A funeral procession leaves True Bethel Baptist Church passing the Subway restaurant at the same facility, in Buffalo, N.Y., Nov. 4, 2004. The restaurant is part of the church's job training program that also includes a small bookstore, silkscreen company and cleaning company.
AP Photo/David Duprey
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) At True Bethel Baptist Church, the Rev. Darius Pridgen is happy to serve the Word. He's also pretty quick to serve a sub.
The pastor of the respected church in an impoverished, inner-city neighborhood has installed a Subway sandwich shop inside the building, nudging out part of the choir stand.
The choir's adjusted. The restaurant's booming. Pridgen is amazed and amused.
But mostly the energetic pastor is happy to accomplish his goal of giving young people in his battered community someplace to work or better, someplace to learn to work.
''I expect none of them to be here more than a year, that's my goal,'' said Pridgen, sitting in his church office after presiding over the funeral of a young murder victim.
There are too many such funerals here on Buffalo's east side, where businesses are more likely to close than open. Pridgen estimates he buries two young, black victims of street violence every month. It is violence, he thinks, born of a hopelessness that enfolds the struggling Rust Belt city.
''Visually, audibly, I think this adds to hope,'' Pridgen said, the aroma of baking bread filling the air as employees worked on an assembly line of meat, cheese, pickles, onions and peppers.
Since opening in September, the fast-food franchise has placed consistently among the top performers in the 80-store region, at one point sending an embarrassed Pridgen begging for bread at other Subways to get through a crazy rush.
''It's turned into a bigger operation than we ever imagined,'' he said. ''In weeks.''
But making money isn't the point, the minister added: ''Money just follows mission.''
The church started a work-skills program for young people two years ago but it fizzled without jobs for its graduates. That's when the church, which is housed inside a former supermarket and attracts about 2,000 people each week, opened its own businesses: a small bookstore, silkscreen company and cleaning company that contracts with an adjacent charter school.
For Subway officials, the church location its first posed no problems.
''If there's room and it fits within the zoning board requirements, we're happy,'' said Les Winogard, a spokesman for the Milford, Conn.-based chain. Of Subway's 22,000 locations, 3,500 shops are in ''nontraditional'' places, like convenience stores, schools, sports arenas, hospitals and military bases.
The city provided about $10,000 in small business grants, Common Council member Antoine Thompson said. While the church itself is tax-exempt, the portion dedicated to the restaurant is not, though it qualifies for exemptions under the state's Empire Zone economic development program, he said.
''It's not only providing a service but providing people access to jobs which are so desperately needed in that area of the city,'' Thompson said. ''Hopefully more people, more churches, will look at creating more franchises in the inner-city of Buffalo.''
The once-thriving steel city on the eastern shore Lake Erie has suffered in the past half century, watching factories close, jobs evaporate and its population shrink from more than half a million in the 1950s to under 300,000.
Pridgen, a former Buffalo school board member, does not shy away from firsts.
In 2002, he had blood drawn for an HIV test in front of his congregation during a Sunday service to persuade others to get tested.
At another service, he singled out the out-of-work, job-hunting men and sent the ones who didn't have a suit to a tailor, at the church's expense.
He's proposed closed-door meetings with gang members to tackle city violence.
Pridgen recognizes the drug dealers who come into Subway by the way their money is folded. He believes having them see people who look like them working a legitimate job, even owning a restaurant, can instill hope. Pridgen recruited a 20-year-old man, Craig Pierce, to manage the shop and he keeps his own Subway uniform in his office closet with his pastoral robes, regularly donning it to mop floors and handle stock.
He sees the need for job training on the employment applications that cross his desk, some with missing or incorrect information. One woman came to a job interview in slippers. Those applicants may not be hired but they are not turned away, either. They are offered the chance at training to learn how to fill out applications and have a successful interview.
''What usually happens is the best get everything the smartest, the brightest,'' Pridgen said. ''The sharpest knife in the drawer gets to cut all the meat and the dull knife never gets an opportunity so it gets laid to the side.''
''What we have the opportunity here to do is to help those who might not have been given the educational tools or the job-training tools.''
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