South Side advocate works to end violence one person at a time

By Holly Zachariah
The Columbus Dispatch

They gathered in the street beside the Family Missionary Baptist Church, grasped one another's hands and bowed their heads and prayed aloud.

We are always walking forward with the expectation of a new day …

A couple of young boys playing basketball on a worn-out hoop across the alley stopped to watch and to listen.

We are here today because we’re trying to save these young people’s lives and, we as black men, need to stand up and be the mentors God made us to be …

The group, some 120 strong, included young and old alike, both women and men. Some dressed in their Sunday best, others wore jeans and airbrushed T-shirts honoring a loved one lost to the streets. Some have left the life of a gang-banger behind while others only hope to.

The man known on these South Side streets simply as Brother Cecil turned to someone beside him and reminded him, “Let’s be present. That’s how we make a change. Be present for peace.” Then, just as this Ministries4Movement group had done for the 96 consecutive Sunday afternoons before this one last month, they marched off through the neighborhood.

Four young drummers and a cymbalist led the way, providing the cadence as the group marched for about 30 minutes in solidarity of peace and social justice, for healing and unity love, all in hopes of providing those who too often squander second chances a hand up to a better life, one free of violence.

As they marched up Wilson Avenue toward East Livingston Avenue in one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, 10-year-old Nacir Groce lost his grip on one of his drumsticks. It flew out of his hand and landed at the edge of the grass. Cecil Ahad jumped out of the line, scooped it up, and handed it back. He smiled at Nacir — who was wearing a snappy black suit and a white silk tie imprinted with the words of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — and gave the boy’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze. Together, they marched on side by side.

This is what Ahad does so well for everyone. He picks up their sticks, if you will. If he sees someone misstep, he helps them regain their footing. If he sees them losing their way, he gives them a map.

He leads or has his hand in too many organizations and programs to list — including Ministries4Movement (which is an umbrella for a number of community organizations) and the mentoring nonprofit group he founded first more than a decade ago, Men for the Movement — that all have the same goals: helping the black community stop the violence that kills so many of its own, and providing the education, relationship-building skills and respect for themselves and for others that is so key to living a legitimate, productive, healthy and happy life.

Lots of people lead organizations. What makes Ahad different, say those who witness his work, is that his own long-ago troubled past means he knows of what he speaks and that he has consistently and without relent been present on the streets for two decades as a mentor, day in and day out.

Sometimes, he polices the community he knows so well himself. He hangs out on street corners and that means, even if for only an hour, he says, no one sold dope there or shot someone. He’s been known to, late at night, sit in a chair at the edge of one of these streets just to keep watch.

He has played a key role in his neighborhood’s involvement in Columbus and Franklin County health officials’ efforts to lower the high rate of infant deaths.

He leads parenting and sexual-health classes and, along with Family Missionary’s pastor, the Rev. Frederick LaMarr, mediates conflicts in the neighborhood before they escalate to a killing.

“These dudes on the streets are angry. Their friends are dead. They want to play tough with a gun. But they really are that way because they have no hope. They think nobody cares if they live or die,” said Ahad, 61. “So we intervene. Working with the babies, the kids, the women. You’ve got to reach the whole family. You’ve got to the present. Every day. ”

“I should be dead. But I’m not.”

When Ahad knocks regularly on South Side doors, checking on people and handing out pamphlets about all programs Ministries4Movement offers, he does so with a heart for service that few who knew him when he was a young man growing up on the East Side thought he would have.

Cecil Ahad greets community members during the Ministries for the Movement March in Columbus in November. [Andrea Noall/Dispatch]

Ahad doesn't hide from the fact that he's been in prison. What he doesn’t always offer up right away, however, is why. He shot his girlfriend to death in 1977 when he was 21. Convicted of murder, he spent a total of about 17 years in prison over two stints. All that is 20 years behind him now, but he certainly uses it as a teaching moment with those he mentors.

“According to every statistic and predictor, I should be a failure,” Ahad said, sitting in the offices and small store run by his Men for the Movement on East Livingston Avenue. He also owns a few properties and runs his own successful janitorial company called Morally Excellent Services. Between them, he and his wife, Vickie, have nine children and more than a dozen grandchildren.

Scattered on the coffee table before him are several folders, each one labeled with something he teaches in classes: Moral responsibility, entreprenaurship, mentorship.

Not for a minute, he says, does he ever forget where he came from.

“I should be dead. But I’m not,” he said. “My wife and I thank God every day for our blessings. I hope that I’m a connector, a bridge, that can bring people together to change this city.”

Sue Wolfe is a founding member of the United Methodist Church for All People on Parsons Avenue, where her husband, the Rev. John Edgar, is pastor. Together they run its nonprofit missionary arm, Community Development for All People. Retired from the Ohio Department of Health, Wolfe has worked closely with Ahad on the initiative to reduce infant-mortality rates on the South Side.

“The youth of the community listen to Cecil, and that earned respect makes him effective in ways others cannot be,” she said. "Sitting on those corners, people came to know him, came to know he was more than somebody on the outside saying ‘This is what you should do.’ They knew that he cared about his community and that he cared about the people around him."

She said what else that sets Ahad apart is his consistency.

”He holds people accountable," she said. "He can be effective only because the young men in the neighborhood see his authenticity and he doesn't turn away from them."

A sanctuary

Ministries4Movement and its monthly marches grew from tragedy. The killings in the 43205 and 43206 zip codes were out of control — almost 50 in a decade, far more than in any other concentrated area of town.

The tipping point, though, came on Aug. 13, 2009. That’s when a 15-year-old looking for money lost in a dice game shot and killed 20-year Dominique “Juve” Searcy Sr., on a sidewalk there.

LaMarr, Ahad and former gang leader Dartangnan Hill came together and decided to make the church a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word. It became a safe haven. There, the men decided, they would feed and teach and counsel and minister to and pray for whomever came with a need.

Members of Family Missionary Baptist Church hold hands as they pray during the Ministries for the Movement March. [Andrea Noall/Dispatch]

They mediated fights between gangs. They focused on self-care and self-confidence and healthy relationships and habits.

And, after teaming up with Ohio State University professor and respected youth gun-violence and urban-poverty researcher and community activist Deanna Wilkinson, they all but erased the homicides over time in the most-dangerous parts of that former killing zone.

It wasn't been without controversy, though.

“People’d say, ‘You got the gangs in there, you bringing in the trouble.’ Later, we heard, ‘Oh, you're the black Muslims,' referring to Ahad's and others' relationship with the Nation of Islam. "We didn’t back down," Ahad said. "I get tired and my heart hurts sometimes. Too much death. But it's so important and so powerful to be out here and try to enlighten the world.”

The first of those now 98 consecutive South Side marches took place in November 2009 not long after Searcy died.

His older brother, Mercedes Seville Searcy, is Ahad’s nephew. He couldn’t get over the loss.

“As the older brother, Juve was my responsibility. I felt like I failed him, like I failed my Mom. My response was to get revenge,” he said. “I was hurt. I was devastated. I was lost. So I ran around this neighborhood causing commotion.”

His path since hasn't always been right and has not once been easy. Searcy has been to prison more than once. He has shot at people and he’s been shot. He has 11 children now and three on the way. He is 30.

But he’s still alive and has never killed anyone. That’s something here. He said he now is learning to be a father to his children, and seeking skills that will help him land a decent job. He credits LaMarr and Ahad for guiding him now, and said the two men have turned around untold lives, including his own.

“There’s no real status you can put behind Cecil Ahad,” Searcy said. “He isn’t coming at you from the point of view of a pastor or deacon. He comes and sits on the block with you and he never gives up. He’s been where we are. That matters.”

The toughest men on the street have bawled like babies during sessions with Ahad, he said.

“The streets get the best you got. You think nothing is possible. But Brother Cecil don’t turn away. He digs deep, down to the root, to try and get a complete understanding," Searcy said. "He digs to find where all that anger is coming from inside us. He helps us fix it.”

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