The question was put to a group of youngsters on a Saturday morning as they assembled in New St. John Baptist Church for “A Gathering of Neighborhood Boys,” an initiative the church began this year in conjunction with its monthlong “Boy’s Academy,” which provides third-grade boys an academic boost into fourth grade.

The gathering is the next step in that ministry, the Rev. Dr. W. Marshall Myles said.

“We believe that our young men and the young men of this community need to have an opportunity where they can see that there is a better way and a better side to life than the violence and the killing that they see on television and in the streets of their own community,” Myles said.

Many of the church’s men have joined him and take seriously their role in the community. Along with the summer academy classes and this recent gathering, the church also sponsors ongoing mentoring and after-school tutoring.

“When we look at the culture, we see that a majority of African-American men are either in prison or they have just forsaken their duties and their responsibilities,” Myles said, adding that churches have to “step up and take on the worldly statement that ‘it takes a village’ to raise our kids in this culture that we now have. We all have to become responsible and become daddies to the children, to the boys.”

“You can only stand as tall as you are able to reach down and help a young boy grow up, so we here at New St. John take that to heart,” event emcee Jeffery Neal, a retired educator, said to about a dozen young men and 60 adults in the church sanctuary.

So in a speech competition, when they asked the youth what can be done to make our communities better, the youngsters had some ideas, and some thoughts on what they would like to do in life.

Jalen Butler, a 15-year-old sophomore at McKinley Magnet High School, wants to be a chemical engineer. Butler described the poverty and illiteracy of “the Bottoms” neighborhood, and offered three suggestions: build community gardens to provide fresh produce, bring in financial institutions and grocery stores, and reduce violence and crime.

“If we create more job opportunities and young people are working and making their own way, they will feel confident they can buy their own clothes, shoes, cellphones and pay to get their hair cut,” Butler said. “When people work for what they have, they have more respect for the property of others.”

Sixteen-year-old Roderick Gremillion Jr., a Woodlawn High School sophomore who aspires to be a cardiologist, said, “As a young black male, I fight every day to make sure I’m not another statistic.

“I believe the methods we use to solve our community issues should fall into three categories: quality education, more parental involvement and economic resources,” he said.

Zachary High School freshman Tedric Johnson, 14, wants to become a mechanical engineer. He thinks part of the solution lies in loving and respecting one another and putting “God first in everything we do. It is my hope that during my lifetime our neighborhoods will be free of hate, violence, crime, drugs and alcohol.”

“My suggestion on improving our community,” said 15-year-old Khalil T. Galloway, a Tara High School sophomore who wants to be a pilot, “is being aware, understanding, committed and internalized. We must be watchful, informed; guard against danger and difficulty.”

For their efforts in the speech competition, Butler won first place with Gremillion placing second and Johnson taking third.

Mentoring is important to the teens and the men

“It means a lot to me,” Butler said about the first-place win. “My mentors are Brother (J.W.) Vaughn and Mr. (Jeffery) Neal. At one point, I was going to give up on it, and they were there when I needed help.”

His mother, Willita Butler, echoed her son’s appreciation for the men of the church.

“He’s always looked up to the pastor. The pastor has always played a big part in his life,” Willita Butler said. “He is a God-fearing young man, and I’m proud to be his mom.”

“Jalen is a tremendous asset to the congregation and is one of the leaders in the youth ministry,” Myles added. “We’re sure proud of him.”

Patrick Donald, a master teacher at the Boy’s Academy who judged the speech contest, said he and the other men take seriously their roles as mentors.

“They (the boys) are looking up to the men on TV or the computer screen. They need real live men who can help them, who they can turn to in times of bad and times of good,” Donald said. “They need somebody who will pat them on the back, and they need somebody who can pick them up when they fall.”

Donald said he knows what the youngsters are facing.

“I’ve been there. I know what a lot of these boys have been through,” Donald said. “A deacon at a church I attended in Mississippi lifted me up. He didn’t have to do it, but he wanted to give back. He didn’t just talk.

“When you reach back, when you give back, you help more than that boy; it helps everybody,” Donald said. “It spreads through the community like a virus, a positive virus to the whole community and state.”

Eric White is a leader in New St. John’s men’s ministry and a member of Gulf South Men, a nondenominational team of Christian men dedicated to helping local churches establish and grow men’s ministries.

“This (Gathering of Boys) is important because it shows us where they come from and their perspective on the culture and society in which they live. They can see things we can’t see,” White said. “It gives us a way to reach out to them and reach back to them and pull them up.”

In addition to offering their own suggestions on how to improve life in Baton Rouge, the youngsters were given some practical advice for surviving encounters with law enforcement and encouragement to becoming a success.

Show respect to police, most are good people

Michael Nunnery, a defense and civil rights attorney, talked to the young men about how to handle police confrontations.

“Most police are good people,” Nunnery said. “But just like any other profession, there are going to be some that get out of line and do things that they shouldn’t do.”

“They are the law of that street, they are the law on the road, and you can’t win,” Nunnery said. “If they mistreat you and violate your rights under the Constitution, you need to try to live so you can get home and tell your mama and get yourself a lawyer.”

“You young folks, you’ve got to learn how to respect,” Nunnery said, pounding the lectern for emphasis. “When you get in front of a police officer, he’s going to demand respect. At that moment, like my daddy used to say, ‘Put your pride in your back pocket.’ ”

Nunnery handed out a seven-page list of do’s and don’ts for dealing with police in a wide variety of situations.

“I believe prayer is the answer,” Nunnery said. “Once we start walking like Jesus, talking like Jesus, acting like Jesus, being like Jesus, then automatically all the other stuff will fall in line. He asks us to love and be obedient. If we did that, we wouldn’t have to have all these meetings.”

Work extra hard to be a success

Veterinarian Dr. Raphael Malbrue talked to the youngsters about growing up in Baton Rouge, about how he always loved animals and overcame a speech impediment in middle school. He attended Tuskegee Institute and earned a doctorate of veterinary medicine in 2014.

Less than one percent of veterinarians are African-American, he said, and when he attends meetings, he is usually the only black man in the room.

Many times, he explained, he’s talked to someone on the phone and then when they meet, he sees a reaction that they did not expect him to be an African-American.

“From that day on, I have to work extra hard,” he said. “So my advice to you is, don’t be like one of those individuals that judges somebody from the outside.”

He encouraged the young people to pursue careers like veterinary medicine, where there are relatively few minorities, because those fields are wide open to them.

Malbrue closed his presentation by citing Pope John Paul VI, who said, “Whatever you want to do, do it now. There are only so many tomorrows.”