Several Chattanooga churches are holding conferences this month, hoping to reach youth.
* "Hope in the Ghetto." Brainerd High School, 1020 N. Moore Road. 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $12 for adults, free for children 12 and younger. Call 227-2615 for more information.
* Youth Day. Second Missionary Baptist Church, 2305 E. Third St. 11 a.m. Sunday.
* "A Break Through" conference. Greater St. Mary Baptist Church, 5304 Slayton Ave. 7 p.m. July 28; Thankful Baptist Church, 980 N. Orchard Knob Ave. 7 p.m. July 29
* "No More Cracks in the Armor." All-day youth conference. Friendship Community Church, 7 N. Tuxedo Ave. 9:30 a.m. July 30. Admission is $8.
Source: Various churches
By his sophomore year in high school, Raymond Hughes had been banned from every school in Tennessee for using and selling drugs.
From age 18 to 28, he was sent to jail at least 20 times for driving offenses, burglary and drug charges.
But as he approached his 30s, he knew he had to make changes.
"I was just tired," said the former Eastdale resident and Bloods gang member. "Running around, working every week, taking my entire check and spending it on drugs. I thought, 'There's got to be a better way.'"
Hughes, now a commercial electrician and playwright, hopes to use his life experiences to inspire others with his play titled "Hope in the Ghetto," to be performed this weekend at Brainerd High School.
"It's going to have an effect on the young men who want something," said Hughes. "We're trying to reach the guys who are crying out. They want something different. They just don't know how to change.
"It might not come overnight," said Hughes. "But I know change can come because it happened to me."
The play is among several events scheduled this month to try to deter youth and young adults from violence.
Second Missionary Baptist Church will culminate its monthlong focus on youth at 11 a.m. Sunday with 21-year-old Rev. Derwin L. Montgomery, the youngest city councilman in Winston-Salem, N.C., as the speaker.
A "No More Cracks in the Armor" youth conference also is scheduled July 30 at Friendship Community Church and "A Break Through" conference is scheduled July 28 at Greater St. Mary Baptist Church, then again on July 29 at Thankful Baptist Church.
"We've sat by too long as a church and a community, and so we want to stir the community and the church leaders to look at this. We hope to stir up concern for our people," said the Rev. Oscar Lockhart Sr., pastor of Thankful Baptist Church.
About half the 47 people shot this year in Chattanooga are under age 30 and, of the 13 people who died by gunfire this year, eight have been younger than 30, records show.
"A lot of teens are searching for identity," said Vince Carr, founder of Can You Hear Me Ministries and a speaker at the Friendship Community Church youth conference. "Sometimes they go to drugs, alcohol, gang violence, sex, whatever. We want kids to realize that they already have identity in Christ, that they are loved and wonderfully made."
Hughes said his change to a drug-free life started in the late 1990s when he was in his late 20s. During his last stay in jail, a jail law enforcement officer, Al Harrington, was also the assistant minister at the World's Church of the Living God. Hughes took Harrington up on an invitation to come to the church when he got out of jail.
"A lot of people think when you go to church, there's a magical experience," said Hughes. "It didn't happen like that with me. I was going to church and still getting high. But I kept going. Eventually the desire for drugs left."