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If you want to change the world, be like David Fattah | Ronnie Polaneczky

David Fattah, who died Dec. 5th, spent his life meeting people where they were at - which inspired them to get to someplace better.

David and Falaka Fattah, founders of the House of Umoja. David died on Dec 5th.
David and Falaka Fattah, founders of the House of Umoja. David died on Dec 5th.Read moreEric Mencher (custom credit) / Inquirer File Photo

Since David Fattah’s death, stories of who he was and how his life mattered are crowding the Facebook pages of those who loved him.

They’re on the lips of the crying men paying condolence visits to his widow in the West Philly home she shared with her husband of 50 years.

They’re being repeated in the neighborhoods where Philly’s gang wars raged in the 1970s.

Their details differ, but their theme is the same and needs to be heard by anyone who cares about this city: David Fattah gamely met people where they were at, saw who they were and all they could be — and thousands of lives changed for the better because of it.

I can’t stop thinking of how Philly would change for the better if more of us did the same.

Fattah, 75, who died on Dec. 5 from cardiac arrest, was known in the city long before his son Chaka – the former U.S. congressman – made their surname famous (and then infamous, after his 2016 corruption conviction).

Fattah and his wife, Falaka, now 87, gained notoriety in the 1970s after they learned that one of their six sons had joined one of the growing number of Philly gangs whose members were killing one another. Terrified and wanting to understand the dangerous world their boy had entered, they invited his gang to live in their family’s West Philadelphia home.

The move was beyond audacious. But audacity was called for in a city trying and failing to defuse the gang violence that was terrorizing communities. They christened their home the “House of Umoja” in honor of the Swahili word for “unity.” And they left the front door unlocked so that gang members could find sanctuary from violence – their own and others — any time of the day or night.

Their experiment ballooned over the subsequent decades as the Fattahs became surrogate family to thousands of young men hungry for what they offered freely:

Love – both tender and tough. Stability and encouragement. A hot meal or warm jacket. Mediation with volatile relatives or angry girlfriends. Help finding work, a lawyer, a tie for a job interview, or the courage to turn themselves in for pulling a trigger.

And, mostly, respite from the deadly influence of the macho gangs whose regard the young men valued too highly. In those pauses, they were able to make a different choice about how to handle a slight and to imagine a more hopeful future than one that ends in a barrage of bullets.

The couple couldn’t save every young man seduced by the faulty glamour of life on the corner. But as gang-related homicides slowly dropped in the city – thanks in part to a remarkable peace treaty written by David Fattah and signed by 32 warring street gangs – the couple counted more victories than losses.

David and Falaka were a team, so it’s impossible to honor the one without including the other. But the team never would have come together had David not done something remarkable shortly after he met Falaka in 1968 at a community gathering.

He was a single, childless 25-year-old college student who wanted to write for the small magazine Falaka was editing. She was a 37-year-old widowed mother of six sons with no desire to wed again.

They knew each other only a few months when he handed her an article to edit. Embedded in the copy on page 2 was a question he was too shy to ask in person: “Will you marry me?”

Falaka was flabbergasted.

“We had never been on a date, had never even kissed,” she says. “I thought he was crazy.”

Nonetheless, she scribbled a neutral response in the article’s margin — “I’ll take it under consideration” — and handed it back.

She softened to his proposal as they spent more time together and as she watched him “court” her sons — writing a comic book for one, playing chess with the others, talking and listening to them the way a father would. Within eight weeks, they were married.

That move alone cements David Fattah in a Great Men Hall of Fame, says City Councilman Curtis Jones, one of the former gang members David mentored.

“It’s one thing to be a good father to your children. It’s another to marry a woman with six sons and adopt them as your own,” says Jones. “But if you then invite close to 3,000 young men into the fold, there’s no word for how special that is. David showed boys, by example, how to be men.”

He did the same in the decades he spent as a Philadelphia public school teacher, retiring early to care for Falaka, who is bedridden by a host of medical maladies.

In late November, when he was rushed to Lankenau Hospital, where he was found to be in kidney failure and eventually lapsed into unconsciousness, his only thought was of her well-being.

“Who will take care of you?” he said woefully on his way out the door.

“Those were the last words he ever said to me,” says Falaka, who is surrounded by family and says she is not worried about how she will fare, physically, now that David is gone.

But emotionally, she can take life only one moment at a time without the man who met her where she was at and spent their entire marriage doing the same for others.

Which helped so many of them get to someplace better.

Sleep in peace, David Fattah. You’ve earned a rest.