Chicago in winter is not known for being a great place to camp out, much less on top of a building, much less on a former bordello.
Pastor Corey Brooks spent nearly three months in arguably one of the worst campsites ever: the roof of the Super Motel. Even so, he found inspiration in his rooftop tent.
The run-down motor hotel across the street from his church had long served as a hub of drug dealing and prostitution. To shut it down, Pastor Brooks and his parishioners protested every Friday and Saturday night for a year and a half.
"No church that I know of had taken on a business entity like that and shut it completely down," he recalls proudly.
Though now empty, the motel remained a problem, a giant hole in the community's fabric. Chicago is riddled with such cavities, with tens of thousands of vacant properties generating no property taxes that might otherwise help create jobs and fortify schools.
Brooks wanted to buy the motel and tear it down to build a community and economic development center. But the property was listed at $450,000. Where was a young preacher going to find that kind of money?
So he took to the roof.
Brooks's church is located in the heart of Chicago's South Side, famous as the Obama family's home and infamous for a steady stream of tragic deaths of its children. Screaming headlines have made the names familiar here: Derrion Albert. Hadiya Pendleton. Jonylah Watkins, just 6 months old. Brooks preached at her funeral.
Brooks founded New Beginnings Church in 2000 and built it into a 2,500-member congregation in a tough South Side neighborhood called Woodlawn, where Jonylah lived and died. According to census data, in Woodlawn, 30 percent of households fall below the poverty line, and more than 21 percent of workers are unemployed.
"We have a higher rate of murder in our area than almost any other neighborhood in America," Brooks says. "We have a very high crime rate. We have a terrible educational system. Kids are deprived educationally, economically, spiritually, and socially. This is, without a doubt, one of America's toughest areas."
The campsite that Brooks fashioned on the roof in the fall of 2011 was a little bit like one of those Buddhist monasteries perched atop a craggy precipice. In the scant shelter of his big dome tent, he fasted and received visitors, who ascended via a construction lift. He held court with leading African-American clergymen Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Dozens of politicians visited, including Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
"All my friends were calling to congratulate me," Brooks says. "They said, 'Man, you had the governor on the roof of a motel!' "
Extension cords littered the roof; Brooks may have been camping out, but he was never without a laptop, cellphone, and heaters. On Sundays, he streamed sermons from the rooftop via the Internet into the church sanctuary. Pledges rolled in.
His time on the rooftop made Brooks a national voice in the debate about gun violence. He appeared on the news so often – in The New York Times, on National Public Radio, and on many TV stations – that some critics suggested he was little more than a camera hound.
Miles Harvey, a journalist and a professor at Chicago's DePaul University, visited Brooks on the roof several times. He sees Brooks as a prominent, effective spokesman in heavily segregated Chicago. Mr. Harvey edited a new book of oral histories, "How Long Will I Cry?," released in October, about the city's street violence, in which Brooks features prominently.
"Brooks is an eloquent voice who has credibility in his community and communicates to all parts of the city," Harvey says. "He has an incredible understanding of symbolism. He went up onto that roof like it was a mountaintop. He was literally above the fray, but just barely."
Brooks points out that all the publicity didn't keep him warm at night.
"To everyone who came to visit me, I made it very clear that no one should have to be on a roof to bring attention and awareness to gun violence," he says. "For us to have to do this much for the message to get out is ridiculous."
After 94 days and a $100,000 gift from actor-producer Tyler Perry, Brooks finally left the roof to the cheers of a jubilant crowd. Through the church, he continues to kindle public concern about the violence crippling this city while providing vital public services. New Beginnings hosts a small school, public gym, and mentoring program for youths coming out of the juvenile justice system.
Brooks also personally engages with warring street gangs. He frequently conducts funerals for slain gang members even though it may require the congregation to cover many of the funeral costs for their impoverished families.
Reaching out to gangs risks forging a public association that could keep middle-class families from coming to the church. "I've been called the 'gang-banger pastor,' " Brooks admits.
Gang members typically carry guns. In the past, Brooks has turned their funerals into gun-collection events.
In June 2012, Brooks embarked on a cross-country walk from New York to Los Angeles to raise funds for his community center. Renderings of the center show a gleaming glass facade housing a theater, computer labs, teaching kitchen, classrooms, and rooftop gardens. Unfortunately, the nearly 3,000-mile journey only generated $500,000, far short of the center's $15 million price tag.
"We've got a long way to go," Brooks says simply.
Critics have called Brooks a dreamer and point out that, for $15 million, many of Woodlawn's empty buildings could be revitalized. And he probably hurt his own cause by sending a donation to disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in December 2012, raising questions about Brooks's judgment and financial priorities.
Meanwhile, violence is slowly easing its grip on the Woodlawn neighborhood. From Jan. 1 to Oct. 19, 2013, six murders occurred in Woodlawn, according to data analyzed by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. During the same period in 2012, seventeen homicides took place.
Brooks credits the improvement to outreach to gang members by himself and many others. Woodlawn's alderman, Willie B. Cochran, says that ministers like Brooks play a critical role in reducing violence. "Religious leaders help to address the family and spiritual needs of the community so people don't turn to a life of violence," Mr. Cochran says.
He speaks with special authority on this subject. Before running for office, Cochran served for 26 years as a police officer.
"We always push a message of hope," Brooks adds. "Regardless of where you are, life can be better. You don't have to accept the circumstances you are in.
"Just because you live in the ghetto does not mean the ghetto has to be in you. We can help improve your life educationally, economically, socially, physically, and spiritually."
That redemptive message resonates with people like Keith Searles, an engineer and small-business owner who has attended New Beginnings Church for seven years and briefly worked there. Brooks has "this amazing ability to inspire others to see beyond their situations," he says. "Despite the fact that there is still far too much violence in Woodlawn, there is a feeling of hope that is emerging that will one day result in a change."
Before the Great Recession, cities such as Chicago had more funds available to destroy nuisance properties (such as the Super Motel) and support youth programs such as those at New Beginnings.
Brooks, however, sees his efforts as part of a burgeoning movement to solve urban problems independent of government.
"If we wait on government to change our society for the better, it's never going to happen," he says. "The government can't change hearts. It is imperative that the church step up and do more. We're picking up slack."
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