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Baha'i faith transformed Tyree Byndom from 'thug' to activist, caring father

Thursday, April 25, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:49 p.m. CDT, Friday, April 26, 2013
Tyree Byndom has turned his life around through the Baha'i faith. Once a self-described "thug," he now takes pride in his social activism and hosts a local radio show.

COLUMBIA — Five minutes into Tyree Byndom's radio show at the KOPN/89.5 FM studio on East Broadway, his guest shows up.

It’s his mother, Debra Gentry. She takes a seat across from him, puts on headphones and adjusts her microphone.

In a bittersweet voice, she reminisces about raising Byndom as a single mother after getting pregnant when she was 14. His father was killed while robbing a store in St. Louis before he was born.

Gentry liked to spend time with Byndom and his younger brother on Sundays by taking them on "field trips" to parks, the state Capitol or on aimless drives down Interstate 70.

When he was 13, Byndom announced that he didn't want to go on the trips anymore.

"Those were very important to me," Gentry says now.

"That was a young kid thing," Byndom interjects. "That wasn't an older kid thing."

Gentry moved the family from St. Louis to Columbia in search of better schools and safer streets, but she couldn't keep Byndom from drifting into crime. He became a prolific burglar, nicknamed the "Rooftop Rogue." At 15, he was caught and sentenced to 18 months in the Juvenile Justice Center.

Despite the problems, Gentry offers a cheerful assessment of her experience raising him.

"I had fun," she says. "I didn't have friends. I had my kids."

Byndom's view of his childhood is more complicated. Through four years in the Marines, countless girlfriends and the birth of his first child, he avoided thinking about it. The memories were too painful.

Now, at 41, he’s come to terms with his rough past, which he often discusses on his radio show. He seems fascinated by it. Maybe he likes talking about it because it leads to a happier story — the one about how he found the Baha'i faith and turned his life around.

A new faith

Over the past few years, Byndom has become a prominent figure in Columbia’s black community, earning the attention of some of the most powerful figures in town. In January, Mayor Bob McDavid presented him with the Columbia Values Diversity award.

Three years ago, Byndom moved from the comfortable Cascades Subdivision in suburban Columbia to a home in "the ’hood," as he calls it, to become more involved in the Douglass Park Neighborhood and spread the Baha'i faith there.

A blend of work, faith, activism and family keeps him busy. He served as president of the Douglass Park Neighborhood Association for a year, bringing new energy to a group many say had grown dormant.

He's spoken at Columbia City Council meetings on issues ranging from race relations to public transit. He makes his living as a career coach, a human resources consultant and the owner of a rap label, Koppa 2 Gold.

He performs his own rap under the name Paladon. He has also become close to his oldest daughter after years of distance and shares custody of his two younger daughters.

But it hasn't always been this way. Twenty years ago, Byndom was a self-described "thug" who sold marijuana and got in bar fights. He kept several girlfriends at a time and was sometimes abusive to them.

"I kind of went wild," he says. "It was really bad."

Then, one March afternoon in 1999, Byndom was dozing on a couch when he had a dream. In the dream, he was staring at a star and heard his father telling him he'd send someone to teach him "the word."

"I just knew it was his voice even though I never heard his voice," Byndom says. "Maybe I heard his voice when I was in the womb."

Later that month, he met Jessica Heflin. She gave him a pamphlet about the Baha'i faith. He was transfixed. He knew it was what his father foretold in the dream.

Byndom quit drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, got rid of his guns and gave away his stash of marijuana. He gave up his "violent tendencies" and married Heflin.

"I became conscious of what it means to be a man," he says. "I was able to see more than self."

Spiritual buoy

On a cold, rainy Sunday morning in March, Byndom walks toward the Columbia Housing Authority project on Pendleton Street holding a book of the writings of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith.

"This weather makes me want to hibernate," Byndom say, but he forges ahead, explaining that home visits are one of the "tools" of Baha'i.

He knocks on a door and is welcomed inside by Karin Davis, 65. A retiree who lives alone, Davis uses a wheelchair because of a medley of ailments. Two signs on her walls remind her to take her pills. Her cabinets are plastered with sticky notes with motivational sayings scribbled on them.

After letting Byndom in, the power cord of a vacuum cleaner in the middle of Davis’ living room gets stuck in one of her wheels. Byndom bends down and pulls it out, then he carries the vacuum into a closet. Davis thanks him with a hug and a giggle.

The two met in October. Byndom had posted a note on Facebook asking whether anyone wanted to get lunch. Davis invited him to her apartment for chicken soup. Before long, Byndom helped convert her to Baha'i. Now he visits her most Sundays to discuss their faith.

Baha'i, a monotheistic religion founded in 19th-century Persia, says that its founder Baha'u'llah was part a line of prophets including Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, who each offered "dispensations" elevating humanity to new spiritual levels. The Baha'i faithful believe that "humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification in one global society," according to the Baha'i International Community’s website.

Davis calls Byndom her "buoy" in her struggle at the "deep end" of spiritual confusion. She doesn't shy from a debate, though. She spends much of this Sunday discussing with him whether an all-knowing God is compatible with the notion of free will.

"How could we have free will if he knows the end-products of our choices?" Davis challenges, leaning as close to Byndom as she can in her motorized wheelchair.

"But he doesn't know what we'll choose," Byndom counters.

"No. Really?"

"In the end, every one of us makes it back to God."

"I know."

"We have 120 years maximum," Byndom says, referring to the human life span. "That's what you got to do the best you can on Earth."

Get rid of otherness

In March, while co-hosting "Lokal Vokalz," a rap show on KOPN, Byndom bobs up and down to the beat while texting several people, including the mayor and Regional Economic Development Inc. President Mike Brooks.

Byndom says he hates politics. He wouldn't be involved if not for Baha'i, which urges its followers to fight for social justice, to "get rid of otherness."

"I would play Skyrim all day if not for Baha'i," Byndom said in reference to the popular video game.

One of the tools of his activism is the trio of radio shows he hosts every Saturday on KOPN, where he airs issues about the Douglass Park Neighborhood and the larger black community.

Radio is how Byndom met former First Ward councilwoman Almeta Crayton, who once co-hosted a show on KOPN. Crayton and Byndom became friends and have worked together on events such as Crayton's annual "Everyone Eats!" food drive.

Crayton, who served three terms on the council before losing her seat in 2008, has hope for Byndom as a leader but says he spends too much time meeting with politicians and too little time talking to people in the neighborhood.

"You have to earn our trust to lead the community," she said. "Get out on the street and lead these youngsters."

Byndom is out of touch with the neighborhood, she said, and especially the need for better jobs and activities for young people.

"Get out here and know the community; don't just say what they want," Crayton said. "My son's 23 and what he and his friends want is different from what (Byndom) thinks."

Matt Atkins, who founded the Citizens for Justice group to fight discrimination by Columbia police and has worked with the Douglass Park Neighborhood Association, agreed that in the past Byndom has not been enough of a presence in the neighborhood. But he thinks he’s changing.

“I think lately Tyree has been doing a better job,” Atkins said. “I think the strategy has been to build up some political capital with leaders in the community so he can help those who don’t have capital. That’s a strategy some people don’t understand.”

Atkins was Byndom’s co-host on "Straight Talk," a discussion show focusing on the black community, until he left last year because he was too busy. And Byndom has collaborated with him at Citizens for Justice.

The two recently submitted an open records request to the Columbia Police Department for the Columbia Ceasefire Initiative, a list of suspected shooters that the police have compiled. Some people in Douglass Park worry that they are under surveillance because they’re on the list.

“Tyree is passionate, he’s motivated,” Atkins said. “He’s constantly: ‘What’s the next thing to be done? What’s the next thing to be done? What’s the next thing to be done?”

Building trust

Ian Thomas and Karl Skala appeared on Byndom's show earlier this year while running for the Fourth Ward and Third Ward council seats, which they later won. They discussed unemployment among low-income youth and the problems it causes.

Byndom has helped Thomas with two organizations he leads: CoMet, a nonprofit promoting public transit, and PedNet, which seeks to make Columbia better for pedestrians and cyclists. Byndom even cajoled Thomas into appearing in a rap video he made for CoMet.

Skala worked with Byndom on Citizens Involved and Invested in Columbia, an organization that successfully fought the adoption of enhanced enterprise zones. The zones would have offered incentives to businesses in areas the city declared blighted.

Many residents feared the blight designation would lead to the abuse of eminent domain. That’s a touchy issue in the black community, which still mourns the destruction of the Sharp End Neighborhood by urban development projects in the 1960s.

Byndom gives mixed reviews to the city’s white leaders. They've made some progress on addressing unemployment and crime in the black community, but they have a long way to go, he says.

"When I first met them, they didn't know anything about the Sharp End at all," he says. "They didn't get it. They still don't get it.”

That historic disconnect has led to a deep well of distrust, he said. Many in the black community resent the actions of white leaders in the past.

To cite an example, he picked up a recent issue of Vox magazine and pointed to a cover story about the Sharp End Neighborhood.

"There was never an apology," Byndom said. "Never closure."

His solution is to try to build trust by creating dialogue, even if it's acrimonious. For example, Pat Fowler, president of the majority-white North Central Neighborhood Association, was recently invited on his show to discuss a boundary dispute between North Central and the Douglass Park neighborhood. Crayton and Wynna Faye, another Douglass Park activist, called in to debate Fowler. Although their conversation was heated, Byndom says it was a step toward trust.

Byndom has hope. At one of the meetings he's had with McDavid, the mayor came with a set of statistics regarding unemployment in the black community that he was concerned about.

"He could've come any way he wanted," Byndom said. "This was genuine."

Fatherhood

If Baha'i turned Byndom into a community activist, it also turned him into a caring father.

When his oldest daughter, Tyra, was born in 1992, Byndom was 21 and "not ready to be a father," Gentry, his mother, says.

He had just been kicked out of the Marines for having a fake ID. He was irresponsible in his love life, proud that he dated as many as 20 girls at the same time, he says.

Soon after Tyra was born, Byndom broke up with her mother. She moved with Tyra to California, and Byndom stayed out of their lives.

But his attitude toward parenting changed with Baha'i. He sought a more active role in Tyra's life, hoping to spare her from some of the pain of his own fatherless childhood.

Byndom quoted a line from one of his rap songs: "Generation curses become the focus of our destiny."

"That line means all the curses that were passed down to me are ones that I had to battle and take care of," he said. "I'm doing my best to take care of all of my vices, so I don't pass anything to my seeds."

Byndom and Tyra began visiting each other, and they grew close. They're working on a song about their relationship called "Irreplaceable." When Tyra graduated from high school in California two years ago, her father was there to watch.

Byndom is determined to provide a strong father figure from the start for the two daughters he has with Jessica Heflin.

On a recent Saturday evening, he’s busy presiding over a sleepover hosted by his 6-year-old daughter, Klaye. He hangs up the guests' coats and put their boots on a mat by the door. He makes frequent trips between the kitchen and the living room bearing plates of pizza and French fries, plastic cups of Sprite and paper towels.

As dusk sets in, Byndom leans over a mangled slice of pizza left on a plate: "Who took the cheese off this pizza?"

He looks at Klaye and her friends, who are crouched in front of a computer playing a video game. They don’t respond, but one of the girls glances up at him.

"Eva, did you take the cheese off the pizza?"

"Yeah."

He eats the slice. It's fasting season for the Baha'i faithful, and he hasn't eaten since before sunrise.

He was supposed to abstain from cigarettes all day but couldn't resist lighting up several Kools and Decades. After not smoking for years, he took it up again when he and Heflin separated in 2011. They now share custody of Klaye, 6, and Sovryn, 3, who stay at Byndom's house four nights a week.

As the slumber party continues, Byndom stops often to talk with Sovyrn, who is sprawled on the floor with a Minnie Mouse coloring book. At one point, he takes a handful of candy and sprinkles some into the book's spine. Every once in a while, Sovyrn grabs a handful and munches while she colors.

When the pizza and fries are almost gone, Byndom turns on a flat-screen TV and pops "Just Dance 3" into a Nintendo Wii, a recent birthday present for Klaye.

But before turning on the Wii, Byndom arranges who would have first, second and third turns playing the game.

"Here's the thing: If two people are playing, the other two can dance behind them," he says.

When the song begins, he lifts Sovyrn into his arms and dances with his girls.


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