Editor’s note: This blog post has been updated to properly identify Reid Temple AME Church.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker had expressed the sentiments many felt after the Connecticut school shooting that killed 20 small children in their classrooms Friday.

“The images of the children, educators and parents scurrying away from Sandy Hook School after yesterday’s horrible event left an indelible mark on our hearts and minds,” Baker said in a written statement. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families who lost a loved one to this cruel act of violence. As a father, it was heart-wrenching to see parents stand helplessly outside of the school waiting to learn whether their child was alive or not.”

The grief was numbing, discombobulating. But when I arrived at Reid Temple AME Church in Glenarden on Saturday afternoon for a panel discussion on “The Challenges of Fatherhood,” I immediately felt better. A few hundred men were on their feet, humbled in prayer, as I entered. They swayed and sang, many with their hands raised high above their heads. “Great and mighty is your name,” they sang, led by a male chorus on stage.  

“We’re in tough times,” said NBA veteran (and Root DC contributor) Etan Thomas, beginning the panel discussion. “As a parent, seeing the massacre yesterday was tough. We’re in an evil world right now, and we have to understand that the attacks on our children are mental, physical, spiritual.”

I settled in and found myself intrigued by what Thomas, NFL Hall of Famer Darrel Green, Pastor John Jenkins of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, and other high-profile brothers had to say about their “daddy pain” and their struggles to do better. Trey Chaney, who played the hardened Baltimore thug Poot on “The Wire,” former Redskins player Khary Campbell, Maryland Terp Byron Muton and poet Lamar Hill also told of their pain.

Thomas wished his father was around to help him navigate racism growing up in Oklahoma, or home late at night when noises in the house required security investigation. His mother did “an amazing job” raising him and his brothers, he said, but he envied his friends whose fathers were present.

“I should not have been the one trying to protect the family. I was a kid.” He visits young men in jails and prisons to address anger issues, he said. “Young men don’t talk about this stuff. We act like everything’s all right.” Thomas said he carried that anger and envy until he fell in love and got engaged. Then, he didn’t want to take those feelings into his marriage, so he sought counseling with Jenkins. He also wrote poetry to vent.

Spoken word artist Lamar Hill rendered a passionate poem about his missing dad. The audience responded with a standing ovation.

I was impressed by the panelists’ candor. I’d heard women talk about the ache of missing daddies. I’d heard people convicted of crimes trace their waywardness to a search for their father’s love. I had not heard successful outliers express their anguish at such a void.  

Green told of loving his father despite his father’s drunken rages. He had seen his father swipe all the dishes out of the kitchen cabinets onto the floor. He had seen his father beat his mother. Yet his mother never spoke badly of his father, and he thanked her for that. He was determined to be a better father, and to his own son, he became a close friend. He forged a close bond with his son from the onset, addressing hard realities. By the time his son was in college, Green was invited to hang out with him and his friends. He and his son would later lead Green’s father to join a church.

Green told of his father’s “daddy pain.” Green said his father had grown up without a father. Green’s grandfather finally reached out to his father, but his advance was rebuffed. His grandfather died having never reconciled their relationship. Green urged fathers in the audience to keep trying to reconcile until they do.

I was delighted by the stories of the fathers who experienced good fathering growing up, and vowed to continue the legacy. Chaney said he watched his father go out to work every morning to take care of their family. When Chaney’s own son was born, he said, he cried for days, overjoyed.

Jenkins told of vowing to be more present than his father, who was home but always working, fixing cars in the evenings and on weekends after working his full-time job. Byron Mouton, a starter on the University of Maryland's 2002 national championship team, who also played professionally in several countries, had been angry that his father, a successful truck driver, had not come to any of his games in middle school, high school or college. Former Redskins player Khary Campbell said football was a way for him to unleash his aggression and anger from having seen his father “bring the streets into our home.” All the men recommended forgiving fathers who failed in so many ways. They had found healing in their forgiving.

On my way out, I asked a woman who had attended what she thought about the event, and one of the two girls with her raised her hand ever so slightly.

“You have something to say?” I asked.

“I thought this was kind of helpful. But I’m never going to forgive my father. I don’t talk to my father, and I’m never going to talk to my father,” 11-year-old Casside said in one breath. “He doesn’t care about us. He calls all his children the same name, ‘Nuke-Nuke.’ He has broken promises …” She vented and my heart was broken all over again.

 “How do you help her manage that pain?” I asked her mother, Stephanie Jenkins.

 “I don’t know, which is why I’m here,” Jenkins said. “I came to hear the views of the men on the panel, how they interact with their children, putting in that time and energy.”

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