On a radio show recently, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said, "We need more than prayer to bring closure to these senseless acts of violence in our city. We can't pray our way out of this."

I disagree. I have seen the power of prayer and the commitment to the community that goes with it. I just haven't seen it lately.

I am a sixth-generation Washingtonian. I grew up in Mount Airy Baptist Church at North Capitol and L streets NW, one of the city's oldest black churches. My great-grandfather laid the first brick to build the church in the late 1800s.

While I was a child living up on Jay Street in Northeast, I attended church at least six days a week; Sunday was an all-day affair. My great-uncle Earl Tyler was the pastor. His sister and my grandmother, Amy Tyler Bell, were the glue that held Mount Airy together. Grandma Bell played the organ, sang like an angel, kept the church books and coordinated after-church dinner on Sunday. Her chicken and biscuits put the Colonel and Popeye's to shame.

In those days Mount Airy Baptist Church put the community and its people first. Uncle Earl and Grandma Bell visited the downtrodden and sick. These pilgrimages were considered a rite of passage.

To understand the problems in our community today we need look no further than the change in our churches (Mount Airy included) and in our black leadership.

Some of our church leaders seem to have become obsessed with trying to build the biggest cathedral in town instead of trying to build trust among their members. Some have moved to the suburbs and abandoned the core of their congregation -- the senior citizens. Others ride around in Cadillacs and Mercedes. One local minister bought his own jet.

Some of the clergy recruit "lady friends" from their congregation. The head of the National Baptist Convention bought his mistress a condominium in Florida until his wife allegedly found out and tried to burn it down.

Ministers also are allowing politicians to use places of worship as platforms for their careers. The only time most politicians come to church is when they are running for office.

The loss of confidence and faith in our churches can be attributed directly to our places of worship. Our ministers want to live high on the hog. They double dip and use politics as a sidebar, but they want their congregations to pray and keep the faith. It doesn't work that way.

Political leadership in the metropolitan area is now the worst I have ever seen.

For example, to save money, the District's mayor closed a hospital that could mean life or death to black residents in that area. He also says he can't find the money for schools and teachers, and 285 teachers are slated to lose their jobs because of a budget shortage.

Yet while children die in the streets and schools go without teachers, the District's mayor is ready to spend $400 million in public money to lure Major League Baseball back to the city.

The situation is no better in Prince George's County. Its executive allegedly holds a hospital hostage for $5 million until it agrees to hire one of his political cronies.

This lack of moral rigor plays out in our schools too.

In the District, Ballou High School allowed a student with grades of F to play on the football team. Thomas Boykin, an 18-year-old, was gunned down at school by James Richardson, a 17-year-old.

In Prince George's County, Suitland High School is known as "the Blackboard Jungle" of the school system. The police chief says, "My hands are tied," and moves on. A group of Prince George's residents met with the state attorney's staff to offer solutions. The staff never followed up.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and NFL legend Jim Brown co-chaired the Kids in Trouble Inc.'s Youth Gang Violence Conference at Bible Way Baptist Church in 1997. Gang members from Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and the District attended. Davis promised to bring the gang prevention concepts of Amer-I-Can to Virginia and the District, but he didn't follow up. His jurisdiction of Fairfax now has one of the worst street gang problems in the area. Gang members recently used a machete in an attempt to cut off the hands of a rival [front page, May 12], and a 17-year-old was killed in a suspected gang attack in Herndon last Sunday [Metro, May 18].

These are just a few examples of lead- ership gone wrong, and the losers are our children.

In 1968, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, one in three black children lived in poverty. The black middle class has tripled since then, yet one in three black children still lives in poverty. Look no farther than Prince George's County, one of the most affluent counties in the country, or the District for those who think that they have arrived. They may have arrived, but they have arrived by themselves.

The two-decade-old epidemic of violence in our streets and schools has robbed us of some of our best and brightest. The latest, 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie, was shot to death in her aunt's living room. But the politicians and clergy keep telling us to keep the faith.

I refer them to James 2:20. It reads, "Faith without works is dead."

-- Harold Bell

is the founder of Kids In Trouble Inc.,

a nonprofit group that

works with at-risk children.

hkbell@starpower.net