Through his G.A.N.G. Inc., “Uncle” Joe Hunter works to reach the youth of Frayser. His daily work happens through after-school programs, counseling or just the simple expression of love.
Uncle Joe Hunter recalls a time he took 15 gang members to his private lake to fish.
These are young men, hardened by the street. But as Hunter scaled and gutted the fish, the men were a little squeamish at the sight. The men joined Hunter and his family inside for a dinner, one that they were responsible for making happen.
“Just in those small lessons, they’re life lessons for these young men,” said Hunter, founder of G.A.N.G. Inc., a year-round youth enrichment ministry working with Frayser’s youth. “A lot of our kids are missing a center moment. A moment in your day when you close out the outside world and get into your own space. … There are so many opportunities to help these young people if you just get out with them. If you don’t get to know them you won’t tame the violence. If you don’t know the kid with the gun you can’t stop him. The best way is first start a relationship with him.”
And that’s a big part of the work Hunter does in Frayser. His previous life experiences give him that “original gangster” respect that helps him reach the kids where they are.
Hunter grew up in Detroit in what he calls a stable home with both parents. His father worked at Chrysler and was a preacher. He had four brothers and two sisters.
Hunter said he and his siblings were disciplined and taught the right things to do. Being the second youngest, he also saw his siblings’ struggles take place in front of him. One sister was a madam and heroin addict. His brothers were in a gang. Hunter is the only one of the seven without a felony record.
But he has his own crime-filled past. At 8 he started the junior version of his brothers’ gang. He often skipped school when he would break into garages to steal transistor radios. Their mother decided the family needed to move from the east side of Detroit to a middle-class African-American suburb on the southeast side of the city.
The brothers quickly decided they’d rule this neighborhood. The first week at elementary school they started a mob fight. Hunter spent a short time in Tuskegee, Alabama, with extended family. He got into a fight there, too.
Back in Detroit, Hunter continued finding his way to trouble. He also found himself on a street corner dealing drugs. A preacher kept visiting him. Eventually, Hunter decided to let the man take him back home.
“I grew up with a strong sense of character; however I decided to do wrong things,” Hunter said. “A couple of my guys go in and out of jail and say, ‘Unc, don’t you ever get tired of me?’ I say the reverend didn’t get tired of me. He kept coming back to that corner.”
Fast forward a few years when Hunter joined his brother and uncle on the road with Ray Charles.
“I was on the verge of killing a guy who abused my sister,” Hunter said. “I told Ray Charles, ‘Thank you for taking me out of Detroit.’ Now I’ve been around the world 13 times, lived the lavish rich life. The Rolls, the Mercedes, the women, the cocaine for $25 a gram in Brazil. The life. I’m thankful for it but it almost killed me.”
Charles might have gotten Hunter out of Detroit, but it was Raelette Trudy who ultimately saved him. It took a long time but Hunter finally convinced Trudy to marry him. They left the road and settled in her hometown of Memphis.
Hunter was involved in the creation of the Stax Music Academy and the work of the Soulsville Foundation in that neighborhood. Today, Hunter continues work producing shows, including the Southern Heritage Classic.
But his real life calling is as a minister working in Frayser. Hunter started an after-school program and visited with students as a volunteer in school cafeterias.
“When they found out I wasn’t a cop they couldn’t believe I was a preacher showing love,” he said. “I begin telling stories. I have to go in gangster role. Then they saw my consistency. These kids have very little consistency in their lives other than police. They don’t see their daddy enough and might not see their mom enough. What’s consistent? The dope man, gangs, crime, drugs and sex. Church is closed after church but drug houses are open 24 hours. What options do these kids have?
“When you grow up where the call of the day is mom smoking a blunt and you just want to learn algebra, it’s difficult. I can’t study at home because there’s a party every day. And y’all want me to be successful? I feel all that.”
Hunter started an after-school program where he regularly crosses gang boundaries. His ministry is in its 15th year, including 10th at the North Frayser Community Center.
Sitting with Hunter for any length of time in his office at the community center it doesn’t take long to see the respect the youths have for him, and the care he shows them. Every few minutes someone pokes his or her head in. It might be a teen girl saying hello or a boy who has been suspended from school for fighting who comes in for a dressing down of sorts.
And Hunter never allows them to leave without first making an introduction to the visitor in the room. He shows them compassion, but he also clearly wants to teach them respect.
The center has a basketball court, and there are young men playing today who not that long ago might’ve been outside shooting craps and smoking. There is a room with girls exercising, and another that features several computers donated by Southwest Tennessee Community College and K97.
Hunter has unique methods, to be sure. But his years of experience on the streets of Detroit give him what he feels are the real ways to reach the young people of Frayser. He said he can’t reach them all, but that doesn’t keep him from trying.
It’s easy to sense the emotion when he talks to a young teen girl who is a few months pregnant.
“I sink,” he said. “I get a picture of what it will be like. I’ve seen it too many times over and over. She’s going to go through it mostly by herself. Your buddies might like it on Facebook but it comes back to you. … Where is the place for her? Where is the place she can go within her community? She’s not asking for a handout but she does need encouragement and help. We can’t keep saying it’s OK. No, it’s not OK. When does it get not OK for babies raising babies? Haven’t we seen enough of the results of that?”
Hunter cites stats that nearly 92 percent of households in Frayser are female heads of households. “One woman with four to five kids with no uncles, brothers, grandfathers. I know both my grandfathers. I know my great-grandfather. I knew my auntie and uncle. When you grow up with nothing physically and then nothing mentally or spiritually; we didn’t have anything when I grew up but I didn’t know we were poor. … Now these kids grow up where they have to have bling. You’ll never have it. But they don’t understand it because when life has been bling bling since age 2.”
There is also anger. Every year for the last 10 years Hunter has had a peace and unity festival in the adjacent park. It started after the death of one of his students at Frayser High School.
The student joined a gang. He attended an event at a rival school, and was killed by a rival gang.
“I preached his funeral. I was pissed now,” Hunter said.
He called a truce and invited both gangs to the school. One boy brought a gun to school anyway. To reach the kids, it’s more than taking the weapon away.
“I might go to a brother to talk to him. I’m not taking his pistol,” Hunter said. “If I take that pistol he’ll get another one. The pistol can’t hurt anyone unless he picks it up and uses it. Let’s get to his head and heart. That takes time. That’s a relationship. You have to show you love him and he’s got to know it.”
The aforementioned student suspended for fighting? It’s not clear if Hunter knew the situation before the young man enters the room. But he quickly figures out the whole story as the boy stumbles through parts of it, slowly revealing facts about the fight.
“You don’t know why you fought or who won,” he tells the boy with booming authority. “So what is the objection in fighting? You don’t know, again. … Take responsibility. How do you not do this? Keep walking away. Back up some more.
“This started with checking. Quit checking folks. Y’all don’t have to get violent because somebody checked me. You checked him first. How did I know you’ve been in a fight? I see your eye. … I don’t want to preach your funeral because you want to be brave or hard. To hell with that fight. Walk away and live. A good run is better than a bad stand any day.”
Hunter concludes his talk by telling the boy he loves him while demanding he introduce himself and shake hands with the visitor in the room. Tough love, yes, but possibly just enough to break through with this one student. Or possibly another step in the progression toward another funeral. The ending is still to be determined, but Uncle Joe hopes he can make a difference.
He has a home in the North Frayser Community Center for now. Hunter said he’s hopeful a city plan from 2012 to use community centers as base for gang intervention will be used.
“It’s not just gangs; we have to love them, too,” he said. “Prevention is needed in elementary schools. Prevention and intervention is needed in middle schools and high schools. I got parents calling me because their kid was jumped in the elementary school bathroom. Well, his daddy is a Crip. What you think he’s going to be?”
Before Hunter wraps up the visit, he pulls out a book filled with pictures and information about mentees of his through the years. It has 55 pages of mentees and they are all serving time, most for murder.
“Now they’re all real adults in the system,” he said. “How do I sleep on that? When I watch the news I usually know the shooter and the victim. I’ve had to go to court for the shooter and preach the funeral for the victim. I never turn my phone off. When the phone rings at night I’m always hoping it’s not another dead kid. … I can’t leave these kids. There are so many of them and it’s generational. I want their real reality to be real and not some Facebook Instagram dream that I’ll make it one day.”