CHICAGO – Pastor Corey Brooks was ten years old when he crossed street from New Beginnings Church to climb onto the roof at a motel. It was the middle of a Chicago winter. He was tired of seeing the daily murders, drug abuse, and prostitution at the motel which was just two blocks from an elementary school. The pastor also had become tired of the deadly inaction from the city’s desensitized leaders; not even the Chicago Sun-Times’ ranking the pastor’s Woodlawn neighborhood as the most deadly was enough to stir them. He stayed on the roof through snowstorms for 94 consecutive days until enough funds were raised to demolish and purchase the motel. His faith paid off.
He finds his faith being tested again today by the pastor. At first, the pastor thought it would be easy to raise funds for a community center. This would provide a “shining city on the hill” opportunity for the poor community. The people who had the means to pay the bills soon followed the leader. This is how the pastor ordered four cargo containers this month to deliver to the location of the motel, where the community center will eventually be built. The pastor helped distribute 5,000 Thanksgiving turkeys and other fixings to his congregation. He then took up the roof built over the huge containers. The pastor will stay there 100 nights, with only the tent to keep him warm.
This time, the pastor won’t be alone. He challenged CEOs across America and throughout the United States to go up on the roof with him. He told me he hoped such an effort would educate some of America’s top minds about his community and help raise funds.
Many people doubted my pastor as I walked King Drive before the Thanksgiving food drive. Many shook hands and giggled in amazement. One said, “He’s gonna freeze his butt and it ain’t gonna make a difference.” A wild-eyed man assumed that all visiting CEOs were white and argued that the pastor was the Devil for consorting. Others shared their fears with me, while others were genuine in sharing their concern that the pastor didn’t live up to his potential.
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This group gave mepause. It is difficult to not feel despair and abandonment when one walks along these streets. While the South Side may be the most well-known neighborhood, it has been neglected. While Lori Lightfoot may be a long way from the offices of Mayor, there has been very little she can do. Her most recent effort, a guaranteed basic income program, gives 5,000 impoverished households $500 a month — in a city where 500,000 individuals live below the poverty line. Biden presented his Build back Better legislation to be an action plan for America. But when South Siders learn about the need for racist landmarks and bridges to be renamed across America, it is easy for them not only be misled but also mistakenly believe this is more virtue-signaling rather than real action. After all, what are they supposed to make of the fact that, at one point, our nation’s elected leaders earmarked $200 million for a San Francisco park to be built in the honor of one of America’s richest individuals, Nancy Pelosi?
The more I thought about this reality the naysayers described, the more upset I was. This reality meant that I had to give in to despair. This reality required that one accepts the fact that an illiterate child can pass grades despite not being proficient in reading. This reality made it impossible to have a father or a single parent household. The South Side, if this truth was believed, would be doomed to become a failing experiment in government socialism which bred dependency. Brooks refused to believe that its destruction would never end because he lived in this reality.
Faith was the only quality that made it possible for him to refuse. You can have faith in God, and you can also believe in oneself or the community. The ability to envision a better world and the faith that we will get there is a gift. Because it is a leap in the unknown, this faith can scare most people. How can we create a better and more fulfilling reality without taking this step?
Brooks was so excited to see the top of the motel, he even went up on it for the first-time.
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He was optimistic that funds would soon be available to fund the building of the community center when he fell from the roof. But he decided to not put his entire eggs in that basket. When he set out to create his community center which would be known as Project H.O.O.D., he was reliant on his faith. His church’s second-floor was dedicated to helping others achieve their destiny.
The Violence Impact Team was one of the programs that the pastor established. It visits homes in an effort to stop retaliation murders. The team’s leaders, James Highsmith and Jeff Boyd, who served decades in prison, told me they prevented as many as 50 retaliations a month, a statistic that never makes the news. The pastor works with them to transform gangsters such as Varney Voker and Varmah Voker (the Black Disciple Twins), into law-abiding citizens. He also developed trauma programs for youths to deal with problems such as street violence and fatherlessness. This helps them to get on the right path for college and/or a job. A young builder foreman was one of the beneficiaries. He said that poverty had run his family, and then it got to him.
The Sun-Times has stopped naming Woodlawn one of the most dangerous areas in America.
The work is not yet done. The South Side of Chicago remains far removed from contemporary America.
The pastor visited the temporary roof that was built from cargo crates to provide faith when he went. This was not wishful thinking faith. It was faith backed by years of merit — the pastor hoped that people would see the merit in what he and his community achieved with so little.
It is possible that this was why he asked CEOs to come on a one-night stay at his house. They were often merit-based. I can hear the naysayers, especially in academia, whipping our their white privilege arguments like Pavlov’s dog. However, these Americans are conditioned to see the entire world from a racial perspective. This means they view talent instead of skin, limit instead of possibility, divides instead commonalities and create a barrier to progress.
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One of few things that can allow us to transcend tribalism is merit. We are inextricably bound to our unchangeable traits if we don’t have merit to make us who we are.
When I asked Kayne Grau, the CEO of Uptake, a billion-dollar industrial artificial intelligence and analytics company, why he was going up to the roof as the pastor’s first guest, he paused for a moment. After a moment, he replied “To close any gaps.” His speech was like that of an individual who works in the worlds faith and merit. Brooks and he had a knowledge gap. He admitted this with humility. But he believed that he would be able to bridge the knowledge gap and understand the South Side better. Brooks will only become truly self-sufficient if he has that belief.
Brooks was gone on the roof that night. I noticed youths picking up food leftovers from the Thanksgiving food drive. As if they were me, I thought I’d be asking the pastor for permission to sit with him on the roof as he spoke to CEOs with vast knowledge and connections. You would learn things that I had never seen in public places or classrooms. It would be interesting to hear their stories and what they learned. If I was interested in learning more about the world outside of my own, I’d like to be able to get experience working in the mailroom. Next, I would chart my journey with faith in God as well as myself. A faith that was possible thanks to a South Side pastor’s faith enough to turn the reality of despair into an opportunity.
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Eli Steele, a filmmaker and writer is an documentary filmmaker. His latest film is “What Killed Michael Brown?” Twitter: @Hebro_Steele