Pastor on the Roof

Pastor on the Roof

SHOUTING FROM THE ROOFTOP: Pastor Corey Brooks sits on the roof of the abandoned motel where he's camping out, across the street from his New Beginnings Church in Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago. Brooks is on the roof to raise $450,000 to buy the motel, tear it down, and turn it into a community center. (Photo: Brian Cassella/Newscom)

Pastor Corey Brooks has been living on the roof of a dilapidated motel building for seven weeks, coming down only when another young black male from his neighborhood dies.

Brooks, pastor of New Beginnings Church on Chicago’s Southside, just officiated his twelfth funeral for a young black male in the past year. His church is in the middle of two violent neighborhoods, Englewood and Woodlawn, which have seen an increasing number of homicides. The murder rate rose about 40 percent in the past year in Englewood, and about 30 percent in Woodlawn.

It was this violence that drove Brooks to the roof. Gunfire erupted at the tenth funeral in November, and after that incident, Brooks decided to take more drastic action. He vowed to fundraise $450,000 to knock down the vacant Super Motel across the street and build a community development center.

He envisions the center as two buildings: one with a community focus — including classrooms, a music and TV studio for youth and Christian counseling services — and the other with an economic development focus—including restaurants on the first floor and a few floors of mixed income housing.

Brooks has fundraised more than half his goal and has until March 30 to purchase the land. But in the meantime, Brooks spends his days reading, praying, taking phone calls and tweeting from his tent on the roof. UrbanFaith went up to the motel roof to talk to Brooks about inner-city Christianity and youth violence when he was celebrating his birthday last Monday. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

URBAN FAITH: How would you describe the violence in Woodlawn and Englewood right now?

COREY BROOKS: I would describe it as abnormal, a humanitarian issue we all need to be concerned about. One of the problems is that people don’t see it as a humanitarian issue. They see it as a black issue, a hood issue. Even though the city of Chicago claims the murder rate is going down, in African American areas, it’s either staying the same or going up. It’s like we have two Chicago’s.

Why is a community center for youth such a critical need here?

This neighborhood is a desert. You don’t have recreational facilities, you have poor educational facilities, you don’t have any grocery stores for nutrition, you don’t have any safe environments where kids can play basketball, do theater or music. It becomes essential because if these children don’t have anything to do, then we turn them over to the streets. They’ll learn crime and learn how to live on the streets.

Somewhere along the line, we need to break that cycle of violence. These kids, they’re not going to be street kids or be in gangs. We need to provide a safe environment for them to grow, be mentored, and reach their full potential.

You came down from the rooftop to officiate two funerals last week, and you later tweeted that over 150 youth came to Christ during these services. How did that happen?

At funerals of young people, I always try to give an invitation to Christ and present the gospel, clear and precise, so people are challenged with the opportunity to become a Christian. Now we’re trying to develop what we call a spiritual detox, when we take kids away for three days, get them out of the environment and really make sure we get Christ in them. We’ve never done that before, but that’s what we want to do. So now I’m tweeting, “Hey, I need a place for a retreat.”

But at the end of the day, I believe the church is the hope of the world, so I want them to have Jesus. A child that has Jesus in their life can make it on little education, in a bad family, with a whole lot working against them.

We have a lot that we’re working against. It’s hard to present Jesus in this neighborhood where Christians don’t have must to show for. But if we can establish that we have schools, facilities, jobs, it’ll be attractive. I want Christianity in the urban area to look more attractive. Who wants to just go to church, and that’s it? The extent of my Christianity is church?

What’s it going to take to make Christianity more attractive in the inner-city, something that young people will want to join?

In the inner-city, one, our churches need makeovers. If you go to our church, it looks contemporary, you’ll see murals and things that draw interest, so when kids come in it gives them the wow effect. A lot of our churches are antiquated, and they’re built that way. They need a major overhaul internally, how they look. Secondly, our systems and structures are outdated. How we do church has to change. And finally, what we do outside church, the extension of our outreach, has to be updated as well. I think the inner-city churches of America need a serious revival in order for neighborhoods to change.

What would that revival look like?

It would look like it did Thursday and Friday, when all those kids were coming down the aisle and people were getting saved. I went to Grace Theological Seminary and studied Billy Sunday. They would say Billy Sunday would do these revivals and crusades, and they would last weeks and people would get saved.

I’ve never seen that happen in an inner-city area. They say it happened in the ‘30s in Los Angeles with Azusa, but I don’t know any contemporary movement where there’s such a power and movement of God. And at the end of the day, that’s what I long for. I’m on this roof, and I want to purchase this hotel and turn it into a community development center. But more than that, I want to see people come into relationship with Jesus, because at the end of all this, that’s all that will matter.

During the funeral services, you didn’t give a traditional eulogy, but instead talked more about urban violence. Why did you decide to take that approach?

For me, those are traditional eulogies. Every funeral I’ve ever done, I don’t talk about the deceased because I don’t have a heaven or a hell to put them in. How they lived their life is their testimony. I preach to people who are alive, not to people who are dead. I talk about Jesus and the Bible, how you handle your pain, how you can live from this moment on. For another pastor, eulogy means to speak highly of the one who died. But in most of our bulletins, it says sermon or message, because I’m not giving a eulogy.

Are you getting any backing from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel?

I sent him a message. I try to be very respectful, but at the same time, I want to hold him accountable. We’re not trying to tell him what to do, but we are trying to make sure that he understands we’re part of Chicago, and he’s responsible for the challenges of our neighborhood as well. As it relates to this particular issue with gun violence and young people being killed prematurely, he is silent.

We need more than anything in the world for him to look at the situation and give us some real true solutions, and the resources to implement his solution. He has a great team of educated people who study this. So they should be able to look at this neighborhood and say, these are the problems, this is how we can fix it. But you just can’t ignore it. That’s the part that hurts the most, that you have people who could and should do something, but won’t.

Did the mayor call you at one point?

Yeah, he called. He appreciated that I was standing against the violence. However, he didn’t want me to be on this roof to stand against violence. I’m respectful of the mayor, but I had to disrespect his authority, unfortunately.

What’s your prayer for the neighborhood right now?

My number one prayer is for my neighborhood to be safe. It hurts that my 10-year-old son isn’t able to experience going outside by himself. I’d like an environment where kids can at least go outside and play and not have to worry about being shot or killed. Whenever I pray that, I always hear God saying, “Make it safe.” I need his assistance, but it’s my responsibility too. Someone said you pray like it all depends on God, and then you work like it all depends on you. That’s how I live my life.

Find out more here. Pastor Corey Brooks can be contacted at 312-813-5211.

The Power of a Praying King

The Power of a Praying King

In his excellent new book, Never To Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.(Fortress Press), Vanderbilt University religion professor Lewis V. Baldwin examines an undervalued aspect of the civil rights movement’s effectiveness. With vivid stories and a scholar’s eye for the telling detail, Baldwin brings to the forefront the centrality of this vital spiritual discipline in both King’s public ministry and his personal devotion. Baldwin’s tome is a worthy and necessary addition to the annals of MLK scholarship. The following is an excerpt from the book.
Prayer helped Martin Luther King Jr. to discover the activity of God not only in his own daily life and activities but also in the needs of humanity and in the challenges of the world. He saw the many movements for freedom in his time as outpourings of God’s spirit on the nation and the world, and prayer went hand in hand with his spirited call to resist systemic, social evil in all forms. This view of prayer’s connection to God’s work in the world, perhaps more than anything else, reflected King’s vital and distinctive blend of spirituality and social vision as well as his keen sense of the tremendous value and creative potential of prayer. It also explains why King made prayer central to the struggle for civil and human rights.

As far as King was concerned, he was involved in essentially “a spiritual movement” and not simply a struggle for equal rights, social justice, and peace; this invariably meant that prayer and praying, much like the spiritual discipline of nonviolence, had to be for him a daily activity and a total way of life. Otherwise, the quest to redeem and transform the moral and political spirit of the nation and of humanity as a whole would ultimately prove futile and perhaps even counterproductive.

King’s encounters with crisis after crisis in his protest against the personal and institutional racism of white America reinforced his conception of prayer as lived experience and as part of engaged spirituality developed in the midst of conflict and action. It is often said that the movement began with a song, but in King’s case it actually began with a prayer.

Visions and Victories

The date was December 5, 1955; the scene was King’s private study in his home at 309 South Jackson Street in Montgomery; and the challenge was a speech that he, as the newly-elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), the organization formed to lead the bus boycott, had to hastily prepare for the very first mass meeting held at the Holt Street Baptist Church in connection with the bus boycott. Having only fifteen minutes to prepare what he called “the most decisive speech of my life,” King, “obsessed by” feelings of “inadequacy” and in “a state of anxiety,” turned to that “power whose matchless strength stands over against the frailties and inadequacies of human nature.” King prayed for God’s guidance in delivering a speech that would be “militant enough” to arouse black people to “positive action” and “moderate enough” to keep their fervor “within controllable and Christian bounds.”

The speech, which called boycotters to courageous protest grounded in Christian love and democratic values, evoked more applause than any speech or sermon King had given up to that point, thus reinforcing his belief that God had the power to “transform” human weakness into a “glorious opportunity.” This experience confirmed King’s faith in what his ancestors had long declared about the sheer discipline, immense potential, and enduring power of prayer; and it highlighted his sense of the significance of prayer as lived theology.

As the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and a leader in the bus boycott, King increasingly came to see that secret communication with God in his private study or “closet,” so to speak, was as important as praying publicly in his pulpit. Evidently, he had other private experiences during which prayer translated a paralyzing impotence into unshakable courage, frustrating uncertainty into incurable hope, and life’s hardships into amazing vitality and feelings of triumph. In January, 1956, as the fervor driving the Montgomery bus boycott reached fever pitch, King received a telephone call at midnight from a racist who called him a “nigger” and threatened to kill him and “blow up” his home.

Deeply disturbed and unable to sleep, King retreated to his kitchen for coffee, thinking that this could possibly provide some relief. Love for family and church, devotion to the struggle, and feelings of utter helplessness gripped him in that moment of deep restlessness, painful stillness, and desperate searching. Knowing that the theology he had studied in the corridors of academia could not help him and that he had nowhere else to turn, King had a face-to-face encounter with what he, in the tradition of his forebears, called “a Waymaker,” exposing his fears, insecurities, and vulnerabilities with sincerity and humility. Great comfort came as an “inner voice” spoke to King, reminding him that he was not alone, commanding him to “stand up” for righteousness, justice, and truth, and assuring him that “lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”

This serendipitous experience further convinced King that hardship, frustration, and bewilderment are often the points at which one meets God through solitude and prayer, a notion clearly substantiated by the black experience in religion. In that moment of quiet brooding, commonly referred to as “the vision in the kitchen,” King found new life in prayer, was reminded that prayer indeed mattered, and began to believe anew in how the sovereign work of the Almighty was being manifested in both his own life and in the bus protest. Moreover, the experience deepened his sense of what it meant to follow Jesus Christ as a passionate disciple, and he came to see that prayer would be a vital dimension of that which enabled him sufficiently to carry out his work. In a general sense, the experience in the kitchen further equipped King to speak from experience and thus authoritatively about the saving power of prayer. The spiritual growth wrought by that experience would become increasingly essential in sustaining King’s commitment to nonviolent struggle and in determining the nature of his responses to crises in his life.

Public Acts of Prayer

Considering the social, economic, and political dynamics at work in the 1950s, King was always willing and eager to assume the role of public prayer leader. In fact, he felt that praying publicly was central to his calling as a national leader and especially to his role as the voice of spiritual people imbued with a messianic sense of vocation and mission. He saw that public prayer, like the singing of the spirituals and anthems of the movement, was a powerful aspect of the spirituality that bonded his people in the face of oppression and that gave them the will and determination to survive, struggle, and be free, even against seemingly invincible odds. Again and again, King received practical lessons in the unifying power of public prayer from ordinary church folk who were forced to drift in and out of the disturbed world of white racists, who were the embodiments of lived faith, who had literally built churches and kept families and neighborhoods together by “talking to de Lawd” and making painful sacrifices.

King’s role as public prayer leader extended into his activities as both a pastor and civil rights leader. Much like the worship experience at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the board meetings of the MIA always included prayers, songs, scripture readings, and speeches, all of which reflected a nonviolent tone, and King, as the organization’s chairman, often gave the opening or closing prayer. At times, MIA board members such as Willie F. Alford, Ralph W. Hilson, G. Franklin Lewis, and B.D. Lambert, all clergymen, were asked to offer the invocation and prayer as part of the benediction. King constantly highlighted the need to remain in a prayerful mood and considering the challenges his people faced daily, and he insisted that MIA decisions regarding the boycott be carefully “thought about” and “prayed over” before being implemented through practical action

King himself occasionally became quite emotional while praying at mass meetings, especially after protesters were attacked and homes and churches bombed by white bigots. “Discouraged” and “revolted by the bombing,” and feeling “a personal sense of guilt” for all these problems, King was on one occasion close to tears as he asked the audience to join him in prayer. While “asking God’s guidance and direction,” King was caught in “the grip of an emotion” he “could not control” and actually “broke down in public.” His prayer built an exuberant sung finale, with the audience crying out and rejoicing. “So intense was the reaction” that King could not finish his prayer. With the help of fellow ministers, who put their arms around him, King was slowly lowered to his seat.

Here was an occasion when the traditional prayer meeting served to solidify a despised and abused people around a common faith, hope, purpose, and strategy for change. Though caught in the web of guilt and emotion, King did not stand alone, for the sense of being both suffering community and divinely ordained instrument for much-needed social change proved overwhelming for all who participated.

The emotive qualities of the black church, which often exploded into handclapping and joyous shouts, and which King had frowned on as a boy, took on a new and more personal dimension for the civil rights leader. Prayer rose to sermon, tears gave way to rejoicing, and King’s calm manner surrendered to an infectious frenzy. Hence, King’s connection to the ecstatic side of the black prayer tradition and to the African American worship experience as a whole became amazingly real. Clearly, scholars must take this and other of King’s experiences concerning public prayer in the civil rights crusade more seriously if they are to bring a true sense of the richness and power of the black church experience to the daunting work of King interpretation.

Excerpted from Never To Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Lewis V. Baldwin. Used by permission of Fortress Press.