In the early 1980s, a dark plague of drugs and violence re-emerged and fast became the norm in many inner-city neighborhoods throughout the country. Baltimore was no different, reminiscent of the 1960’s and 70’s heroin epidemic; young African American males bore most of the brunt of this resurgence in the continuing saga of life in the hood.
Rev. Sean Fields (Courtesy Photo)
In a small Baptist church in West Baltimore, a concerned group of men saw the signs of perilous times approaching and made the decision that their sons would not fall prey to this evil. So they formulated a plan of action, and in 1983, the Rev. James Williams, Jr, Deacon Oscar Cobbs, and several other men of the Timothy Baptist Church created the organization’s first father and son camping trip.
Established with the hopes of instilling Godly values, high ethical and moral standards in their boys, the men set out on a mission to save their children. The first year saw roughly twenty men and their sons, and grandsons in attendance. I was fifteen in 1983, and I had already established myself in the drug trade and gang life three years earlier, and camping was not on my bucket list. Besides this weekend was for those kids who needed role models. I was already gone; the streets were my role models.
I had idols like my oldest brother who died from a heroin overdose at the age of 19 or my next oldest brother who was serving fifteen to twenty years on the prison farm in Hagerstown for gun charges. I did have my father, but he had just passed away, and what guidance I once had in him was no more. Seeing the path that I had chosen Deacon Cobbs, a well-respected leader in my neighborhood, would often invite me to his church. He even asked me to attend the first camping trip.
I could not leave the safety of the streets behind for the wilds of the wilderness, so I did not go the first year. Unbeknownst to me, Deacon Cobbs had made a covenant with my father on his death bed that he would look after me, and he did just that. As the streets became increasingly more dangerous, my involvement in the drug gang culture intensified causing me to advance to second in command of a very lucrative and violent drug gang known as the “LA Park Boys” (Lucille Ave).
As time went on, the pressures of this life weighed heavily on me. I realized I needed to get away from the chaotic lifestyle, but where would I go? In comes Deacon Cobbs reminding me each year about the upcoming father and son camping trip and like in times past I found a way to weasel my way out of going. Finally, in 1986, I reluctantly gave in and ventured off into the unknown with a bunch of Christian men. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
For the first time in my life, I found myself surrounded by men who genuinely cared about my wellbeing. I did not need my gun or a group of goons around me to watch my back; I was free. For the first time in my teenage years, I was able to put my guard down and experience another way of life. It was so exciting; we did things I had only ever seen on T.V.
We pitched tents, chopped wood, had campfires, roasted marshmallows, fished in the streams, hiked the trails, drank coffee from a pot that hung over the open fire, but most of all we talked. We had conversations I had never had before in my life. The men did not hold back during that three-day period; they tried to pull every wrong thing they could out of us and pour everything good they knew about manhood into us. For me, they took extra care because they knew I no longer had a father to teach me the things I needed to know, and not to mention I was a drug dealer in Northwest Baltimore.
I embraced these men and their message. Although I was not entirely sold on the idea of giving it all up for a new life in Christ I still was open to their teaching. As the years went on, like clockwork, I would put aside one weekend a year, the weekend after Mother’s day when the men of Timothy Baptist Church gathered up as many boys as they could and went camping.
By now it was no longer just fathers and son it was any man and boy who wanted to come. This went on year after year, but as we grew up some outgrew the weekend and others got too old to do it anymore, and for a minute it seemed as if the father and son camping trip was about to fade away. Still dealing with my personal demons a change was needed, and after surviving a near fatal experience the trajectory of my life had been altered forever.
I was now ready to leave that destructive life behind and serve God and His people. This could not have come at a better time as the founders of the camping trip knew they needed to breathe some new life into the ministry. I was in the right place at the right time for the task at hand. After years of mentoring and grooming me for a leadership role, I was asked to take charge of the direction of the Father and Son camping trip would go in. After surviving what I had just survived, I knew that a weekend like this could be a blessing for everyone, especially given the positive impact it had on my life.
So I began the task of incorporating other churches. In my first year, I introduced three new churches to this experience. I also changed the name of our group to the Men of Character ministry. During my tenure as director, we grew in attendance to one hundred fifty to two hundred men and boys each year. We also held monthly classes and workshops for the boys to reinforce what they had learned on the trip.
During, this time, we also realized that we needed to be more holistic in our approach, so we began to focus our attention on not only the boys but the men as well. We immediately started to see just as many men having life changing breakthroughs as have the boys. Over the past thirty-three years, the ministry has evolved from a handful of fathers just trying to ensure that their sons would be okay, too becoming much more.
It has become a time and place for healing and repairing broken men. It has become a time and place for crafting our young men and building up our future men. The fact that a few good Black men decided to protect the future of their Black sons evolved years later into the possibilities and prospects of hundreds of other Black boys also being preserved. Each year a transformation occurs in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Boys come in, but men walked out.
The Rev. Sean Fields is co-founder of It Takes a Village, a Faith based non-profit organization based in Baltimore, Md.