MILWAUKEE — The Rev. Leondis Fuller had three sons, and each of them died by the bullet. At the funeral for the last one -- after Fuller gave his eulogy -- he implored young people to come forward.
More than three dozen mourners in their teens and 20s peered into the casket.
"Now, as you make your way back to your seats, I want each of you to shake my hand, give me a hug and tell me you're going to change," Fuller said.
"Change!" he shouted as each person embraced him. "I want you to change!"
This was in 2002. Fuller was fed up with Milwaukee's inner-city violence and dysfunctional family cycles. Gunfire stole his only three biological children -- his 12-year-old, 21-year-old and 27-year-old sons -- all within a half mile and nine years.
But he was not embittered.
He spent 20 years addicted to alcohol and 14 years to drugs, but he turned his life around. Now, at 48, he spends nearly all his waking hours helping other battered souls, including fathers right out of prison, and drug and alcohol abusers, and fighting the violence that claimed his sons.
He was there for a recent candlelight vigil for Milwaukee's 2006 homicide victims, addressing a crowd packed into an inner-city church. He knew about grief, he told them.
"We can't just turn our back toward the crime and violence in our city," he said, speaking mostly without notes, his voice rising and falling.
"Amen," the crowd answered.
Afterward, a couple sitting in the pew behind Fuller told him how sorry they were to hear of the deaths of his children.
"It made me strong," Fuller told them. "Thank you."
Turns life around
His life did not start promisingly. His father was an alcoholic and his mother a struggling single parent in Milwaukee. When he was in high school, he got a girl pregnant; he was 16 when his first son, Lamar, was born. The boy's grandmothers reared him.
Any hopes of going to college were derailed by drugs and alcohol. He went to work as a machinist. He did not renounce his addictions until Father's Day 1990, when his stepson asked a drug dealer for $5.
"I asked him, 'What in the hell is wrong with you, asking him for money?' " Fuller said. "He said, 'Dad, he has all of yours.' That was the blow. I went and got help that day."
Finally clean, Fuller went to college and earned associate, bachelor's and master's degrees. He became a Baptist minister. He started making parenthood a higher priority.
Then he lost his sons, one after another.
The first was the youngest, Monte. He was killed in a 1993 drive-by shooting as he sat on a porch. Court documents say the shooter thought the boy was a rival gang member.
Then, in 2000, Leondis Jr. was released from Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution, where he had been sent for discharging a firearm. "I believe he really he felt he had another chance; the family thought he had another chance," Fuller said.
A month later, two men riddled the car in which he was sitting with bullets. A drug-related shooting, police said.
Finally, in 2002, his eldest. Lamar Grayson had been convicted of selling drugs. He was shot six times coming out of an apartment building and died 20 days later.
Their father has regrets. In his dark years, he was not wholeheartedly involved in their lives. He can't do anything about that now, he said, but he can move forward -- "I can do something to change what happens to people today."
There is so much to do. Community groups and police have struggled in recent years to combat violence in Milwaukee's inner city, where Fuller grew up and now lives and works.
It is, said Fuller, the place where most black men released from the state's prisons end up. According to Milwaukee Police Chief Nan Hegerty, there are 18,000 convicts on supervision in Milwaukee, and an expected surge in prison releases could lead to even more crime.
Those are the very people Fuller targets as director of mentoring and training at Word of Hope Ministries, and in his work running an organization that helps young fathers on probation or parole find jobs and become better parents. He also counsels drug and alcohol and gives motivational speeches to prisoners and at-risk youths.
During a group mentoring session in a church basement, Fuller worked with about 20 former criminals -- mostly men, but also a few women.
One exercise asked them how they would react if a great-looking woman or man asked them to have unprotected sex. An assistant mentor handed out playing cards that represented different consequences for each decision.
One man stood up. He had a black face card.
"The girl gave you HIV and you don't know yet whether she is pregnant," Fuller said.
A few in the group laughed. But Fuller believes an important point is being made: "This whole thing allows you to think about your decision before you go through making a decision. Because when you make them, the consequence can be greater than what you think."