It's hard to celebrate a drop in violent crime when we just buried 3-year-old Terrell Mayes Jr., killed by a stray bullet Dec. 26 inside his north Minneapolis home.
But a 6 percent drop in violent crime in the city, announced Friday by Mayor R.T. Rybak and Police Chief Tim Dolan, is a promising trend. Let's keep pushing, with continued job opportunities for at-risk teens, police patrols and gun buyback programs, more recreation centers and mentorships with caring adults.
And one more thing: programs that support fatherhood.
The latter concept is no disconnect to Fines Whittley, 33, the married father of three children, He grew up in Minneapolis hearing constant gunfire.
"Not a doubt in my mind," Whittley said, that whoever shot Terrell, "was somebody who didn't have a father. How do you know how to be a man when you don't have a father in your life?"
The image of little Terrell running from gunfire haunts Patrick Lambertz, too, a leader, with Whittley, of Men of the City (www.menofthecity.net), a faith-based group that seeks to help men become more effective husbands and fathers.
"Who were those people [the shooter was with]?" Lambertz said. "Who had that gun? What if someone had said something?"
Men of the City provides a vehicle for men who may say, "I can't be a good father," said Lambertz, the married father of three daughters who admits to his own steep learning curve. "We tell them, 'Just come out and hang with us. There are great fathers you can learn from.'"
"Gangs provide safety," Lambertz said. "We want to do that with our ministry."
Lambertz and Whittley have an urgent mission. In mid-December, they attended a Minneapolis screening of "Absent" (www.absentmovie.com), a sobering documentary about the potentially lifelong wounds left by absent or abusive fathers.
"Your father is the first person in your life who either chooses you or doesn't," said filmmaker Justin Hunt, who was in Minneapolis for the packed event.
If he doesn't, there's a hole so deep that there's no bottom floor.
According to Hunt, 71 percent of pregnant teens come from fatherless households. More than 60 percent of youth suicides occur in homes without fathers. More than 70 percent of high school dropouts say they had no father figure in their lives, as do 60 percent of repeat rapists.
"My father?" said one young man, shaking his head despondently. "He was never there."
Father Richard Rohr, who travels the world speaking about male spirituality, said in "Absent" that the "father wound is perhaps the most universal wound for men on this Earth."
Rohr, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., visits men in prison where the subject of father-loss often comes up.
"Almost half the time, they'll still find a way to idolize him," Rohr said. "They still hope that he will be a hero." The other half? "They hate their father. They experience a rage that turns toward violence, on themselves or externally. It's as certain as the dawn."
Many men develop an inherent distrust of anyone with authority. "Some men weep when they recognize that they don't really have to hate all men," Rohr said. "When they can finally feel safe with you, you can give them hugs and they'll say, 'Don't stop.'
"There's that need for a person to fill this gaping hole."
Hunt's motivation in making the film was not to point fingers. "I'm not trying to scare people," said Hunt, himself a single father. "I'm trying to rally them, so that we can move forward together and change the trajectory of our lives.
"People don't want to hurt. They want to fix themselves and keep from hurting the next generation. The movie is giving them permission to do that."
Whittley easily identified with "Absent." The oldest of six children, he understood and appreciated that his father always had to work to keep food on the table. Yet he was struck, just a few years ago, by how hard it was still that his father had never attended his school events. "I was still thinking about this at 29," he said.
When he became a father, "I wanted to raise them differently." For eight months, he worked two jobs, but gave up one so he could be home more. He now works full time at the downtown Minneapolis YWCA, beginning his day at 5:45 a.m. so he can be home in the afternoons.
He often tells his daughters that they are beautiful. He kisses his son. "You're supposed to be their role model," he said. He wants to help other men be role models, too.
"We have to stop being so judgmental and, instead, sit down with guys over coffee and ask, 'What's your story?'
"That's how we change community. Be better fathers. Spend time. See something and say something about it. By the grace of God, I stayed out of trouble. I was always the person who said, 'We shouldn't be doing that.' "
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