Where Others Fear To Tread

V.J. Smith traded his gun for a Bible a decade ago. Now he runs the night watch on Central's troubled streets. The payoff? Amazing grace and a good night's sleep.

The streetlights are ablaze at the busy intersection of Lake Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, and V.J. Smith--a burly 44-year-old urban missionary--is hitting the pavement. He lingers on the corner for a moment and zips his suede jacket against the late-autumn chill. He nods at a couple of older men passing a bottle of malt liquor beneath a stoplight, then drifts south on Lake, into the shadows. A half-block later he emerges into the dim illumination around a bus kiosk that smells faintly of urine. It's flanked by a dozen or so kids, several of whom break into a scowl as Smith nears. Black and white, boys, girls, they're passing a one-hitter packed with pot and pitching quarters on the sidewalk to pass Saturday into Sunday, ten bucks a toss.

"God bless. How y'all doing?" Smith inquires energetically, offering his right hand for a soul shake to anyone who might take it. A few of the older kids, who look to be pushing 20, mumble "What's up?" Two boys, still young enough to be in grade school, grubby jeans riding halfway down their skinny butts, slip into the bus shelter to avoid the ovation. Everyone else turns their backs and readies their next bets.

"Anybody here interested in work? A little training?" With that, the indefatigable Smith produces a stack of bright yellow flyers. On one side is an invitation to an orientation at the Sabathani Community Center a few blocks away, where unemployed minors can earn a monthly stipend from the nonprofit job training program YouthBuild. On the flip side is a description of MAD DADS, which stands for Men Against Destruction/Defending Against Drugs and Social-disorder: "Tired of the violence, drugs, murder, pain, and anger of our youth? You can do something about it!! Come out and join forces with MAD DADS and the Moms division. Help to secure our streets and let grandma and our children walk to the store without fear."

Daniel Corrigan

MAD DADS, the group Smith is out promoting tonight, was born a decade ago when Eddie Staton, a black businessman living in Omaha, Nebraska, got a desperate, late-night call from his friend John Foster. Foster's college-age son had been beaten to death the night before by a group of local gang members. Foster had immediately taken to the streets armed with two shotguns, but the assailants had vanished. After calming down, he asked Staton to help him organize a group of black men to address an interdenominational alliance about the spread of gang violence in north Omaha. That group of 18, led by Staton, Foster, and Bishop Robert Tyler, became the nucleus of MAD DADS.

Just ten months after its founding, then-president George Bush named the group as one of his Thousand Points of Light. In 1994 President Clinton presented MAD DADS with a prestigious award for its volunteer efforts. Today the organization boasts 55,000 members, 57 chapters, and a presence in 15 states, including Minnesota, where Smith started the first and only branch, in 1998, in Minneapolis's Central neighborhood. (Central is bounded by Lake Street to the north, 38th Street to the south, Interstate 35 to the west, and Chicago Avenue to the east.)

MAD DADS' mission statement is a tall order: to "seek out, encourage, motivate, and guide committed men in the struggle to save children, communities, and ourselves from the social ills that presently plague neighborhoods." They are a "God-fearing" collective that "will yield to no evil."

In practical terms this statement is all about showing up on city streets it appears the police have all but ceded to crime--where social service organizations have an abundant clientele but lock their doors at nightfall, and where young black men are being murdered in epidemic numbers. When members canvass a corner rumored to be rife with petty crime or gang recruiters or drug dealers, Smith says, they're attempting to teach by example, to show "parental concern." In short, to say hello, offer a little help, and then, week in, week out, to keep coming back.

A few of Smith's cohorts, walking this week's Saturday night "street patrol," amble across the intersection to provide backup at the bus stop: Nathaniel Howard, president of a MAD DADS chapter in Chicago; Bobbie Goodlow, a middle-aged mother who has spent the last three years running crack dealers off her corner in north Minneapolis; and Sandy Fliehs, a 58-year-old grandmother turned MAD mom who raised her two children on the south side. They're all wearing MAD DADS "gang" colors--black-and-green polo shirts and matching baseball caps.

"We ain't no policemen, ain't no narcs," explains Howard, who has come to Minneapolis this weekend to show support for Smith's fledgling operation. "We're just ordinary folks who want to help."

This is a particularly tough crowd, though. Stoned or drunk, these kids are indifferent to the idea of mentoring, a typical first response to a MAD DADS pitch. More than that, they seem irked by it, in part, no doubt, because Smith has interrupted the rhythm of their game ("Can you believe this ridiculousness?" Howard asks under his breath. "No one's going to win any money pitching quarters, man. But they're dead serious"). There's also a good chance these kids have run into MAD DADS patrollers a few times before and still aren't sure what to make of their bold presence.

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