New Beginnings for Woodlawn

all photos courtesy of Jason Thomas

[nggallery id=23]

If it were up to Pastor Corey Brooks of New Beginnings Church, Chicago would be filled with “contemporary, credible, and creative” neighborhood centers. These spaces would offer everything from job placement services and drug rehabilitation assistance, to green technology labs and Panera Bread franchises. They would be hubs of activity, located at the heart of what are occasionally desolate, run-down neighborhood areas. These centers would represent a solution to youth violence and systemic inequality.

These places don’t exist, but Pastor Brooks hopes to begin to change that in the next 31 days.

As part of an effort called “Project HOOD,” Brooks is living out of a tent atop a Super Motel at 66th and King. Brooks claims the abandoned motel, which was once notorious for gang activity, drug deals, and prostitution, lies within “the highest murder area in the city.”  Located right across the street from New Beginnings Church, the shuttered, run-down building is an eyesore that the pastor hopes to acquire for the community. The letters in the project’s name stand for “helping others obtain destiny,” and with this program, Brooks intends to transform “the hood” into his vision for a new, better Woodlawn.

Brooks has been in the tent all day, every day for–at the time of this article’s publication–43 days. Prior to being raised atop the motel on a scissor lift, the pastor fasted on water and faith alone. He initially attempted to maintain the prohibitions on the roof, but has now taken a more practical approach to survival. He keeps warm with a giant space heater and plenty of company–congregants come to pray with their pastor for success in his mission to change Woodlawn. He sends frequent Facebook and Twitter updates with inspirational messages–“The Kingdom of God never advances without sacrifice. We must inconvenience ourselves to the point of sacrifice even when others call us fools”–and requests for donations. The total has hovered around $200,000 for the past three weeks, but Brooks insists that he will not come down until they reach the full amount of $450,000 required to purchase the Super Motel property.

According to his blog, the reasons for his demonstration are varied, but “the 10 most important reasons are dead, buried 6 feet underground–teenagers, with names and families whose funerals I did this past summer!” Those men, he believes, might still be alive if they had had a place to go in their neighborhood that allowed access to more positive role models. In a phone interview, Pastor Brooks reflected on “the one thing, besides church,” that kept him on “the straight and narrow” growing up. For Brooks “it was a little place called the Multi-Service Center.” According to the pastor, “there were some strong men that taught me there. I was into sports, I was into partying, but this guy constantly challenged me to think. That community center experience helped to mold me into the person I am now.”

In various articles about the project, this new epicenter has been referred to as a “youth center,” a “community center,” and a “community development center.” Brooks has another title in mind: “I almost want to call it the Dream Center. I want the little boy who wants to be a doctor to go and be inspired by meeting a doctor there or reading about a doctor.”

 

¬ ¬ ¬ ¬

 

There are no blueprints or business plans for the project on the table–“that’s for ‘Phase 2,’” he explains–and the funding sources for that process are even more ill defined, but Brooks is committed to raising the amount it would take to purchase the land from the two banks that currently own it. He has plans to one day acquire TIFF funds to attract the commercial investment he hopes will promote Woodlawn’s redevelopment, but at the end of the day, Brooks is a pastor, not a businessman.

Brooks became the head pastor of New Beginnings in 2000, when he founded the church after moving from West Point Church in Bronzeville. He hoped to create a place of worship that was “cutting edge, with a little more flavor.” But the frills are restricted to the congregation’s expressions of faith. His message is simple–unique parish problems require unique solutions. New Beginnings is an unpretentious space with straightforward beliefs. New Beginnings’s 46,000 square-foot space includes a school, gym, recording studio, long front lobby, and enormous sanctuary. There are no gilded baptismal fonts on the floor, and no stained glass panels adorning the walls.

The sanctuary looks a bit like a high-ceilinged convention center. Rows of seats wrap around a long stage where a drum kit stands beside a couple of electric guitars. During services, cameramen film the services for online streaming. Two rows of theater lights hang from the rafters and point at the dozen or so choir members who line the front in their Sunday best.

On the first day of the new year, the church is packed. Though some are certainly fighting off the morning fatigue that comes with January 1, no one is short of energy or passion during the 35-minute introductory songs that start off the day’s service. Bodies sway and palms are lifted up to the ceiling as voices throw a “Hallelujah!” into already ecstatic verses. The tunes are catchy, punctuated by call-and-response choruses. The lyrics are displayed on giant white projector screens hanging above the stage. Behind the pulpit, the leader of the choir repeats until her voice cracks, “there’s NOTHING my GOD cannot DO.” Her arms rise up, inviting the audience toward the crescendo, as she shouts full-voiced, “SING IT LIKE YOU BELIEVE IT!”

After two more songs, and a special guest performance by gospel duo Dawkins & Dawkins, the pulpit prepares the congregation to welcome Pastor Brooks, so he can virtually deliver his sermon from the rooftop. “Receive with me our pastor,” the lead singer requests, giving thanks for “our man of God,” who, the congregation agrees, is “making a change for Chicago and for the world.” Her faith in the pastor is unwavering, and she thanks god again and again “for blessing us with a pastor with a vision.” She asks the crowd to practice rejoicing Brooks’s presence twice before his visage appears on the projector screens, smiling through his winter wear and a spotty Internet connection.

“Whatever you used to get through last year, is not going to work for this year, unless you make adjustments,” he proclaims. “This is a new year of possibilities.” He reminds the church that the future is unknown and unknowable, and will require each person to confront old problems and new problems differently. Continuing, Pastor Brooks recited a loose rendition of Mark 2:22, which contains the passage, “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

“In 2012,” he says, “He wants you to stretch yourself.” Closing in a prayer, and a request for the worshippers to embrace one another with hugs, the screen turned blank.

 

¬ ¬ ¬ ¬

 

With all of the press that Project HOOD has received in the last month, it’s surprising that Pastor Brooks isn’t more practiced in delivering the facts and details of his plans. When asked about how much money he’s raised so far, his answer is vague: “Around $200,000,” adding, “maybe a little more than that. I know that amount is going to go up, but I haven’t counted recently.” For him the coverage has been both a blessing and a curse. Major headlines in the Chicago Tribune and New York Times have spread the word about the pastor’s mission and led to major individual donations, but the South Sider’s high profile has attracted unwanted help. “The most difficult thing with the media attention has been people who come along to try to attach themselves to your cause. It’s really important to keep your message on point,” says Brooks, who then quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “You have to have a tough mind and a tender heart.”

For the pastor, the embodiment of King’s tough-mindedness seems to be his retinue of large, muscular assistants. While the three men standing in the church lobby are warm and personable, you still wouldn’t want to cross them. “They seem like opposites–you’ve got your idealistic view and your realistic view. But you gotta have both,” Brooks says.

When the lights and the cameras are off, the pastor’s live stream stays fixed on the word “OFFLINE” over static color bars. His followers have only the occasional Tweet to divine how Brooks’s mission is coming along–most recently he’s communicated a collection of quotations from figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cornel West. We can’t watch Pastor Brooks on his spiritual and activist journey, despite his attempts to blog the experience and the mass media attention. But the power of Brooks’s demonstration has almost nothing to do with the quality of his blog posts. People pull all kinds of stuff to get media attention, but what makes Brooks different is the total conviction he exudes in his vision for a better Woodlawn, and in his belief that God is with him in making it happen. That kind of hope gets to people.

When asked what would happen if he didn’t raise the $450,000 needed to buy the Super Motel from the bank, he responded confidently, “I don’t know. I haven’t even thought about that.” Pastor Brooks believes wholeheartedly that this is a project that will succeed. And that confidence has touched an entire neighborhood. He went on, “it’s not an option to not make enough money.” And at the end of the day, it’s hard not to believe him.