The Rev. Phil Larson stands in the midst of fictional greatness — Gandalf the wizard, Batman, Iron Man and the actor John Wayne as a movie tough guy.
He uses life-size cutouts of such characters to help convey a message to fathers across Oklahoma: They are the God-ordained heroes of their families, the real-life champions their children want and need in their lives.
“If Dad is not there, there's a hole and that hole is passed on to their own kids,” Larson said.
The Yukon businessman and evangelist has made it his mission to connect fathers to their families. He has a map of the Oklahoma City metro he said is “emblazoned” on his heart that shows where the majority of children live in households where a father is not present.
Larson calls them “abandonment zones,” and his effort to help them is a key part of the Community Transformation Initiative he started about a year ago. He has teamed with LifeChurch.tv Northwest Oklahoma City to help provide men for a fathers' group at a local school where there aren't many dads around.
He also provides training and encouragement to men who are active in their children's lives and striving to be better fathers.
A fundraiser for the fatherhood initiative, a golf tournament and luncheon, is planned for Monday in Oklahoma City and will feature special guests U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City and Carey Casey, CEO of the Kansas City-based National Center for Fathering.
Larson hosts “Fearless Fathers” conferences across the state and in Mexico. He starts WatchDOGS groups connecting men from local churches to schools where more positive male role models are needed. He offers his “Dad's University” classes at churches, community centers and online.
He said his superhero cutouts grab attention at fatherhood conferences like the one held in August at Tabitha Baptist Church, 1219 NE Grand Blvd.
He said he tells men as fathers, they will be called upon to bring such attributes to the forefront. Like John Wayne's film characters, they will need strength.
He said they will need the kind of love the comic book character Batman shows for orphans and the innocent residents of Gotham City. Iron Man, Larson said, stands for energy and power that a man needs when his family requires protection.
And Gandalf of Tolkien's “Lord of the Rings” represents faith because the wizard shows up time and again to rescue his friends.
“For a man to stay in the game, he needs faith,” Larson said.
Larson is founder of a ministry called Prayer Metro. About a year ago, he left his job as assistant vice president of enterprise operations at American Fidelity to take his fatherhood message to the streets full time.
Aid from local churches
Larson said statistics show that children living in homes without fathers are more likely to become teenage parents, abuse drugs, drop out of high school and become perpetrators or victims of domestic violence.
He is partnering with LifeChurch.tv Northwest Oklahoma City to provide men for a fathers group at Tulakes Elementary School, 6600 Galaxie Drive. On a recent Saturday, Larson and several men from the church at 5821 Northwest Expressway recruited fathers who attended the school's information day.
Larson said his hope is to have the WatchDOGS group made up of Tulakes students' fathers and men from church who are willing to mentor.
He said he would like the men whose children attend the school to make up at least half the membership.
Tulakes Principal Lee Roland said the WatchDOGS group should help combat the negative images of men “beating, shouting and cursing” the students often see on TV.
“I'm hoping to see more positive males that our children can identify with — additional male role models that care,” Roland said. “They will see that these men want to help them make good decisions.”
Jared Weston, 33, one of the men from LifeChurch.tv who joined the Watchdog group, said one of his friends is a teacher at the school.
“I'm just trying to make an impact in the community and make a difference in the future of these young kids,” he said.
Jerry Kramer, 63, another Lifechurch.tv member, said he lives in the neighborhood surrounding Tulakes and feels that as a grandfather who has raised children he can help mentor younger fathers. He said he and his wife were houseparents at a children's home for 20 years.
“The heart that I have for kids never really went away,” he said.
Don't call them ‘deadbeat'
Larson says he refuses to give up on fathers. He does not like the term “deadbeat dad.” He said he calls them “floating fathers” because many drift in and out of their children's lives.
Larson said these fathers provide no stability for their families, but often don't know the importance of being a good father because their own fathers were never around. He said many are hungry for education about a healthy father-child relationship.
Larson said he has met dozens of men who want to reach out to their children. After they attend his conferences and Dad University sessions, they call to tell him about the success or challenges they met in their efforts to reconnect with their children.
The Rev. Jeff Mitchell, senior pastor of Tabitha Baptist, said his church saw positive results from Larson's “Fearless Fathers” conference.
“We wanted to have it at our church because we knew the potential impact that it would have on our church, but not just our church, but the community,” Mitchell said.
I'm hoping to see more positive males that our children can identify with — additional male role models that care. They will see that these men want to help them make good decisions.”
Tulakes Principal Lee Roland,