Shane Barker, a 16-year-old University Heights resident, does not usually use Devoe Park, the triangular and hilly green space that sits on the corner of Fordham Road and University Avenue and is just blocks from his home.
“Me and my brother don’t come down here because there’s troublemakers,” he says.
But today is different. It’s a gorgeous, sunny Saturday morning and Shane, sporting cornrows and the wispy beginnings of facial hair, is one of 70 kids participating in a newly-formed basketball program created by a Bronx-based group called the New York City Christian Athletic League.
Aided by word of mouth and an infusion of funding from local Councilman Fernando Cabrera, the hoops program is flourishing in a park that has become synonomous with trouble.
The league’s founder, Edwin Santiago, and his “right-hand man,” Frank Abarca, both attend Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical Christian church that meets at PS 15/291 on Andrews Avenue in University Heights.
In 2005, Santiago, who lives in Soundview and works part-time at Horace Mann, started a men’s softball league that has grown to the point where it now includes 10 other city churches. He wanted to expand the league to include youth leagues, but only recently decided to take “a leap of faith” and go for it. He started with football at Harris Field last fall, eventually growing the program to include close to 50 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 18.
When looking for a place to run the basketball program, Santiago said he zeroed in on Devoe Park for a few reasons. For one, he knew the area and it was close to the church’s headquarters. Plus, “there was a need,” he said. “We heard of all the bad things that happened there in the evenings.”
Local residents constantly complain about the ruckus in Devoe Park. There have been reports of gambling and prostitution problems there. On April 7, exactly one month before Santiago’s league started, two young men were shot and killed in Devoe Park. One of them was found bleeding to death on the basketball court. (Police arrested Yenfri Ramirez and charged him with the murders. He pleaded not guilty.)
“It’s no secret what goes on here,” said Dwayne Hobbs, another Bronx Household member who coaches in the league. “It’s drugs to crime to gangs to everything you can think of.”
The basketball program started on May 7 with about 30 kids. Many of them, like Shane, were alumni from the football program. But it’s grown exponentially since then and the league now fields eight teams that compete against each other on Saturday mornings. Some heard about the league from players already participating. Others saw what was going on in their neighborhood and joined up. (The league asks for a $20 fee, Santiago says, but they also raise funds to help those players who can’t afford it.)
“It’s very organized and professional,” Shane says. After some exercises and stretching, players meet with their coaches for “devotional” time, where players talk about life and religious lessons. “We teach them how to be a good Christian, be a godly man,” Abarca says.
Although their church is evangelical and Christian values are preached before and during games, Santiago says the league is accepting of all faiths. “We have players from all religions here,” he said. Abarca says devotional time is dedicated to learning “universal values” like respect and accountability.
The lessons might not take right away, says coach Bryce Seymore, “but planting the seeds goes a long way.”
On this particular Saturday, as teams with names like Creator of the Rock and Lions of Judah are about to go at each other on a court where somebody was murdered two months earlier, one group of young men put their hands together and yelled: “Revelation!”
[Editor’s note: This story has been corrected from an earlier version, which included the wrong name of one of the league organizers. The correct version of the man’s name is Frank Abarca.]