UPDATE: Not long after I published this post I learned that there had been another murder reported that was discovered this morning. Dan will be starting from Day-0 again.
In his sermon preparation as a Baptist minister, my dad took the pragmatist’s approach to help explain the faith that he professed, and he applied every tool available to him to teach the Biblical texts that formed the bases for these sermons. It was as much a mental exercise as a spiritual one to hear him preach. His explanation of what a prophet is came from his pulpit long before the advent of Wikipedia and other resources that are now at our fingertips anytime curiosity strikes. He said that a prophet is not so much one who predicts the future as one who delivers a message for God, one who in essence is a mouthpiece for a divine communication, one who speaks the truth to those around him. In the vernacular of my youth, one who tells it like it is.
As I spoke with The Billboard Guy this morning and watched the endless stream of supporters and well-wishers brave the summer morning heat to bring him cool drinks, I knew that I was in the presence of a modern-day prophet, and we talked about his prophetic role in St. Louis. Like Jeremiah or John the Baptist before him, doing something outrageous like taking up residence atop a billboard in a vacant lot in midtown was nothing short of inspired. It was Dan’s way of bringing awareness to the senseless killings in St. Louis the only way he knew to do it. The owner of a billboard company in St. Louis, Dan was – like most St. Louisans – heartsick over the daily stories of murder on our streets. Strangely, as Dan pointed out to me, as of this morning, the last period of 7 consecutive days when St. Louis witnessed no murders was a year ago, in the week immediately following Michael Brown’s August 2014 death. At that time, the attention of the world turned to St. Louis for several months, focused on the property destruction and tragic violence that marred expressions of outrage and sadness.
But, Dan, like so many St. Louisans, was focused on the less glamorous headlines that were being overlooked by world media. The rate of gun violence in St. Louis was setting new records for murders in our streets. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2014 homicides were at their highest since 2008, up 30%, and that rate continued to rise through the early months of 2015. In May alone, 22 homicides were reported, and the murder rate was nearly doubled from the previous year. Time and again, neighbors watched their loved ones gunned down and cried for help and an end to the violence. There was no “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3” count in the national news for these murders of ordinary citizens by ordinary citizens. Children were killed, elders, young people in the prime of their lives. So many were African Americans killed by African Americans – it gave a whole new meaning to the yard signs dotting the lawns throughout St. Louis, “Black Lives Matter.”
And so, Dan, The Billboard Guy, first held an on-line contest where he solicited original art in these categories: Community Unity, Racial Understanding and Healing; Anti-Bullying; Put Down the Pistol/Ceasefire/Anti-Violence.
The response was overwhelming and Dan had a hard time narrowing down the three winners. But, he did, and these pieces of art will now become fixtures on billboards in high-crime neighborhoods. The top 100 entries (of 350) can be seen online:
One of Dan’s ongoing projects is to erect more such billboards with positive messages. While I visited with Dan, two people talked to him about underwriting the cost of billboards that will bear the names of their lost loved ones, victims of the street violence in St. Louis.
But, today, happy news was being celebrated by Dan, by me, and by countless numbers of passersby: St. Louis passed a 7th consecutive day without a murder in our streets, and so Dan will officially come down from the top of his billboard. Almost every person who stopped or slowed down, waved, or walked up for a hug — an off-duty police officer with his little boy in the front seat of his car, a neighborhood woman who has brought Dan breakfast every day for nearly a month, a young woman whose fiance will be remembered as 2014 St. Louis murder victim #117, a church member waiting for services to start across the street — almost all were African American. But, skin color, racial heritage, economic status, religion are of very little consequence when a much larger commonality binds us all together: life.
Dan used his prophetic voice. He caught the imagination and interest of St. Louisans – even if the national media failed to pick up on this. He has not been without his detractors. One woman chased him on foot, calling him a “white devil”, and that altercation resulted in Dan having a broken foot! Even so, for every negative encounter, Dan has ten positive ones to recount. Dan told me that he had actually witnessed opposing gang members meet and shake hands at his billboard. This morning, everyone who came by thanked him, crediting his determination and deep heart of love for raising awareness in our community. His prophetic voice was heard and they believe that Dan’s efforts had something to do with the current cessation in violence.
I had to confess to Dan my skepticism that he would ever come down from that billboard had more to do with my disbelief in human nature than belief in his ability to help effect change. Without even realizing it, I had lost my belief in the goodness of human nature and allowed myself to become so hardened against violence that I could not imagine anything prevailing over the dark forces that muster and motivate inhumane actions. But, I stood there and cried tears of joy along with him and others, and when I admitted that I was his latest “convert” in the belief of the fundamental goodness of human beings, Dan jumped up in the air, waved a triumphant fist heavenward, and said, “Yes! Thank you! That’s what I love to hear!”
Thank you, Dan – your voice is just what we all needed to hear!
View Dan’s web site: