The Rev. Slim Lake smiled as he strode through the crowd of nearly 200, his long dreadlocks wafting on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Shaking and slapping hands, Lake looked almost like a politician — except that most of the people around him were too young to vote, and the Hamilton Street block where his central-city cookout took place is the kind of neighborhood most politicians avoid.
Lake, 57, came from the streets and stayed. He’s made a career out of helping people in the hood — or exploiting them, depending on whom you believe or what newspaper you read.
If you read a front-page article in The Blade on March 30, you know about his latest legal problems. Police said they found drugs inside the Hamilton Street headquarters of BOSS Angels Inc., his nonprofit group to help kids. A pretrial hearing is set for this month.
Lake told me that he and his organization had nothing to do with any drugs in the house, which he said has served as a shelter for young people who have no place else to stay.
But here’s what you didn’t read in The Blade, because no reporter came: The cookout Lake sponsored two weeks ago launched his latest project, a volunteer moving service to help people and businesses. It also gives kids a chance to earn and learn.
The moving service — staffed by members of BOSS Angels — is free. But the group accepts donations to pay the workers and help fund future programs. On a recent job, each young worker got $30 for eight hours of work.
“It may not be the money that drug dealers are offering, but it’s money with potential — money that can create legal dreams,” Lake said. “We want our kids to believe they can be anything they want to be.”
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About 80 young people belong to BOSS Angels, most of them ages 11 to 23. Lake plans to start a gang intervention program soon and is even considering etiquette classes for young people. Above all, he wants them to learn from his mistakes.
For several years during the 1980s, Lake was addicted to crack. From 1985 to 2010, he served three bits — a total of 10 years in prison — for drugs, money laundering, loansharking, and trafficking in food stamps.
The money he made from those activities went to his constituents, said Lake, who became well-known in Toledo for his God’s Church of the Streets, charity work, and services in Gunckel Park.
“The 1985 drug charges were the only conviction that was all about me,” he said. “Once I gave myself to the Lord in 1990, all the money went to helping other people.”
Engaging and eccentric, Lake wears a black shoe on one foot and a white one on the other, a symbol of racial unity. After he got out of prison in 2010, Lake self-published a book titled The Now Testament: Featuring the New Gospel.
But even when he’s doing good, Lake generates controversy. Last summer, about 60 members of BOSS Angels tried to deliver care packages — hygiene and cleaning supplies — to needy seniors and families in the McClinton Nunn Homes on Nebraska Avenue.
Sheriff’s deputies showed up and wouldn’t let them in. The housing authority had banned the event, saying it was political.
Lake turned a potential confrontation into a teachable moment. He told his kids to stay cool and shake hands with the deputies.
“I respect law enforcement,” Lake said. “The young people had to understand that the deputies were just following orders and doing their jobs. They felt good about shaking their hands. If you stay calm and use your mind, you can always come up with a peaceful solution.”
Walk around the central city with Lake and you’ll find that almost everyone seems to know and like him. Still, many community leaders keep a polite distance. One nonprofit operator told me he respects Lake but won’t work with him, officially, because he fears losing donors.
Whatever else he’s done, Lake has mentored and supported, financially and emotionally, dozens of kids who have little else — young people whom practically no one else in Toledo would, or could, touch.
No one is all good or bad. We’re all somewhere in that vast middle, struggling to get to the other side. We talk a lot about diversity, but reject people who have stumbled and fallen regardless of any good they’ve done.
There’s more than one side to every story — and every person. Our worst moments shouldn’t define us, as long as we learn from them.
“I’m not ashamed of nothing I’ve done,” Lake told me. “I’ve recognized my mistakes and turned them into knowledge. By teaching it to kids, I strengthen them and myself.”
Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade.