- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Rev. Leondis Fuller had three sons, and each of them died by the bullet.

At the funeral for the last one — after Mr. 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,” Mr. Fuller said.

This was in 2002. Mr. Fuller was fed up with Milwaukee’s inner-city violence and dysfunctional family cycles. Gunfire stole his three biological children — sons ages 12, 21 and 27 — 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.

His life did not start promisingly. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother struggled as a single parent in Milwaukee. He was 16 when he has his first son, Lamar, out of wedlock. The boy’s grandmothers raised 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?’ ” Mr. Fuller said. “He said, ‘Dad, he has all of yours.’ That was the blow. I went and got help that day.”

Finally clean, he 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 1993 in a drive-by shooting as he sat on a porch. Court documents say the shooter thought the boy was a rival gang member.

Then, Leondis Jr. In 2000, he was released from Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution after serving a sentence for discharging a firearm. “I believe he really felt he had another chance, the family thought he had another chance,” Mr. Fuller said. A month later, two men riddled the car in which he was sitting with bullets. A drug-related shooting, police said.

Finally, Mr. Fuller’s eldest. In 2002, with a drug conviction under his belt, Lamar Grayson was shot six times coming out of an apartment building; he died 20 days later.

Community groups and police have struggled in recent years to combat violence in Milwaukee’s inner city, where Mr. Fuller grew up and now lives and works. And, Mr. Fuller said, the place where most black men released from the state’s prisons end up.

Those are the people Mr. 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 addicts at a local church and gives motivational speeches to prisoners and at-risk children.

He leaves the house by 7:45 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t get home until after 10 p.m. All day, he answers calls from co-workers or from some of the 350 people he estimates he has mentored.

Charles Richardson, a 42-year-old father of eight, is one of the callers. The two met in 1997, when Mr. Fuller counseled him for drug and alcohol addiction. Mr. Fuller was there, too, in 1999, when Mr. Richardson relapsed and needed help.

Mr. Richardson called the minister an inspiration, saying Mr. Fuller helped him in his job as a facilitator at St. Vincent Family Resource Center, where he helps fathers. He has been there for four years — the longest job he has held in his life.

“It’s hard to describe him with one simple word — if there is something to enhance ‘fantastic,’ we could use that,” he said. “He was able to encourage me when I could not encourage myself.”

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