‘Brothers of different mothers:’ a police officer and a pastor partner against poverty

Richard Chumney Published in The News & Advance, Jun 27, 2018
LYNCHBURG, VA – JUNE 13: Pastor James Camm, center; James Davis, left with old Dominion Job Corps Center and LPD Sgt. Jeff Rater, right check out their photos on Wednesday, June 13, 2018 at an E.N.O.U.G.H. gathering in Jefferson Park in Lynchburg, Va. (Photo by Jay Westcott/The News and Advance)

At first glance, James Camm and Jeff Rater appear to share little in common.

But Camm, a black pastor raised in White Rock Hill, and Rater, a white police officer from upstate New York, formed a close friendship four years ago that has since changed the direction of Lynchburg’s community outreach efforts.

Today, as the supervisor for the Lynchburg Police Department’s Community Action Team, Rater is the face of the department’s community policing initiatives. And Camm, a gregarious but humble man, leads One Community, One Voice — a partnership between city faith leaders and police.

Since joining efforts, they have clothed the needy in an annual coat drive, helped to provide about 60 pairs of free glasses to impoverished children and in May launched a weekly community gathering of residents and city officials — all in the effort of supporting the city’s underprivileged and bringing Lynchburg’s police officers closer to the people they serve.

Rater and Camm were propelled into the world of community policing years ago.

Around 2005 while on patrol, Rater was called to the scene of a violent altercation between a 15-year-old boy and his mother. When he arrived, he found a chaotic scene.

“I immediately handcuffed the young man, brought him out to my police car and I was pretty stern with him,” Rater said. “I’m like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you assaulting your mother?’”

The boy quickly broke down in tears.

“What’s wrong?” Rater asked him.

He told Rater his mother spent the night drinking and partying, eventually spending the family’s money and leaving the boy and his two young sisters with no way to pay for a meal.

“There’s no money for food, there’s nothing. And now my sisters are hungry,” he told Rater.

The encounter deeply affected Rater.

“I went into the situation thinking one thing and came out of the situation like, ‘Holy cow, I’ve got to help this kid,’” Rater said. “I thought, man, I’ve got to look at things a little differently.”

After Rater became a sergeant with a unit of his own to supervise, he began reaching out to local pastors, hoping to form a bond between his officers and city residents.

It was through this outreach Rater crossed paths with Camm.

Camm took an interest in the police department around 2011 after he was stopped abruptly in College Hill.

Camm was visiting the neighborhood to pray with a sick member of his congregation. When he returned to his car and began to leave, he suddenly was swarmed by team of about five police officers.

“What was the problem?” he asked one of the officers.

To Camm’s surprise, the officer refused to explain the stop and allowed him to leave without writing a citation.

Frustrated with a lack of answers and suspicious police had profiled him as a drug dealer, Camm went to speak with the department brass. Camm warned the department that indiscriminately targeting people will only build distrust between police and residents.

“Anything you’re trying to build with that community will be messed up,” Camm remembers telling a department major.

A couple of years later, a friend of Camm’s recommended he join an informal monthly meeting of city pastors, organized by Rater after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, touched off a national debate on policing.

“We had some disagreements about the situation in a healthy way,” Rater said.

As the two continued to meet, they bonded over their time in the military and eventually were able to come to an understanding. Rater told Camm about his life as a police officer, while Camm shared his time as a pastor in a largely black inner city.

“I listened to him, and I saw that his heart was genuinely trying to change some things,” Camm said. “And it just began to unfold from there.”

It wasn’t long before the two began counting the other as afriend.

“We talk every day on the phone,” Rater said.

Police Chief Raul Diaz described the two as “brothers of different mothers.”

“They are definitely tight,” he said, praising their work.

The partnership manifested itself through One Community, One Voice. The initiative was launched in 2016 to “raise families and individuals out of poverty, improve access to educational and human services and restore a sense of belonging, hope and encouragement.”

Since then, a diverse group of faith leaders, residents and police officers meets every month to discuss quality-of-life issues facing the city and to brainstorm solutions. The group even canvasses neighbors in the wake of fatal shootings, offering support to residents shaken by violence.

The group’s most visible program is E.N.O.U.G.H. — Empowering Neighborhoods to Overcome Undesirable behavior Gives us Hope.

E.N.O.U.G.H. was the brainchild of Robin Robinson, Camm’s longtime administrative assistant and a crucial force behind OCOV.

After learning a man had been shot to death in Diamond Hill on April 28, Robinson sent a text message in a group chat between herself, Rater and Camm.

“Instead of a Wednesday Bible study let’s have a prayer and pray service in the neighborhoods. Neighborhood pastors could take turns. This could be for the summer months or until the violence stops,” she texted.

“Great idea,” Camm wrote back. “Yes,” Rater added.

The trio went to work, and within just a few days, the first E.N.O.U.G.H. event was held just a block from the fatal April 28 shooting in Diamond Hill.

E.N.O.U.G.H. since has held eight gatherings and plans to hold at least eight more before the end of August. The hourlong events offer a time for community interaction with city police, the city sheriff’s office and the fire department. It is not uncommon for firefighters to play basketball with local children or for a sheriff’s deputy to share a hotdog with a mother of three.

Camm’s church, Living Word Ministries, shoulders most of the costs for the E.N.O.U.G.H. events. The church spends about $200 per week on hotdogs, charcoal and paper plates and paid about $8,000 total for music equipment, but according to Camm, the cost is irrelevant. He described it as an investment in “the future of others.”

“It’s an investment in the hope that by us going, we’ll change a life,” Camm said. “We’re seed planters. And sometimes we may not see the seed grow, but we planted it anyway.”

As OCOV gains momentum, Camm and Rater want to expand. Camm said he eventually hopes to partner with the Department of Corrections to help inmates as they prepare for reentry, and Rater wants to loop in the city school system for a mentor program.

“Lynchburg is a very strong and intelligent city, and there are some great minds. If we just work together, we can make so many great changes,” Camm said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.