Hustling For Souls

By Peter Perl
Sunday, August 26, 2001

The church ladies cooked up a particularly fine Saturday supper for the drug dealers. Reverend Anthony Motley had told them he wanted things fixed up especially nice at Redemption Ministry, so they put out clean white tablecloths and now the ladies were parading out from the kitchen with paper plates piled high with barbecued chicken wings, macaroni and tuna, green beans, salad, sweet iced tea and cakes.

Four young gang members, part of the South Capitol Street Crew, took seats along with five church men at the large rectangular table. They sat silent, expressionless; cornrowed hair, a shaved head, baggy pants, a gold chain here, a gold watch there, black T-shirts with the arms cut off. Terry, Anthony, Terronce and Snoop. Ages 23 to 27. The South Cap Crew looked like many other young men in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast Washington, except they were the ones responsible for much of its persistent traffic in marijuana, PCP, crack cocaine and, occasionally, heroin.

After a prayer, Motley stood and opened his Bible, choosing an obscure Old Testament passage from the Book of Nahum: "Ah, city of bloodshed, all full of lies and booty -- no end to the plunder!" Motley interrupted himself. "When he says 'booty,' he doesn't mean 'booty' like you do," he said, with a mischievous smile, " 'Booty' meant jewels and money back then. Y'all know I had to break that down for you." The crew members snickered.

Prostitutes, bloody swords and naked corpses littered the landscape in the Bible's vision of the ancient city of Nineveh. "A bloody city. Reminds me of today," Motley said. "I watch the violence on the news today and I get depressed. When are they gonna tell the stories about real-life struggles of people? What about people not being able to get jobs, because you have a record? . . . What about our struggles?"

The South Cap Crew knew that the man they call "Rev" was speaking from experience. Years ago, before he became a preacher, Motley was a street hustler, selling marijuana, hashish and amphetamines, and then using and selling increasing amounts of cocaine. Rev knew their life. He knew how to talk to them, and how to listen, which was why they agreed to come to dinner.

They also came because they knew that Rev was not just trying to sell them Jesus. He was talking about jobs, too -- if they took the first step toward faith, Redemption Ministry could help steer them to find the skills, the tools, the education, the connections to change their lives. {+0}

Motley introduced his main speaker, Kennard Coleman. The South Cap Crew already knew him by his street name, Bark, because of his resemblance to burly, bruising NBA basketball star Charles Barkley. Coleman is powerfully built, his thick arms covered with tattoos from his street life -- a fierce lion's head on his left biceps and, on his right, "BARK" beneath the skeletal face of the Grim Reaper, smoking a joint.

With his pastor's prompting, Coleman haltingly described 15 years hustling, living off the street, dealing drugs, getting locked up; a downward spiral that turned around three years ago at Redemption. Now, at age 29, "I have my first real job. It's a blessing. It's the ultimate blessing," he said. He's only earning a fraction of what he made as a drug dealer -- $21,000 a year as a D.C. Recreation Department youth mentor -- but said he is much happier now, with feelings he's never experienced.

"I feel love. I feel compassion," he said, in a deep voice. "I feel hurt, too, but it's a good hurt. The hurt feels good, man." Coleman shook his head. "Back when I was on the street, nobody cared if I lived or died. God shows me people care. People care about me. It's a blessing, and now it's a blessing for me to care about other people."

"Amen! Amen! Amen!" Motley shouted, as he and the men of Redemption whooped and applauded. The South Cap Crew remained silent, though one or two nodded.

The pastor raised his voice: "We're either gonna die, or we're gonna go to jail. Everyone in this room has to make that decision, whether they want to live or die -- or get locked up." His eyes swept the South Cap Crew, "It's better to be free than caged. It's better to get old than die young. You don't have to go that route. What is really keeping you from getting a job? Is your life so good now?"

The South Cap guys shifted in their seats, glancing at one another. They were not comfortable. But slowly, a conversation happened. Anthony, in gold chains and a black kung-fu shirt, spoke first: "In today's society, you got people going home to a roach-infested house; your mother is on crack, your father is gone. How you gonna feed your family? If you don't have no type of training, and you don't get a college degree?"

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2001 The Washington Post Company