Pastor Corey Brooks is a giant on Chicago’s South Side, both figuratively and literally. Standing over six feet tall, the pastor of New Beginnings Church of Chicago is more than just a man of the gospel. To the neighborhood he serves, he’s a preacher, a mentor, a role model, and more importantly, he’s everything that the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson aren’t — an outspoken advocate and spokesman for the betterment of the lives of everyone in his community.
I first met Pastor Brooks last year when I wanted to get involved in solving the problem of violence that has plagued Chicago’s west and South Side neighborhoods. Since then, I’ve become a personal friend of the pastor, and have been happy to join him in several endeavors to raise money for Project HOOD — the program he established to teach youths the importance of personal responsibility,
HOOD stands for “Helping Others Obtain Destiny.” It’s a mission aimed at raising awareness that prosperity can be attained through means other than the gang-related activities that too many of Chicago’s black children have experienced. Through this program this summer, Brooks and his church launched an ambitious goal to recruit 5,000 “Brothers on the Block” to patrol some of Chicago’s most dangerous intersections.
The concept is simple: a visible presence on the corners would deter violence, while at the same time it would show neighborhood’s residents something more positive. This past Friday, I became a “Brother on the Block” alongside Pastor Brooks, but the night was more than anything I could have ever anticipated.
Around 8pm, I met the pastor at his church, located at Martin Luther King Drive and 66th Street. On this night, Pastor Brooks wanted to set up shop at one of Chicago’s most dangerous intersections, 79th and Cottage Grove. The intersection is hemmed in by liquor stores, payday loan stores, fast food joints, and a number of buildings riddled with bullet holes. Our goal for the evening was to pass out flyers informing drivers of our cause, while at the same time providing a positive presence on a corner where none is usually found.
Approximately 40 of us were dressed in neon shirts that read “Project HOOD.” I was impressed to see how many people Brooks was able to pull together, and then I was informed that these weren’t the only “Brothers on the Block.” This was just one intersection where members of New Beginnings Church of Chicago congregated. There were others on over 250 blocks that night doing the exact same thing we were doing. Fifteen hundred men, posted up, informing their neighbors that violence had to stop.
We were at the 800 block of Cottage Grove for less than an hour before Brooks received a tragic phone call. A few hours before our gathering, several boys between the ages of 13 and 25 where shot outside of a West Side convenience store. The youngest victim, 13-year-old Samuel Walker, was killed instantly when a bullet struck him in the head. The call Brooks received was from the victim’s cousin informing the pastor that the family needed his help.
Pastor Brooks receives two to three calls like these each week. He’s become a self-taught expert on dealing with these crises. The families affected by these tragedies trust him to get them through it. Within minutes, Brooks informed me that he’d be heading to Flournoy and Sacramento on the city’s West Side to aid the family in their time of grief. To my surprise, he invited me along to witness the scene firsthand. I’m hesitant to go because I don’t want to be perceived by the family as a reporter trying to get a scoop, or even worse, a politician looking for the perfect photo-op. Brooks assures me that my presence will bring a sense of importance to their time of grief.
When we arrive, there are approximately 40 people outside of the home of Walker. I could immediately tell how much respect Brooks carried with them by the mere fact nobody questioned what I — a white guy in his 50’s — was doing in their neighborhood. The crowd was separated into three groups. On the north side of the street, women and children mourned and consoled each other. On the South Side, younger men were angered, speaking of retribution for their fallen child. One teenager tells another he’s ready to, “G up and ride.” In the center of both these extremes were the older men who discussed the shooting from a political perspective.
They blamed Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy, but their greatest hostility and frustration was geared towards the police department’s district commanders. They openly discussed strategy to get the mayor’s attention on this particular shooting, and how they could hold this particular district’s commander accountable. It’s important to note that these men and women don’t have any animosity towards the regular rank and file of the Chicago Police Department. They respect the work that they do and want to cooperate with them at any chance they are given; however their contempt is reserved for the men who lead the police force. They blame them for not hearing their requests for more of a police presence on the corners that they know to be heating up.
We waited for the victim’s mother to return home. She had been held up at the city morgue, pleading with officials to see her son’s body to no avail. When the mother arrived, she is in a state of shock. She’s still dressed in her nurses’ scrubs when Pastor Brooks takes her in his arms. He’s equal parts compassionate and directive. He explained that the age of her deceased son will attract loads of media attention. He encourages her to respond to reporters vying for that perfect six-second sound bite because the more her family is on TV, he explains, the quicker the police department will make her son’s investigation a priority.
“I know you couldn’t see your son this evening,” he told her. “But the morgue opens tomorrow morning at 11, and if you have any trouble getting inside, please, call me immediately.”
As the pastor concluded his advice for the victim’s mother, a truck from ABC 7 Chicago pulled up right outside her home. Immediately, everyone starts yelling for the van to move down the street.
“You don’t want them to get the address on the camera,” Brooks explained to me. “At this time, we don’t know what the shooting was about. It could be something gang-related, and we don’t want information out there that makes any retaliation easier.”
Brooks spoke with the ABC 7 reporter on camera for a couple of minutes. When he finished, he conducted a prayer with the family before leaving. Joined in a circle, holding hands, the pastor began, “We need to pray for this family and all the other families that are experiencing violence. I want to encourage you all that at times like this it’s important to stay as close as possible.”
“A lot of the times after the funeral family disappears, but understand this is going to painful for a long, long time. The more love and support you can give [the mother] will help her through this time. Bless her, Lord. Whatever need and support this family may need, we ask Jesus, that you’ll send it their way. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”
As it nears 11pm, we head back to the intersection where the night started. In the car, Brooks is asked if any of this gets any easier. Brooks responded, “It’s all too common, and a certain part of you almost gets numb, but you remember these are just children, innocent children.” We ride in silence for the remainder of the trip.
When we return to the corner of 79th and Cottage Grove, more “Brothers” are literally on the block, passing out flyers to the men and women who walk into the corner liquor store, praying with the homeless and dissolute, while one young man, Brandon, feeds gumbo to anyone and everyone who’s hungry. As I am passing out literature promoting Brook’s initiative, a teary eyed black man grabs my hand.
“I just want to thank ya’ll for being out here,” he told me. “My son, only 12-years-old, was shot last week, man.” I was speechless, but the man continued to honor the work of Brooks.
“I wish more people would hear your message. I wish brothers would stop shooting each other up. It gets us nowhere, man.”
A member of Brooks’ congregation asked for the man’s cellphone number and address. “Someone will pick you up on Sunday, okay? We want you to come to our church and hear the word of the Lord,” one of Brooks’ brother told him. The man, obviously overcome with emotion, accepts their offer.
This was just one night on a small intersection of Chicago’s South Side. It’s an area that I’d never been to at night in my lifetime. It’s an area many Chicagoans have never seen and wouldn’t want to see. There aren’t any fine dining establishments, no tourist attractions, and certainly no refuge for safety. But Pastor Brooks provides something the neighbors of this area aren’t familiar with – hope. I encourage anyone who reads this and lives in our city to come out on a Friday night and experience what it’s like to live this nightmare, day after day. It’s not a South Side, West Side, Black, Hispanic, or gang problem. It’s a Chicago problem. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you’ll realize that we are all brothers and sisters and the sooner we can bring meaningful change to these long-forgotten neighborhoods. Join Pastor Brooks and Help Others Obtain Destiny.