Pastoring for peace
Cyril Josh Barker | 4/12/2011, 4:36 p.m.
Pastor Vernon Williams says that he's willing to put his own life in danger in order to save the city's youth. The 50-year-old Harlem pastor is known for his rousing sermons, but is even better known for walking the streets at night to stop crime and help troubled kids.
Williams is the pastor of Perfect Peace Ministry, located on 124th Street, and is also leader of the Harlem Clergy and Community Leaders Coalition. Looking at Williams' current status, one would never know that he once led a life that could have landed him in the grave. Born in Philadelphia, Williams moved to New York when he was an infant, living in Harlem, the Bronx and spending some time in Brooklyn. His father was a preacher, and his family wanted him to follow the same path.
"When I was a child, my grandmother said she would make me a preacher," he said. However, Williams' life took a different turn when he became involved in drugs, gangs and violence on the streets. His bad ways caught up with him, leading him to spend a total of nearly 10 years in prison.
"I wasn't a good guy," he said. "If you saw me walking down the street, you would have crossed the street and gone the other way."
After spending time in prison, Williams said that he had a revelation that questioned whether he wanted to die or change his ways so he could live. Needless to say, he chose life and entered the clergy.
When he was 34, he decided to follow the path of his father and become a minister. He received his license in 1999 and became ordained in 2000.
While working in the ministry, two years ago, he was at a meeting at HCCI where people were complaining about crime in neighborhood streets. Williams decided to take his message of peace outside of his church walls. Today, Williams can be seen walking the streets between 4 and 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., engaging young people and deterring violence.
Williams said that on several occasions, he has been in the crossfire of fights and brawls and even shootings.
"One wise man once said, 'If you aren't willing to stand up for something, you will fall for anything.' I am willing to put my life at risk for our young people because they are our future. If young people keep dying at younger ages, the end result is that we aren't going to have a fruitful future."
Williams' work of trying to clean up the streets is evident by the weapons he has taken out of the hands of young people, like knives, razor blades and pipes. He blames the lack of programs in the city that could keep young people busy.
"There are not enough places to accommodate and engage the youth," he said. "The places that are in existence are not addressing the needs of the young people." Williams is the father of three sons, ages 28, 20 and 13. The recent violence in Harlem has prompted him to join the first Harlem Unites Awareness Day on May 9, where he will be joined by several organizations. The event is in response to the recent shooting death of 13-year-old Christopher Owens.