Workspace: The Rev. John Guns, senior pastor at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church
For years, the Rev. John Guns has tried to save young men, to convince them that a life of crime is the wrong choice.
He's preached from the pulpit, led marches through neighborhoods and made passionate pleas alongside other pastors. He even held a revival in 2001 in response to a bounty being placed on his life.
But far too many times, he's found himself searching for words to comfort family and friends of young men lost to violence.
"I've probably preached more funerals of young men murdered than anyone in the city over the last several years," said Guns, senior pastor at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville.
He knows that on some level, many of those men are the reason for their demise. "But I also understand that is someone's child, someone's boy, someone's friend," he said.
Guns has worked hard to make young men – particularly African-Americans – understand that "accountability, integrity and morality will cover you when you don't have money."
He knows it's easy for people to blame the criminal justice system, the schools and the economy. And, he said, history shows there are problems within those systems.
"But we must also learn to take responsibility," Guns said.
His latest effort to teach that lesson is Operation Save Our Sons, a national group that targets males ages 10 to 18, particularly in the African-American community. Guns said there are 25 cities or areas interested in joining the effort, including Chicago, Charlotte, Houston and Richmond, Va.
The group stresses father-son relationships, the importance of getting an education, how to handle conflict and how to build character.
"It's not a black thing, it's not a white thing," he said. "It's about integrity and character."
An event this Saturday will focus on "what it means to be a father," Guns said.
The "Fathers Calling Fathers" event is 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at Ribault High School. Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is the closing presenter. (For information, call (904) 595-6105 or visit ososnational.org.)
Guns had special instructions for Vitti: "I told him I don't want him to be up there as the superintendent. I want him to talk about how he manages being a dad with four children who need him."
That balance is something he struggles with himself, as he works to ensure he is there for his wife, Sonjanique, and their daughters – Alexis, 20; Deijah, 13; and Tayler, 8.
"I know when I need to be there for my daughters," he said. "Some men are so busy saving the world that we lose our children."
It's one of the lessons he learned from his father, who was a pastor for 35 years.
From his mother, Guns inherited a passion for helping women in need, which is the foundation for a new transitional home for women who are coming out of prison.
The home has its first client and the church is looking for a larger facility to accommodate six to eight women and have a common area so their children can visit.
The home is named Quincey House, after his 83-year-old mother whose father named her Quincey because he wanted a son. His parents, who have been married for 66 years, traveled from their Virginia home to Jacksonville for the facility's dedication.
Guns wishes the young men he's trying to reach came from a home like his – two parents who invested in him and his three siblings. But he knows that's not reality.
So he'll continue to march, to preach, to plead on his quest to save a generation one young man at a time.