, he hopes to avert another muzzle flash, and serve as a different kind of light in the dark.

“Most of the young people know me, sadly, because they’ve attended a funeral I’ve officiated,” said Patterson, the official chaplain of Brooks Funeral Home on Concordia Avenue, and a not-infrequent presence at both the Bradshaw and Anderson funeral homes, or any other place that needs him. His services are sought out, tragically enough, throughout the Twin Cities.

“Sometimes if something happened in Minneapolis, they don’t want the service in Minneapolis,” said Patterson, sitting in his home office on Wednesday, shortly before a trip to visit staff at Harding, which was closed to students for the day. “If something happened on the East Side, they don’t want it on the East Side.”

Patterson, president of the Minnesota State Baptist Convention, a coalition of some 25 churches, and a board member with the Minnesota Council of Churches, keeps a thick stack of memorial service programs by his desk, a constant reminder of the lives he’s ushered on. The stack keeps growing.

‘When I was hungry, did you feed me?’

“I don’t have what I call a routine,” said Patterson, describing the memorial services, which sometimes land back to back. “When tragedy hits, the first thing we do is let people know that they’re loved by the community. What are the immediate needs, whether it be spiritual or financial or emotional? Sometimes people get involved for their 15 minutes of hunger. From my perspective in the ministry, it’s ‘When I was hungry, did you feed me? When I was thirsty, did you give me water?’ “

His own six children range in age from 8 to 38, and while some parents worry for the future their children will inherit, he’s as concerned about their present.

Violence sometimes is seasonal — it tends to peak in spring and summer, when and where young people congregate. But a near-fatal shooting that severely injured a teen outside St. Paul’s Oxford/Jimmy Lee Recreation Center last month and the fatal stabbing of 15-year-old Devin Scott during his first day of classes at Harding on Feb. 10 have driven home the fact that homicides aren’t contained to a certain time of year or time of day.

A 16-year-old boy has been charged with second-degree murder in Scott’s death, and he’s likely to be tried as an adult.

“I pray and hope that Devin’s death will not be in vain,” Patterson said. “I just want to get up in the morning knowing nobody got shot, nobody got murdered, nobody got harmed.”

St. Paul reached the grim milestone of 40 homicides last year. Four of the cases were classified as self-defense, or non-criminal acts. There were 38 criminal homicides the year before, well above the average of 16 homicides per year in the 20 years ending in 2018.

Some have blamed a lack of access to counselors and other support mechanisms when the world went remote in the early days of the pandemic. Or a likely uptick in domestic violence when schools and jobs closed. Or street beefs that spilled over onto social media. Or the proliferation of illegal handguns. Or a basic erosion of social intelligence, heightened by the pandemic but set in motion a decade ago by over-permissive parenting. The list goes on.

Too many young Black people are being killed.

“Some years, you’ve got more than others,” Patterson said. “I always say, if you’ve got one, you’ve got one too many.”

Why do young people carry weapons at all?

“Many of them say if they have a weapon, it’s not that they want to harm anyone,” Patterson said. “I don’t think a child gets up in the morning and says, ‘I want to kill somebody. I want to harm somebody.’ They carry a weapon because they feel like they have to defend themselves. Sometimes they feel like it’s either going to be them or me. I constantly use the phrase ‘Use your head, not your hands.’ “

“It’s the law of self-preservation,” he acknowledged. “You want to live. You want to survive.”

Despite his sometimes grim role, Patterson sees plenty of success stories. Most kids, he said, are good kids who don’t make headlines. His own daughter, a recent Harding graduate, played basketball in high school. His wife, Hope Patterson, is the chief operating officer of Summit Academy OIC, which trains plenty of young men and women of color for careers in construction, information technology and medical administration.

‘The teachers’, the principals’ hands have been tied’

Not all his sermons and stances have won over all of his flock.

Some have pointed to the over-policing and virtual criminalization of Black and brown people as a primary concern. Patterson understands those arguments — he’s been stopped by police while driving home in Woodbury so many times he finally called the police chief for an explanation. But he’s also seen another troubling trend — a growing reluctance to demand repercussions even for increasingly bad behavior among young people.

“Many times I think the teachers’, the principals’ hands have been tied when it comes to discipline,” he said. “It has to start in the home with the parents, the grandparents, the cousins, uncles, aunts, everybody. When I was growing up in Mississippi, it didn’t matter where I was on the street, they knew my grandmother. And the last thing I wanted was to have someone call my grandmother.”

After the brutal murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, both the Minneapolis and St. Paul public school boards canceled contracts for school-based officers known as school resource officers.

The University of Minnesota also cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, and Metro Transit and other police departments reduced non-essential traffic stops or other interactions that would put officers front and center with communities of color.

Fast-forward three years, and even some former critics who had raised concerns about over-policing say they’d welcome back some degree of uniformed presence, given both troubling crime trends and general behavior issues in schools, skyways and light-rail trains.

With the blessing of the St. Paul school superintendent and the mayor’s office, St. Paul police rolled squad cars outside five schools this week. The school board has yet to weigh in as a whole on what level of policing it is comfortable with in the schools moving forward.

‘Live in Peace’

Patterson is of the opinion that at least in St. Paul, the school resource officers provided a valuable service. School shootings across the country — many of them perpetrated by adults — have added to his conclusion. He wants the St. Paul police back.

“I’m comfortable, as a parent, because of the world we now live in, that police officers through their presence can provide some sense of deterrent,” he said. “When I was coming up, we thought the safest places were the church house and the school house. And we’ve now seen murders in both.”

He added: “From what I’ve heard from Harding staff, they were very sad when (the officers) were removed. They had built a relationship. It wasn’t contentious. When they were removed, you had teachers who had to take time away from instruction time to deal with behavior. There were times even when members of the student body would come to those officers and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get over here.’ “

Still, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use the police, and he says he’s been on the receiving end of some questionable — if not downright illegal — police treatment too many times. If Floyd’s death, like that of Philando Castile and so many other Black men before them, have helped crystallize a national conversation on race, crime and policing, Patterson would like to be part of it, if only from his corner of St. Paul. And he would like to introduce other names to that conversation, too — names like that of the young Devin Scott.

“I see these T-shirts that say ‘Rest in Peace,'” said Patterson, shortly before leaving his home office for Harding High School on Wednesday. “Where are the T-shirts that say ‘Live in Peace’?”

Related Articles

Leave a Comment