Dewitt Babers preached about violent crime and drugs in the only way he knew how: He used his own experience.
His family has chosen to memorialize Babers, who died this year, with a billboard that was put up Tuesday at 18th Avenue and 11th Street, Rock Island.
The words “stop the violence” stare down at oncoming 11th Street traffic in bold red letters.
The Babers billboard towers over a busy intersection and gateway into the west-end neighborhood where he spent his entire life, except for the years he spent in prison.
It’s the largest sign his parents, the Rev. Minnie Babers and Dan Babers II, could erect in honor of a man who spent his final years planting “stop the violence” yard signs all over Rock Island.
Babers, 58, died Sept. 21 of pneumonia and was buried on his birthday, Sept. 28.
“It was in his heart to love people,” his mother, pastor of Apostolic Temple of Victory, said of her son.
He most recently had served as assistant pastor and youth counselor at her church, which once met in a building across the street from the Rock Island County Jail and now hosts services at the Holiday Inn-Rock Island.
“He was concerned about the souls of young people being saved,” his mother said.
Dewitt Babers had a long road before his mother was convinced his soul had been saved.
He was raised in a “good Christian home” to parents who have been married for 67 years, his mother said. But somewhere along the way, very early in his life, he gave in to peer pressure, and by about the late 1960s and early ’70s, he became addicted to heroin and cocaine, she said.
“By a certain age, he went astray,” she said. “He saw other kids drugging up. He wasn’t raised that way.”
At 19, Dewitt Babers was sentenced to three years of probation for forgery and mail theft on Sept. 13, 1973. He sold heroin a year later, so Rock Island County Circuit Judge Robert D. Morgan sentenced Babers to six years in prison for violating the terms of his probation, according to a Dec. 12, 1974, Quad-City Times story.
He was sentenced to probation again on Oct. 28, 1982, on charges of theft and possession of a controlled substance. That probation was revoked after Rock Island County Circuit Judge David DeDoncker determined that Babers, then 29, had robbed a 59-year-old man just weeks into his probation, according to a Jan. 14, 1983, Quad-City Times story. He was sentenced to four years in prison at the time.
“You’ll either end up in the penitentiary or the grave,” his mother said. “That’s his warning to the youth he counseled. He’d also tell them that if they end up in the grave because of street violence, they weren’t going to make it to heaven.”
His conversion to God came after his seventh time in jail, his mother said.
“He had been out in the world tearing down things, and the holy ghost stepped in and stopped him,” she said.
By 2002, Dewitt Babers, then 48, grew more alarmed by the rate at which young men were killing each other in local gang-related shootings or were being locked up for drugs that he turned his attention to counseling, his mother said.
“I told him to just keep talking to them,” she said. “When they see you, they’ll listen to you.”
Dewitt Babers didn’t want to see young men going down the same road he had, his mother said. This became especially true with his own children.
“He saw in me a repeated triangle, like when he was a kid,” one of his sons, 21-year-old Dion Babers of Rock Island, said. “He tried to save me from my lifestyle of paranoia, of kill or be killed.”
Dion Babers called his father a role model.
“You always think before you act,” Dion Babers said when asked what advice his father gave. “Think about everything, the good and the bad that’ll come out from an act you perform. That is really hard to get into young people’s brains. We really don’t understand that. We act before we think. He was a good teacher.”
Rock Island Alderman Terry Brooks, whose ward includes Dewitt Babers’ neighborhood, said Babers talked a lot of young men out of hurting one another.
“Who better than a person who’s been there,” Brooks said. “He used his experience to enlighten others. His experience was a powerful message.”
Brooks added, “When talking about reaching young kids and changing their attitude, Dewitt did his part.”
Another one of Babers’ sons, 18-year-old Richard Babers of Rock Island, said he was bitter toward his father until he began attending church services and watched his father counsel other young men.
“I didn’t think it was possible for someone to do what my dad did,” Richard Babers said. “At first, I heard a lot of negative things about my dad. Then when I started coming around, I saw he was a man of God.”
Richard Babers said he still attends church.
Dion Babers said his father really believed the “stop the violence” signs could save lives.
“If God saves lives by Bible scriptures, my dad can catch a couple of kids with a few words,” Dion Babers said. “They might have a change of mind. You never know.”