It's Saturday morning, and a group of eager, energetic inner-city teenagers pour through the door of Bill Cottman's house and catch the aroma of pancakes on the griddle. Wearing baggy pants, oversized T-shirts and sweatshirts, and athletic shoes of every size and shape, it is obvious they are glad to be part of this event.
Cottman waves his spatula and welcomes the boys to come and get it. Soon the group, which includes adult sponsors from Park Avenue Methodist Church, a multi-racial, inner-city congregation in south Minneapolis, is seated at a table and enjoying a spread of steaming pancakes, fresh sausage, and hot maple syrup.
Yet, this morning's meeting of Simba (the Swahili word for lion) is not just about breakfast. It is about teaching young, black, inner-city boys what it means "to be a Christian African-American male," according to Cottman, a systems sales manager with Honeywell Corporation. With the mind of an engineer, he is always thinking of a creative, tangible way to teach the weekly lesson. Now close to 50 years old, Cottman conveys the calm and confidence of a high-level corporate executive. His personal warmth and sense of self-assurance helps put the boys at ease as they take off their jackets and pull up to the table.
Once breakfast is over and the dishes cleared, the energetic youth gather in the living room to listen to Cottman and other adults tell them about their own lives and faith.
"I graduated from Salisbury High School in Salisbury, Maryland, and then from Howard University with an electrical engineering degree," he explains. "My father died when I was 12 years old. I have only a few recollections of my dad, and they are good, but it was my mother who raised me."
The highlight of Cottman's story this day is about being in the delivery room to witness the birth of his only child. "I was proud to be there for my daughter's birth," he tells the young men. The boys ask questions about the experience, which sounds a bit overwhelming.
"Didn't you faint?" asks one teen.
"Why would you ever want to be there?" says another.
"I wanted to reassure and comfort my wife," he responds. "I wanted to be able to say to my daughter that from the moment she entered the world, I was there for her," says Cottman.
For two young men in particular, Jamaal and Terrell, this morning's meeting is one more piece of the puzzle of what it means to be black, male, and a believer-it means taking responsibility to love and raise the children you father.
Cottman invites the boys to ask his wife and daughter questions, too. They shower the two with questions on dating, how to stay out of trouble, and a variety of other topics.
Chris McNair, a tall, slender, 34-year-old African-American pastor with a gentle voice and heart, who started the program while he served at Park Avenue, explains with deep concern why mornings such as this are so important.
"Some of these kids have known only crisis and disorder in their lives at home," he says. "They've never had the opportunity to observe an adult black male who is successful in a career, loves and provides for his family, and maintains his unique identity as an African-American with spiritual values in society." McNair is particularly opposed to the false images of manhood that are sometimes conveyed to young men through the media and other influencers in society. "They [teach] manhood in terms of violence, sexual promiscuity, and a life of substance abuse. Simba is an effort to send a different message."
McNair's patience with the kids comes from a deep spiritual strength. He has a deep compassion for others and believes in what God can do in their lives.
From September to May, from 10 a.m. to noon, Simba meetings are normally held at Park Avenue Church. "Our goal is to be reliable and predictable," says Cottman. "We want the boys to know we'll be here every Saturday. Hopefully, they transfer some of that predictability to their own lives."
What can the boys expect on a typical day? The group usually gets under way with some type of physical activity or game, such as football or perhaps a game of African origin. Then they settle down to study practical units such as culture and heritage, family, personal hygiene, or career and educational opportunities for getting a job.
It is Cottman's responsibility to introduce the boys to a specific African-American hero. "I deal with some of the people you would expect, such as Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, as well as less-known names such as Daniel Hale Williams, Charles Drew, and Benjamin Banneker, who helped in surveying and laying out Washington, D.C."
Then it's on to a group craft project. This particular morning the boys are working on cutting blocks of wood. "The idea is that these blocks are going to be painted and sent with one of the men on a business trip to Africa," says Cottman. "It's a symbolic reconnection with our motherland." Eventually, these blocks make their way to Kenya.
COUNTERING THE CONSPIRACY
Indeed, much of Simba is intentionally designed to build on the African tribal tradition of rites of passage from boyhood to manhood. The idea for the program was born after McNair came across Jawanza Kunjufu's incisive analysis of the plight of elementary-age black males, Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys (African American Images).
Kunjufu argued that something peculiar happens in the life of many young African-American boys in elementary school: they lose their spirit and will to achieve. A combination of negative social structures and institutional racism seems to destroy the motivation and self-esteem of African-American boys as early as fourth grade.
"I've witnessed just what [Kunjufu] is talking about," says McNair. "A young black child will start out with us as an outgoing, lively, energetic personality, and by the middle of elementary school he's become quiet, sullen, and angry. He starts gaining an awareness of the world around him and the negative messages aimed at him as a black male. I want to reach these boys before it's too late. I want them to redefine who they are in Christ."
That is where Cottman and the other volunteer mentors come in. These men are from a select group chosen to mentor the boys. "At a minimum, each adult must be a professing believer and substance-free," says McNair. "They tell their life stories to the boys and let them see it's possible to pursue a rewarding career, raise a family, and follow Christ as an African-American man."
The goal of producing lions for Christ is always kept in view. That is why this morning's meeting, like all the other Saturdays, ends with a Bible study on what it means to follow Jesus Christ on a personal basis.
But does Simba produce results? According to the boys, the answer is a resounding yes. "I know I'm going to achieve something with my life, because the men in Simba keep telling me I will," says Jamaal, a 13-year-old who has completed one year in the program.
While many of the boys in the group enjoy stable homes and do well in school, some are at risk. One 15-year-old Simba member says quite bluntly, "If it wasn't for Simba, I'd probably be on the streets selling drugs now."
Last spring McNair held a banquet and graduated his first class of Simbas to complete the three-year program. "Both Terrell and Jamaal earned the maximum number of awards and badges; they did everything we offered them a chance to do."
The relationships continue even after the boys finish Simba. Recently Cottman was standing in a food line at the Mall of America in suburban Minneapolis. He heard a group of boys laughing loudly and turned around to see who they were. He recognized one of the Simba graduates. "I waved at him and called him out," says Cottman. "He came over and gave me a huge hug. He introduced me to all his friends. It was neat for me. I hope it was neat for him."
While some boys do drop out of the program along the way, both Cottman and McNair believe it is clearly worth the effort. "I see the face of Jesus in every child I work with," says McNair.
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