Dwight Johnson and his three sons were huddled together yesterday in the lobby of Full Gospel AME Zion Church, having just paid their respects to James Bias, a father who has buried two sons.

"When I heard that {Jay Bias} had also been killed, it hit me that I could lose all of my sons too," Johnson said, corralling his boys with strong arms.

Parrish, 14, winced at the tight rein.

"We aren't allowed to say that much or do that much," he said. "You go to the wrong place at the wrong time and you can get shot. You look at somebody the wrong way at school, on the street, and you can get shot. All you can do is be careful."

"To die just because you went to buy something at the mall?" asked Damon, 13. "I don't feel safe unless I'm under adult supervision."

Edward, 15, summed it up.

"Black people are making themselves extinct," he said.

As a father, Johnson has his work cut out for him. His boys had just viewed the body of James "Jay" Bias, 20, an upstanding young man laid out in a coffin.

The sight had left the boys angry, anxious and confused. Little did they know, so was their dad.

"I wish I could say I had the answer, but I am baffled," Johnson said. "I'd like to think that if I teach my kids right from wrong and good from bad, everything will work out. But I'm sure Mr. Bias thought the same thing."

Johnson's father taught him that discipline and hard work were the keys to escaping from the Lincoln Heights housing projects in Northeast Washington, where young Dwight grew up dodging dope dens and bootleg whiskey dealers.

His father was right. Johnson joined the Air Force, got a job as a binder in the Government Printing Office and was able to settle down with a family in the suburban serenity of Prince George's County.

In 1976, he purchased a house in Temple Hills -- and a 1970 Mercedes-Benz to go with it. Johnson thought he had it made. But within 10 years, the madness from which he had struggled to escape had caught up with him again.

"I can look out my window and I can see black youths hanging out like I was back in the ghetto -- only it's worse," Johnson said. "When I was a kid, to have a Cadillac you had to be at least 35 or 40 and working in the mainstream. These days, teenagers laugh at my Benz because they're driving 1991s."

Johnson was struggling not only to keep his own virtuous beliefs intact but also to pass them on to three skeptical and sometimes cynical sons.

"It's degrading the way our people treat each other," Edward said. "How are you suppose to love somebody who'll kill you for looking at them funny?"

"I've been to 10 funerals," Parrish said. "I don't want to go to any more. When I look into the caskets, I hear voices saying, 'That could be you. You may be next.' "

Alex Stewart, owner of Suburban Seafood Co., came over to greet Johnson, a neighbor and longtime friend. On the day Jay Bias was slain outside Prince George's Plaza, he said, he was in a nearby restaurant when a youth walked in carrying a semiautomatic pistol and shot to death a diner who was seated about 20 feet from him.

When he arrived home, he discovered that the young man who lived across the street from him, Jerry Samuel Tyler, 24, had been charged with the shooting death of Bias, a family friend.

"Now it's middle-class blacks killing middle-class blacks," said Stewart, who has six children. "This has got to stop."

Both men nodded, each watching with hopeful eyes as their children stared off into space.

"My 13-year-old daughter is mad at me because I won't let her venture out of the neighborhood unsupervised," Stewart said. "My 7-year-old girl is afraid to go outdoors."

"My boys think I'm a mean person for restricting them, but I have good reasons," Johnson said, suddenly rotating Parrish's wrist to reveal a ring finger.

"It would be a shame if he got killed for this fake gold . . . . " Johnson said.

"It's real gold," Parrish replied.

"You mean you're wearing 14 karat . . . . "

"Eighteen karat," Parrish corrected him.

"But your mother said she had bought you gold-plated . . . . " Johnson paused, the look of surprise giving way to resignation.

"She could have at least told me," he said, embarrassed. "I guess that makes me the dummy of the family, huh?"

Not at all. It simply made him a father, the same as James Bias, just a man trying his best to protect his sons from the insanity of these mean streets.