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Norwich - It's deep in the evening when Gerald Grant, a tall, muscular man of 41 with a pencil-thin beard and mustache, leans forward in his chair and says, "I was telling Reverend Price I was at a meeting. The topic was what does Father's Day mean to you?
"After that meeting, I think it was about an hour later, my son called me. He's 14 years old now, and the last time I saw him he was 8 years old. Six years went by, I didn't have contact with him. ... He called me Saturday night. God is good."
Sitting across from him in two of the four black barber chairs, Darrick Shelby and the Rev. Henry Price nod approvingly.
Half clothing store, half barbershop, Fashion 101 and Barber Shop at 235 Main St. is a curious business, a place where a woman can buy a fancy hat for church and a man can get a haircut.
And on Monday nights, it is something else again: a haven for men to meet with other men to talk about God and their troubles.
Instead of magazines on the low table in front of Grant, there are Bibles. And the signs and posters on the yellow ochre walls are less about hairstyles than faith: "Don't make me come down there." - God.
The proprietor of this establishment is Shelby, 51, a powerfully built, soft-spoken man who says he was raised a Baptist, "but I strayed away for quite a while." He sold drugs and took other "shortcuts," and that led to doing time in prison. "I've done it on the installment plan, get out and go back, get out and go back, like so many other people."
Then, two years ago, his mother died, and her death so shook him that "I went back to church and ... I haven't taken my hands off the plow since." And it wasn't long after that that he was inspired to begin conducting these Monday night meetings in his shop.
"We came together so that we could be there for brothers so that they could come to a place where they could be intimate, be vulnerable enough to be intimate," Shelby says. "A lot of times guys just want to be heard."
And that is how Shelby welcomes the men that have come this night.
"Welcome to Fashion 101 Bible study," he says. "What we do here is try to afford guys a place to talk about anything that they might have going on. We also try to apply biblical principles to our lives in every aspect. That gives us a solid foundation to stand on, whatever you might be going through.
"We also would like you to know that anything that is said here stays here," he adds. "This is a forum where you should feel safe and welcome to say or vent. Sometimes you just need to be heard, you know?"
Seeking strength in God
In attendance this Monday night are six men, fewer than the usual dozen or so, perhaps because a film crew has blocked off the street and littered it with trash and overturned cars to film a zombie movie.
But the men pay no attention to that. They close the doors and, after a prayer, begin to open their hearts. They've struggled with drugs and alcohol; they've grown up in fatherless homes; and they've done time in prison. Now they seek strength in one another. Now they seek strength in God.
Shelby leads the group, but Price, 61, a big man in a neatly pressed pale green leisure suit, provides a gruff and passionate counterpoint.
And Price, who did time for killing another man over 19 bags of cocaine, is a living model of what faith can do for a man, one who has dedicated his life since parole to fighting illiteracy, drug and alcohol abuse and reuniting fathers with their children.
Grant's story of his son's phone call touches Shelby, who says he didn't hear from one of his sons, but he did hear from the other, who texted him "Happy Father's Day, man!!!"
"He put like three exclamation marks on it, and I was like 'cool.'
"So I text him back, 'I just wish I had did a better job with you,' ... and he texted me back and says, 'I wouldn't change a thing. It's all good. I love you.'
"So I texted him back and said, 'Remember what I told you: A lot of the stuff that you're going through is not your fault, but it's your responsibility.' And he texted me back saying 'True that. And I'm trying on a daily basis.'"
This leads Grant to tell the rest of his Father's Day story, how when he left home, his son had cried; how, during the years he's been gone, his son got in trouble for selling drugs; how, at 14, his son is on probation.
And when Grant apologized to his son for not being there for him, "He said, 'It's all right, Dad.' He said, 'I love you.' He said, 'Let's start here. Let's start now.' I broke down. I cried. It was just one of those emotional times in my life ... to hear him talk like a young man at 14 and to tell me it was OK."
Barry Dobbs, 55, a heavyset man dressed in a brown Polo shirt and wearing a straw fedora, clears his throat.
"It's a good thing that you guys are able to talk about your sons," he says in a gravelly voice. "My son got killed on his 15th birthday, and I never had an opportunity to tell him I loved him ...
"It gets me when I hear other people talking about their sons and their sons not actively in their lives. I'll never get a chance to see mine. I'll never get a chance to hug him or tell him that I love him ... you know, I still feel it right today, especially right now."
There is a long silence in the shop as the men reflect on this.
Price picks up the thread.
"You have a lot of kids that's fatherless," he says. "It's to the point that so many men is missing in action that ... I'll be thinking ... you know about I gotta grab somebody, about going out there and get a kid and take him under your wing. I know that's a big responsibility, but it's gonna have to be done, if we talking about ever doing anything in our communities."
"It's not good enough just being called 'Dad,'" he says. "You gotta play the part, too. You gotta do stuff. But, man, it makes me feel good ... 'Dad.' I never in my life called my father 'Dad' until six months before he died. And I was in prison. I hated him with a passion.
"I used to conspire at the age of 5 or 6 to kill this guy when I grow up, because all I ever seen him do was beat my mother. She'd be layin' in puddles of blood. I'd be afraid - I was 3 or 4 years old - to come out of my room. I used to conspire I'm gonna kill this guy, right?"
Then, Price says, when he was in prison in March of 1987, his father visited him.
"He came up to see me. For the first time in my life I called him 'Dad.' For the first time in my life I told him I forgave him. Six months later he was dead. God gave me the opportunity to show me if I had what I said I had: forgiveness and all that."
'Some kind of man'
Shelby has his own story of a father lost and found.
"I had a stepfather that for most of his life I hated him, because he used to tear my butt up. He used to take the belt and turn it around backwards, say 'I'm gonna beat you with the buckle, boy.' And he would do it too...
"As I got older, I realized how much of a man he was. There was four of us before he came to the family, and he gave my mother three more, so he was taking care of seven kids, four of them wasn't even his. He was some kind of man. Till the day he died he loved us."
"I found my natural father in 1988. He had died in 1986. I've never seen my father or met him. I've never even seen a photograph. It just goes to show how our families, man, are broken up. It's passed down. That's why it's so important to put that Bible, the spiritual legacy of the Word, to ground yourself," he says.
It is a theme that runs through the night.
When Jonthan Lees, 44, a thin white man with a black pompadour, introduces himself with the words "I'm an alcoholic," Shelby calls him on it.
"How long have you been sober?" Shelby asks.
"Seven months this time," says Lees. "Two years prior."
"The very first thing you said was the very worst thing you could say," Shelby says.
"That I'm an alcoholic?" Lees asks.
"That you are," Shelby says. "You're identifying with that thing. You just stated that you've been alcohol-free for seven months."
"So why is it that you're still what you used to do?" Shelby asks. "That's not who you are, man. Drinking is something you did. That's not who you are. ... You're a new creature in Christ. So you're not an alcoholic; you're a child of God, blood bought and paid for, the debt has been paid for all your sins on a daily basis. That's what we believe."
Hiring Christian men
When Grant says he's worried about the tough neighborhood his ex-wife is now living in, on Boswell Avenue, he suggests the men do "a positive outreach thing, and let people know that there are Christians that do live in the area, there are people who have good blood running through their veins and good intentions, you know?"
"Yeah," says Shelby, "talking about playing some ball over there, bringing a grill over there, cooking some hot dogs ... make a presence, like you said. I'm down for that. Brother Tony said that he would go and Brother Price could sell hot dogs."
Price takes umbrage at this.
"Hey, I be playing some ball. I could beat half of them dudes playing basketball."
"I can play," Price protests. "I can play."
And when Dobbs talks about how he's just out of rehab for three weeks and he's looking, unsuccessfully, for a job, Price says he may have an answer.
"This Thursday night you're going to New London, man. There's a Bible study of Christian men, businessmen," he says. "Thursday night at 7 o'clock, just meet me here ... so you can come over there with us, man. They're businessmen, man, and they all Christians and they wanna give Christian men jobs."
For his part, Price has his own complaint, launching into an angry sermon about an issue close to his heart: illiteracy.
He is frustrated, he says, that no one will talk about this problem, which he says is at the root of so many of the problems in the black community: the unemployment, the crime, the broken homes.
"Eighty-five percent of our children are caught up in the juvenile justice system and functionally illiterate," he says. "We've got to intervene now, because if we don't intervene now, their parents are going to be visiting them either in prison or at the funeral parlor ...
"This goes back to God, because God put the Word in the Bible. God expects his people to know how to read, or he wouldn't have put it in the Bible. That's where the Word is at," he says. "God is powerful, man. He could have just put it where we could think about it, but he put it in a book! Because God expects people to learn how to read."
As the meeting comes to an end, Shelby talks about the devil.
"Anything that's important to us, man, the devil wants to tear down," he says. "He don't rest. He attacking everybody in this room in one way or another on a daily basis."
He gestures to Grant, "He's attacking you and your family."
He points to Dobbs, "He's attacking you and your family."
And he turns to Lees, "He's attacking you, personally. You and the devil got a personal relationship. He's attackin' you while you even clean, tryin' to tell you you're a failure. You're walking in victory and he's got you thinkin' you're failing ... "
"He busy. He's over here, over here, and over here, over there. He everywhere. He busy, man. That's what he do. Stay busy. That's his job," Shelby says. "So you gotta strap up, man, put on the full armor of God every day. Every day."
And of his impromptu ministry, Shelby says, "The church is not the building; the church is the body. The church is living and breathing. There's church in here right now."