Salem is a magnet for people in need. For 120 years the Oregon Constitution required that the state institutions of care or incarceration be located near Salem. The Prisons. The Insane Asylum. The Home for the Feeble-Minded. The Deaf School and the Blind School. Chemawa Indian School. The Tuberculosis Hospital. The Girls (Hillcrest) and Boys (McLaren) Reform Schools. And many more. Some people-in-need came here on their own seeking help; others were sent by a judge’s order. Before the reforms of the 1970s our community was able to keep this ‘second Salem’ hidden and discreet. Since then, we’ve had to face the fact that Salem-Keizer (and by extension Marion County) is a strong magnet for people in need.
In 1993, the people of Salem awoke with a shock to the newspaper headlines: “Salem Plagued by Youth Gangs.” Legislator Peter Courtney immediately convened a blue-ribbon Gang Intervention Task Force to quell the crisis.
After a couple meetings, Courtney looked around the table and asked: “Where’s the Clergy?”
Someone said: “Why would we want them? Gangs are a social problem, not a spiritual problem.” Courtney sharply disagreed, and dispatched emissaries with an invitation. But the emissaries were uncertain whom Courtney meant when he said “clergy.”
Mainline and Catholic? Evangelical? Christian only? Did Salem even have non-Christian congregations? Was there a ministerial association? Reaching the Faith Community was foreign to the civic leaders of Salem-Keizer.
Finally, the invitations reached some pastors and ministry leaders. Sadly, some of them asked that same flawed question: “Why would you want us? Gangs are a social problem, not a spiritual problem.” Even more sadly, some clergy accepted the invitation until they learned the names of other clergy who had been invited—then backed out. Denominational rifts were deep. At last, several ministry leaders did accept Rep. Courtney’s invitation and began intersecting with Salem’s government and civic leaders to tackle the gang crisis.
At the same time, they lamented two sad realities: 1) when a prominent elected official wanted help from the churches, he didn’t know how to reach them; and 2) when the churches were courted by civic leaders, they weren’t poised (or even willing!) to help. A solution, a methodology, was sorely needed.
A group formed to study possible models, and their exploration led to the founding of Salem Leadership Foundation in February 1996.
Sam Skillern was hired as Executive Director in October 1996.