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On an early Saturday morning, Bishop L.W. Francisco stood before a group of about 50 men and male teens of his Calvary Community Church and reflected on how long it had taken for the scene to materialize.
Seven years ago he received the vision that his predominantly black congregation in Hampton, Va. needed to do a better job mentoring African-American males. Presiding over too many young men’s funerals and consoling their loved ones, Francisco had seen from the frontlines the high homicides and incarceration rates of young urban black men. Over the years, men at his church who meant well would begin to work with the teens, but then, for one reason or another, the effort would fizzle. But in late 2012, Francisco issued a special call from the pulpit for committed men to step up. He sensed that something was different, that the chemistry was finally right.
“This is a vision that the Lord has given me and I’ve been carrying it and carrying it and carrying it,” Francisco said to the group, which had gathered at 8 a.m. “These 12 men (the core leaders) are sold out to this program. They are running with it. They have a passion for it.”
Calvary (known as C3) launched its Man Training program in February 2013, its theme being “Ambition to Transition.” The 10-week program helps boys become men through the training of their minds, bodies and souls. I am a member of C3, but attended the gathering as a writer. The program kicked off with a weekend “boot camp” at the Williamsburg Christian Retreat Center, where each man worked with two teens—there were 24 teens in all. The teens, all members of the church, had physical training activities and classes on issues such as prayer, peer pressure and having a quality relationship with God. The young men graduated in June.
Throughout the week in between meetings, the men would contact the boys and try to recap things that they learned to keep them encouraged, said Sylvester Taylor who heads the program. Moral and spiritual values, respect for authority, academic excellence, camaraderie and being an extension of the family are what the program emphasizes. “Repetition produces retention. This is a discipline program,” Sylvester said. “We’re really trying to instill that in them with the word of God and applying it throughout their lives.”
Located in Southeast Virginia, Hampton Roads has 11 military facilities, the highest concentration in the nation. As a result, many of the men are connected with the military in some way. The men did not aim to necessarily steer the teens toward joining the armed forces, but the teens benefited from the military-style discipline, such as being prompt and working as a unit. “We’re trying to teach them life-long lessons that they can apply across the board,” said Taylor, who is married and has young child. “We can connect and use our experience, but we’re not a replacement for the family.”
Taylor said that the more than 100 applications from families outside of the church confirmed Francisco’s vision that the training program should serve the wider community. They opted to start in-house first to get the program’s structure solid.
Young black males too often lack fathers in the home, leaving teens to be raised often by struggling single moms. This is typically cited as a key reason too many young black males are killing each other. They’re sucked in by the “street mentality.” But for teens such as Steven Scales and Joshua Moore, whose fathers are very involved in their lives, hearing from other strong men makes a huge impression too.
Steven said he was “a little nervous” at first, but then began enjoying the camaraderie of the other teens and the men. Joshua said the mentors reinforced his father’s voice. “When it’s the same things that my father is saying, it impacts me more,” he said.
As the focus on the young black male crisis has increased in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, many have been asking what can be done. Others have questioned whether the black church is doing enough. Many black churches across the country have long had successful mentoring programs, but are often not given credit, i.e. The Black Male mentoring program in South Florida and a mentoring program in Silver Springs, MD which has mentored black male teens for the last decade.
Youth mentoring is difficult to do well. Men who are considered morally upright and successful in their careers are typically ideal mentors but these men got that way by being hard-working, dedicated and thus, very, very busy. They are also often tending to their own families. As a married father who has reared two sons and a daughter, while navigating a demanding career, I can relate. I’ve mentored as a member of 100 Black Men, my fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, my churches and as a sports coach. I could only pull it off by having my children involved in the programs. Still, it was a tough juggling act. Rearing your own kids can be more than a notion.
I still mentor. Doing nothing as a generation of young men ends up in prison or in the grave is not an option. Men like those at C3 understand this. They looked in the mirror and manned up.