'Spiritual first responders' turn to boxing and the Bible as epidemics collide

Street chaplains at Rock Ministries in Philly use boxing to reach at-risk kids.

They’ve ditched their masks but not the Naloxone kits or the power of prayer.

As COVID-19 recedes in much of the country, volunteer street chaplains in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia are bearing witness to an unprecedented trio of deadly epidemics still raging in one of America’s poorest communities.

"I’ve never seen anything like this," said Kevin Bernard, a retired police officer and director of the chaplain program at Rock Ministries, a local non-denominational Christian organization. "I grew up here. I walked these streets as a kid."

The city has one of the highest overdose death rates of any major American metro area. Homicides are up 40% so far this year, according to city crime data. Kensington is one of Philadelphia's deadliest neighborhoods.

"This has now been allowed to [go] unchecked," Bernard said of the pandemic pulling resources from the fight against opioid addiction and gun control. "It’s only through the grace of God can things change. And that’s what the chaplains are doing here. We’re spiritual first responders."

ABC News Live embedded with the Rock chaplains in May as they performed outreach along Kensington Avenue and in nearby McPherson Square, the neighborhood’s largest public green space.

Drug deals were abundant in broad daylight. For blocks, drug users could be seen shooting up with syringes on sidewalks, while many already high hunched over along storefronts. In the park, dozens of bodies lay lifeless in the grass; many homeless young people were camped out among mounds of trash and amid a putrid smell.

"We are literally a mile and a half with how the crow flies from the Declaration of Independence, where it was signed," said Mark "Buddy" Osborn, pastor and founder of Rock Ministries. "Is this America? We’re here 18 years and I’ve never seen this neighborhood as dark as it is now."

A 62-year-old son of Kensington, Osborn knows its pain. In his late 20s, he was convicted on federal racketeering charges and served five years behind bars. After his release, he says he found God and a calling to help young people avoid the mistakes he made. He opened Rock Ministries on Kensington Avenue in 2003.

"The next generation of kids should not have to experience what they experience on an every-day basis in Kensington," he said. "The answer is you doing your job, me doing my job, the mayor doing his job, the police doing their job, and every one of us coming together to do our jobs. That’s the solution, because when it’s one person trying to make a change, it don’t work," Osborn said.

Volunteers have kept The Rock’s doors open throughout the pandemic, risking the virus, they said, in order to keep the kids from even deadlier risks on the streets. The center’s boxing gym and Bible studies have become safe havens for thousands of at-risk youth.

"It's like my second home," said 14-year-old Manny, an aspiring pro boxer and one of the Rock’s young members.

The pandemic, recession and their disproportionate impact on low-income communities and people of color have exacerbated a vicious cycle of addiction and crime in the neighborhood, experts say.

Nationwide, more Americans died of drug overdoses during COVID-19 than any other year since the opioid epidemic began, according to preliminary data from the CDC.

"You can’t arrest your way out of this. This really is -- it’s not a crime issue, it’s a social issue," Philadelphia 24th Police District Capt. Pedro Rosario said. "The Rock is an essential part of this community. And the positive influence they have around the area -- listen, without their support, it would just be 10 times worse for us."

Pastor Osborn says he hopes his personal story and that of hundreds of other youth who have participated in the Rock’s boxing program can be a source of hope during an otherwise dire time in the community.

"Everyone in the hood can fight until they realize that they can’t, and they need to learn the proper way to box, you know? So, boxing is a great means to teach kids discipline, to keep them focused on the task at hand," he said.

The Rock’s success stories are abundant: 9-year-old Ariel, an aspiring female boxing star; 15-year-old Johnny Rivera, a national champion; and 22-year-old Tyhler Williams, who started training and praying at the Rock when he was 11 and now has a career as an engineer and in professional boxing.

"You just become numb to the fact that there are addicts on a corner who’s shooting themselves with needles and stuff, like as a kid, 11, 12 years old, walking right past them just to get here to the gym," Williams said. "You know, we have to stay calm and believe in ourselves, you know? "

Williams, who is 4-0 in matches as a pro, has become a role model of legions of younger athletes at The Rock.

"There’s a lot of negative things, you know, right outside those doors. But you have to have a strong will, you know. Be deep in your words, and know, like I had to, move differently from everyone else in order to make it somewhere else."