The Bullet-Dodging Priest of the North Bronx

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Originally appeared on BronxInk.org on Aug. 11, 2011.

The Rev. John Jenik stepped out of the front door of his office on East 196th Street around mid-afternoon. Kids in red and gray school uniforms played in the street. Young mothers pushed strollers along the sidewalk. Vendors were selling shaved ices to passersby.

As he turned the corner onto Briggs Avenue, Jenik walked past a row of old Victorian-style houses.

“This is where the drug dealers have been selling heroin lately, and they probably are doing it right now,” the silver-haired Jenik said as he peered out from underneath a baseball cap at the street adjacent to P.S. 46. “Right here, all within feet of these kids.”

Jenik, 67, is the pastor at Our Lady of Refuge Church and School in the north Bronx. Over the past three decades, he’s watched his parish slip into the throes of drug and substance abuse at an alarming rate.

“When I first got here in 1978, drugs weren’t much of a problem, but ever since the early ’80s when the crack epidemic hit, it’s been awful,” said Jenik. “It’s ruining our community, one life at a time.”

What bothers Jenik most about the open-air drug dealing near Our Lady of Refuge Church is how close the criminal activity is to the nearly 1,500 school children who attend both the parochial school onsite and P.S. 46 across East 196th Street.

Jenik said drug trafficking in the neighborhood has become so prevalent that dealers have taken to peddling their goods in the lobbies of residential buildings, schoolyards and – on one occasion four years ago – even in the sanctuary of his church.

“I called it the abomination of abominations,” Jenik said. “Breaking into a church during Mass to sell drugs. It was despicable,” Jenik said.

Jenik said it’s taken more than prayer to combat the drug problem. He has organized marches, vigils and public outreach campaigns to protest illegal drug use. He has even worked with the 52nd Precinct to try and bring the local drug dealers to justice by helping conduct regular patrols of the neighborhood.

But Jenik admitted that his efforts to curb illegal drug use have fallen short so far.

“People just haven’t really responded to our message,” Jenik said. “Drugs are still all over the place in this neighborhood. You can see it in people’s eyes, in their noses.”

Jenik said he is skeptical of NYPD statistics that claim overall crime rates have dropped in the neighborhood  by 30 percent in the last decade.

“Those numbers are for the whole precinct, and don’t necessarily reflect what’s happening in our community specifically,” Jenik said. “Plus the police don’t even try to prosecute drug dealers anymore because they lack the resources.”

Despite the fact that substance abuse continues to ravage the neighborhood, community leaders say Jenik's crusades have prevented the problem from becoming even worse than it might have otherwise.

At the nearby Fordham-Bedford Housing Association, executive director John Reilly said that without leaders like Jenik, the neighborhoods of Norwood and Fordham may have ended up experiencing poverty problems more like those in the south Bronx.

“You would have likely seen a lot more people moving out of this neighborhood to other places if not for the work of Father Jenik,” Reilly said.

Around the area of 196th Street and Bainbridge Avenue, Jenik’s crusade against illegal drug use has propelled him to an almost legendary status – often for better, sometimes for worse.

Gunshots were fired into the window of Jenik’s apartment one evening two years ago after he led an anti-drug march across the community. The gunman was never caught.

“The shooting was a real wake-up call for me that I needed to be more careful. I now make sure to keep my blinds down at night,” Jenik said.

Jenik said he also owns two bulletproof vests that he wears whenever he feels unsafe.

But for the most part, the church’s more than 1,500 members have offered Jenik a lifeline of support, and a gang of his own for protection.

Back on Briggs Avenue, an elderly Hispanic woman greeted Jenik with a smile and a friendly gesture. On 197th Street, a teenage boy pulled Jenik aside on the street to say, “Hi Father, how are you?”

Lillian Roig, the church’s secretary, said Jenik’s commitment to improving the community has inspired her and others in the congregation to pitch in and help fight local drug addiction as well.

“Father Jenik has always looked out for me and for all of the people in the community, especially the poor,” Roig said. “He doesn’t advertise what he does, but he’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met.”

On a recent Sunday evening, a Spanish-language chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous gathered for its weekly support meeting in the church social hall, which Jenik lets the group use whenever it wants. Jenik said furnishing the group with a place to meet is one of the many ways he and his congregation are trying to clean up his community, even if they can’t completely stamp out the illegal drug trade altogether.

“This isn’t to convert or proselytize people in my eyes,” Jenik said. “It’s  just self-interest. Nobody wants to live and attend church in a community filled with addicts, much less send their kids to school there.”

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