An unusual partnership of lay ministry, law enforcement and local government combines strengths to create a safer place for residents in a west Lakeland neighborhood.
Chestnut Woods Drive six years ago was a hotbed of heavy drug dealing, shootings and other violent crime. It was not a neighborhood for the faint hearted — or a place for children to play.
These days, there’s less drug dealing. Children can play outside on a street lined with apartments and duplexes. Residents show their pride in making front porches inviting and clearing roadside trash.
Steady improvements over the years can be traced to a three-pronged approach of police patrols, city involvement and patrols by women who pray, according to Lakeland Police.
Debbie Crumbley, founder of a Lakeland prayer ministry, Boots on the Ground, says she and her prayer warriors are part of the turnaround. Lakeland police agree. The group remains committed to the belief that the crime and suffering is part of an ongoing spiritual battle, she says.
Crumbley, 55, founded Boots on the Ground in 2014 while working as a dispatcher for the Lakeland Police Department. That year LPD was called to Chestnut Woods 19 times for gun-related incidents.
“I was upset, mad about the drive-by shootings and killings that year,” she says. “It broke my heart. I didn’t want it [Chestnut Woods] to become another little Chicago or New York City.”
At the time the city wrote it [the neighborhood] off, Crumbley says, because of the drugs and shootings. However, Lakeland city commissioners formed a gang task force in 2014 headed by Commissioner Phillip Walker. Crumbley says she was inspired to partner with the task force after a lot of prayer.
“The Lord gave me a strategy for spiritual warfare,” she says.
Nine people signed on at the start, Crumbley says, who, before hitting the streets, received training during a three-month long spiritual warfare class at their church, Bethel Gospel Tabernacle near Lake Beulah. In keeping with the warrior imagery, the women wore camouflage and boots. The dress is the same but as of today there are four women.
Assistant Police Chief Hans Lehman says he remembers the rise of criminal activity on the street in 2013. Over the years while police, the task force and Boots on the Ground worked together, he has seen ups and downs in crime. Overall, Lehman says, there has been steady improvement in residents’ lives after Boots on the Ground began regular visits.
“They’re a known fixture — some people look forward to them being there,” he says.
“They work with us,” Lehman says. “As part of a neighborhood liaison, officers have gone out with the group. We have marched and walked with them. They’re trying to help us improve the quality of life for our citizens in the city as a good community partner.”
From day one, LPD has been there, Crumbley confirms.
“Police presence needed to be there especially in the beginning. Sometimes six cars would be out there depending on what was going on in the city,” Crumbley says. “But, on average, we would have two officers out there.”
Fear is one of the emotions the ministry addresses through prayer and the women have also confronted it in themselves. In a story from the early stages of her ministry, Crumbley says the group showed up to pray and started walking to the end of the cul de sac where they expected to see a Lakeland police car. It was almost dark as the women approached the young officer in his patrol car.
“He rolls down his window and we introduced ourselves. Then that cop takes off,” Crumbley says. ‘We knew we were alone then and noticed looks from some of the residents. But we felt the presence of the Lord that day. They knew ‘we better do nothin’,” she says.
Commissioner Walker says he has seen tremendous change in Chestnut Woods.
“Kudos to her team for turning out, going out and showing love and prayer,” Walker says. “The residents know who they can turn to and know who the ladies are.”
An important factor has been the group’s ability to work with multiple property management owners.
“People working with Boots on the Ground always helped the situation by urging landlords to keep the property up,” Walker says.
On Halloween I marched around Chestnut Woods with three of the women — Crumbley, Shonda Clay and Samone Williams. Before we walked, the women read a two-page spiritual warfare prayer out loud. The prayer covers a long list of stumbling blocks, i.e., confusion, division, lies, pride, slander, scandal, bitterness, resentment, acts of evil, witchcraft and areas of the occult.
As we walked, each woman prayed fervently, mentioning areas of personal demons such as depression, suicide, job loss or other life crises.
“We pray for their deliverance and salvation, Father,” Clay said. “In the name of Jesus, we come before you, Father God, and we begin to pray for those who are bound up, who need healing and are struggling.”
During the hour we walked, there was spontaneous singing and more prayers.
“Glory to God, your purpose no man shall disavow. What you say shall come to pass. You stretched forth your hand. We thank you for being an all-powerful God!” Crumbley shouted.
Crumbley, who served on the prison ministry with her church, says the women know what they’re dealing with on the street. Through their initial training, they practiced the type of situations they might face and how to handle them.
“There are people here who go to work every day and then there are some who are drug dealers,” she says. “They see us walking in camouflage, singing, and for some — they still don’t know who we are.”
Crumbley says she believes more residents could learn about the women or get help if they achieve some of their goals, including:
- More training and mentoring
- A resource center for residents, possibly an empty apartment donated by one of the property owners to the ministry
- A Facebook page created in 2021 to bring more awarenes
- A community garden.
The street ministry, which met twice a month prior to the pandemic, is set to resume walks on the first and third Saturdays depending on members’ schedules. Although her group is smaller than when it began, Crumbley says she doesn’t worry.
“I would love to see more people added to Boots on the Ground, but sometimes more is too much. I don’t go to people,” Crumbley said. “I let the Lord hand pick. When the Lord gave me my ministry that was part of the criteria.”
“My main job was knowing how God wanted me to orchestrate everything.”