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Molding future father figures


Moments before a performance during the 11 a.m. service at St. Stephen's African Methodist Episcopal Church yesterday, Christian Johnson was acting like a father.

"Fix your shirt," he whispered.

Twelve-year-old Jordan Canada looked puzzled.

"Tuck it in," Johnson whispered, louder this time, while pantomiming the motions.

While he may not be Jordan's dad, Johnson plays the role of surrogate father, mentor and confidant to him and about 16 other young people who belong to a boys group called Jahari at St. Stephen's.

Yesterday the Essex church held its first Young Men's Day to celebrate and show appreciation for the congregation's male youth on a day when many other people were celebrating their fathers.

"Mr. Chris, he's like a father to me and everyone else in the group," said Brandon Bannister, 14, the president of Jahari.

"He's tough on his young men because he loves us," Jordan added.

Johnson, a 30-year-old teacher, started Jahari a year ago. "The purpose is to lead young boys into becoming adult men," he said.

When he joined the church a little more than two years ago, there was no organized group for boys at the church. "We're losing a lot of young men to the streets, especially African-Americans," he said. "I felt the need for such a group."

Johnson called it Boys to Men, but then allowed the members - ages 12 to 18 - to pick the name. They chose Jahari, which Johnson said means young, strong and powerful.

"That's how we try to carry ourselves," he said. "Young, strong, powerful, intelligent and with a purpose."

The group meets two Fridays a month - sessions during which Johnson talks to them about the Bible and helps them apply it to their lives. They also have bowling and laser-tag outings, church sleepovers and leadership activities. Johnson said he hopes to organize a college tour, so the boys can get a glimpse of life beyond high school.

Many of the boys said that, for them, Jahari is also a brotherhood where they feel safe talking about their problems. It's a group of acquaintances who have become close friends and can ask each other for anything.

"Not many of us have a group to fall back on," said LaBrent Moore, 18, who is the oldest member and will attend Baltimore International College in the fall. "There are some things you're not going to get from your parents or your teachers."

It was LaBrent who pushed to hold a Young Men's Day at church. For the 11 a.m. service, Jahari members performed a Christian rap - written by Johnson and LaBrent - and a step routine. Moore said he hoped to spark interest among other boys at the church.

"We have a group that you can be a part of," LaBrent said, explaining his message. "And you don't have to worry about getting voted off the island."

Antwon Grant, leader of the St. Stephen's men's group, said he was surprised at how good Jahari's performance was. "I was really proud of them."

Grant said the men's group has been inviting members of Jahari to participate in activities and hopes there will soon be a formal mentoring program between the men and boys, and also a girls group.

"We have a lot of young kids in single-parent homes," Grant said. "And 99 percent of them are with their mothers."

Grant said he and others in the St. Stephen's congregation want to make the boys - and girls - feel like they are a part of something.

"I have never known my father. I never had a positive male role model," he said. "I want to make sure these kids have positive male influences."

Not all the members are fatherless - and Brandon, the president, said he's lucky to feel like he has two dads. But Jahari was founded because Johnson also knows firsthand what it's like to lack a male role model.

He was fatherless, Johnson said, and his grandfather stepped in to help raise him as a child in Pittsburgh.

"He was my role model until I was 16. But then he died, and I was the man of the house," Johnson said. "But he had already instilled so much in me, I didn't fall victim to everything that was around me."

That's the kind of role he's hoping to play in the lives of Jahari members.

Avery Pierce, 17, said he was "running the streets and fighting all the time" before he got involved with Jahari and before he met Johnson.

"I was a bad person," he said. "Jahari keeps me out of trouble."

After meeting Johnson, Avery asked him to be his godfather because he does not have a father. Johnson said he was flattered and agreed, even though he has a young son of his own.

"He was an outgoing Christian male, and I really needed that," Avery said. "If I need to talk, or whatever I need, he's there."

Avery is continuing the cycle. After his turnaround, he became a youth leader in Jahari.

"I have experience with the world," he said. "I have guidance for the younger kids."

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