The leaders of the two rival Prince George's County gangs had never met before a breakfast gathering two weeks ago, even though their neighborhoods had been fighting for years.
Dominic Taylor, leader of the Shadow High gang in Fort Washington, and Henry "Hank" Johnson, leader of the Birchwood City gang in Oxon Hill, were brought together by the Alliance of Concerned Men, a grass-roots organization that wanted the groups to declare a truce.
Johnson, 32, said he remembers stepping outside the Marlow Heights restaurant for a cigarette with Taylor, 24, and reluctantly beginning a dialogue. It was an unimaginable prospect for the 40 members of each gang, made up of teenagers and men ages 13 to 36.
"I started asking some questions, and he answered them, and he started asking questions, and I answered them," Johnson said.
Before the breakfast was over, the men, high-school dropouts who had been in and out of jail, decided that a change was at hand in their lives -- and thus the lives of the young men they led.
The truce was formalized yesterday at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington during a rousing afternoon service that Pastor Grainger Browning Jr. called "one of the most special days in the history of the church."
During the three-hour service, the Rev. Brian Moore stirred the congregation of about 3,000 people with a sermon about a revival in the community and a reinvestment in the neighborhood's young men, among other things.
"A change has come," Moore, who was visiting from Charleston, S.C., told the congregation. "This is the dawning of a brand new day."
Churchgoers rose to their feet when Taylor and Johnson approached the lectern to sign the truce. Browning also was invited to sign.
"This is the most blessed signature I've ever had a chance to put my hand to," Browning said.
After signing, Johnson began to speak. "I just want to take the time to . . ." he said before turning to Taylor and embracing him, prompting more cheers and applause.
The Alliance of Concerned Men, an eight-member, D.C.-based group that works with inmates and those who have been released from prison, also provides outreach, prevention, intervention and social services for low-income, at-risk youths, said its executive director, Tyrone Parker.
The group started as a loose association of friends who attended Eastern High School in the District in the 1960s. The friends formally organized the alliance in 1991.
In January 1997, as Benning Terrace public housing complex in Southeast was caught in the throes of gang warfare, the alliance brokered a deal in which members of two feuding gangs agreed to a truce.
The cease-fire was aimed at easing tensions in their neighborhood and preventing retaliation for the slaying of a 12-year-old boy.
Since then, Parker said, the group has helped form six such truces. The agreement signed yesterday was the first in Prince George's County, he said.
"It was an excellent demonstration of the church coming to support the youth in our community," Parker said. "Now, it'll be a safer community where children can be children and play."
Parker, 56, said he was visiting the federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pa., engaged in outreach programs, when he met Dominic Henry, who was serving a life sentence.
Henry, who is Taylor's father, told Parker that he was worried about his son, who had been shot in the stomach Sept. 2 in a drive-by shooting allegedly by the Shadow High gang.
That shooting was in retaliation for a shooting in December of a Shadow High member, Parker said.
"We hated each other," Johnson said.
He said that if police had asked him to try to make peace with a rival gang, he never would have listened.
"We trust the alliance," Johnson said. "We don't trust the police. When these guys came to me, I trusted them. You can just feel their realness."
He and Taylor agreed that one of the chief reasons they fell into crime was that there was nothing for them to do and nowhere to go.
"We don't have nothing," Johnson said at the church lectern. "We don't have nothing, but we have each other."
The two men decided to put an end to the violence that has plagued the neighborhood for years, Johnson said, because, "It was time. I'm 32, and this lifestyle is getting played out."
Taylor agreed. "I got a grandfather who died in prison, and a father who's doing life in prison," he said.
"This has got to end."