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.

Thirteen months ago Smith got his answer when a friend told him about a national organization called MAD DADS. He quickly recruited a handful of volunteers for a local chapter based in Central, raised a first-year budget of $2,000 from private donors, and started "walking the streets" again.

Just last week Smith flew to Washington, D.C., where Attorney General Janet Reno presented him with the Ameritech Award of Excellence in Crime Prevention. Given by the National Crime Prevention Council, which is made up of U.S. law-enforcement officials, the honor was bestowed on only six other individuals nationwide. During the presentation Smith, who says he has been sleeping just fine lately, was described as "an ordinary person doing the extraordinary."

 

Daniel Corrigan

Whenever MAD DADS has a meeting, which is often; whenever they go out on street patrol and whenever they come back; really, whenever the spirit moves, MAD DADS circles up for prayer. Oftentimes Smith improvises grace. Other times he passes the Bible. This Saturday night, as the four men and seven women who've gathered at the Center for Fathering--their makeshift headquarters in Central--ready themselves to make the rounds, Smith asks Calvin Declouet to lead the invocation. Declouet, a wiry, raspy-voiced native of New Orleans, came to Minneapolis in 1996. Now he lives on the north side, where he works his front stoop like a pulpit and tells everyone passing by that the Lord saved him from a gangster's life. After a season of study with Smith, he's planning to christen a chapter of MAD DADS in his own neighborhood.

Hats off, heads bowed, the assembly provides a backbeat to Declouet's murmuring cadence. Every other phrase of thanks is answered with an amen; requests for safety and strength out there are accented with a yes, Jesus. There is no shouting, no waving of arms. The room just hums.

"Now Calvin, he's got that special something," Smith exults. "He's going to be good. He's just the kind of guy I need." Translation: Declouet is a God-fearing black man willing to serve. The type of guy who knows what it's like to be down on his luck and is unafraid to mix it up on a busy inner-city street corner or to walk the alleys after dark; who is willing to sign up and stick with it. The type of guy that MAD DADS was designed to attract in the first place.

"MAD DADS was founded by a group of concerned African-American men--parents who were fed up with gang violence and the...flow of illegal drugs into their community," the national organization's promotional literature reads. "These men realized that they could hold no one responsible for this but themselves; they had allowed this to happen. So they united as a handful of community fathers who have come to know that they must be the force behind the change."

In Los Angeles MAD DADS has spearheaded programs to buy guns and get them off the street. The Omaha chapter has just started a special division called the G Crew, made up entirely of former gang members. In Chicago, MAD DADS sponsors demonstrations in support of public policies aimed at helping kids steer clear of gangs. For now, though, Smith is sticking to the basics, what got it all started in Omaha: street patrol. Everyone in his organization gathers on Saturday nights at 7:00 p.m., prays, then travels to troubled areas in the neighborhood to meet and mix until they get tired, usually just before midnight. They are always well-stocked with information about employment opportunities and job training. They can also speak fluently about the many social services available in the Twin Cities for those suffering from hunger, homelessness, or chemical addictions.

"We arm ourselves with the word of God, powerful prayer, and good, useful information," the Chicago chapter's Nathaniel Howard explains when asked about street patrol. "We win trust by being visible, by being consistent, by being an example."

Resistance to groups like MAD DADS, whose purpose is to expand the fold of believers by concentrating their message on society's most vulnerable (mostly poor, mostly black, mostly kids from single-mom homes, often runaways, school dropouts, addicts, hookers, gang members), has long run deep in many quarters and across the political spectrum. That's unfortunate, says Kate Cavett, a local social worker and researcher who has just published a 160-page resource report on gang activity in Minnesota. According to her research, an overwhelming percentage of the 103 active and inactive gang members she interviewed during the last three years exhibited nothing short of a "hunger" for spirituality. In his 1999 book Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, psychologist James Garbarino cites several studies establishing that young people rooted in "nonpunitive" religion are less apt to be depressed, less prone to substance abuse, and better equipped to deal with trauma. Spirituality, he writes, can "fill in the holes left in the story of a boy's life and help him develop both a strong, positive sense of self and healthy limits, thus forestalling the need to compensate with grandiose posturing and deadly petulance."

"One thing we have to address in our attempt to reach young people is this issue of spirituality," Jan Roesler, an activist resident involved in the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association says. "And MAD DADS is doing that. Yes, they are a Christian organization, which some people may take offense at. But I don't think that V.J. would ever deny someone a spirituality of another form. He's not an in-your-face kind of guy. For him Christianity is an expression of his spirituality."

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