In a three-minute speech, James Davis described joining a gang at 13, bouncing in and out of prison then landing on the streets of Durham as a middle-aged homeless man.
With his shoulders back, he told how he wandered into his first church service, heard the sermon and walked out a changed man of God.
And while he shared this story of redemption, Davis never used the word “Uh.” He resorted to the phrase “You know” just once. In his entire speech, his fellow Toastmasters counted only one run-on sentence.
“I was reluctant at first, not wanting to fall flat on my face,” said Davis, 53, now the president of the Toastmasters club at the Durham Rescue Mission. “This helped me understand being a leader, and not just leading people astray. I spoke to 200 people. Who I am. Where I’ve been. That’s been my personal highlight.”
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For the uninitiated, Toastmasters is an international group that teaches nervous bureaucrats how to ace their presentations, coaches skittish groomsmen to make wedding speeches for the ages and ushers the soft-spoken into a new world of poise and confidence.
At the rescue mission on East Main Street, where the club is three years old, two speakers out of three Monday night detailed a life of addiction, including Chaplain Lynn Holloway in his red bow tie and suspenders. The subject matter runs a shade darker than any Toastmasters meeting I’ve attended. But the impact that comes from standing in front of a crowd and sharing unflattering anecdotes can be measured by the club’s heavy turnover.
“Our success is our own worst enemy,” said Peg Helminski, a volunteer who works at Duke University. “These guys get some confidence, they interview for a job and, by golly, they get it.”
In his Monday speech, Davis told the audience of roughly a dozen people that he grew up in Brooklyn, a happy child whose father cooked eggs and bacon every morning before they walked to school. But something snapped around age 8, he said, and his mother noticed the change overnight.
He got in fights nearly every day – over sneakers, over lunch money, over nothing. Nicknamed “Little Man,” he joined a pee-wee version of the Jolly Stompers, an infamous Brooklyn gang, and landed in Rikers Island jail for burglary at age 17. He would spend half of his life behind bars. In the world Davis describes, there wasn’t much else to do.
“Everyone I used to roll with, they’re either in jail with a lot of time or they’re dead,” he said. “I think I’m blessed.”
He followed family to Raleigh, and in 2008 he found himself at Grace A.M.E. Zion Church on Boyer Street, where he heard the Bishop Staccato Powell. He hadn’t given religion much thought, but on that day, he followed the altar call. But even with new clarity, he couldn’t shake hard times, losing two jobs, his house and a car to a bad economy.
At his second stint in the Durham mission, he gave his first speech, an “ice breaker” to introduce himself. He heard the critiques Toastmasters sometimes give speakers. Speak up. Make eye contact. Keep your hands out of your pockets. He practiced his speech, which grew longer and more detailed, free of “uhs” and “you knows.” And at a Toastmasters contest, he took third place.
Davis moved out of the mission last year. He works cleaning and moving jobs. He wants to go back to school. But he carries himself differently than he did three years ago – his story strong and clear.