By Stan Friedman
BRONX, NY (August 13, 2010) – A newspaper article from 1976 reported the arrest of a 28-year-old man who terrorized and robbed elderly adults after gaining access to their apartments. His wife often helped with the robberies, which the couple committed to support their heroin addictions.
At least eight times, the robbers gained access to the victims’ homes by knocking on the front door and asking residents to give a drink of water to their children, ages five and two. The kids watched as their father flashed a knife and sometimes tied up the victims while their mother ransacked the apartments.
The boy, Michael Carrion, would become a drug addict and criminal by the time he turned 15. Today, he is the pastor of Promised Land Covenant Church and has devoted his life to making sure young people get a chance at life.
The church is located in the poorest of neighborhoods. Gentrification has begun in a small section of the neighborhood, but most of the area is crippled with low high school graduation rates as well as high unemployment and crime.
The multi-cultural congregation offers a broad variety of ministries ranging from food drives to music programs and a charter school. Promised Land also conducts satellite services at two unusual sites – a drug rehabilitation center and a prison for youth.
Carrion’s father spent 26 years in prison, and his mother served five years behind bars. Grandparents raised Carrion and his eight siblings. Despite his grandparents’ loving attention, he became heavily involved with drugs and crime.
“I didn’t have childhood,” says the 39-year-old. Neither did his seven younger sisters and brother. “Some of us are doing well, and some of are still struggling with being in the life.”
The turning point for Michael came after a brush with the law that also was not typical in the neighborhood. A police officer that befriended Carrion changed the young man’s life forever. “He told me, ‘You’re going into Teen Challenge or I’m going to bust you.’ ”
Teen Challenge is an international ministry started by Dave Wilkerson that ministers to drug-addicted youth. Carrion recalls, “At Teen Challenge, I learned to focus.” He also gave his life to Christ and earned his GED.
Carrion had little problem earning the GED. He, as well as six siblings measured “off-the-chart” gifted, he says. His grandparents also had made sure he got the best education possible while growing up and before he almost threw it all away.
Carrion’s giftedness and full-throttled drive to help others have been manifested since the great reversal in his life. He also credits his wife, Elizabeth, who married him while both were teenagers (accompanying photo).
Education has been a major concern of Carrion. He has helped develop a series of curriculum and workshops to help people facing high barriers to employment.
His skills as a fundraiser and motivational leader have helped Carrion grow major secular organizations and ministries working with the poor. As director of workforce development for Goodwill Industries of Greater New York & Northern New Jersey, he oversaw more than $15 million in welfare-to-work programs. He coached and trained staff in developing initiatives that include after-school tutoring programs in Mott Haven and an alternative-to-incarceration program for young felony offenders that was funded by the New York City Mayor’s Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator.
His leadership skills helped the Urban Youth Alliance, a grassroots parachurch organization ministering primarily to marginalized young people, grow from a staff of 10 with a budget of less than $400,000 to more than 30 employees and a budget of $2.3 million. The ministry was awarded a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to operate the national Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative in the Bronx.
During much of the time, he has served as a bi-vocational pastor at several Pentecostal churches. Carrion says he understands that systemic issues are a factor in poverty and its collateral damage.
His sister, Rachel, who attends the church, recently testified before Congress about the need for reform in the juvenile justice system. Incarcerated as a teenager, she was victimized sexually by a staff member at the penal facility.
Carrion, like his sister, believes the ultimate answer lies elsewhere, but there is another area also in need of reform. “People want to just blame the system, but the church has failed these people,” he says.
Carrion is grateful for the Covenant’s commitment to serving the poor as well as the welcome he has received. Now in the Covenant Orientation program for pastors entering the denomination, Carrion says he has found a spiritual home. “I’m just taken aback by the love,” he says. “It’s tremendous.”