CHICAGO — From his perch on the corner of East 66th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, the Rev. Corey Brooks has been able to witness the challenges his neighborhood faces from an entirely new perspective.
Camped on the rooftop of a vacant motel since Nov. 19, Brooks has overheard the heated conversations that float up from the sidewalks. Tossing and turning on the cot inside his tent, he has counted the sirens that speed by every night.
Brooks is living in a tent atop the old motel, formerly a drug den and place of business for prostitutes, as part of an effort to buy the building, demolish it and convert the property into a community center for young people in the surrounding Woodlawn and Englewood neighborhoods.
His rooftop camp is also, he said, an act of repentance.
Days after a dramatic funeral for a teenager in his congregation, Brooks climbed to the motel's roof and vowed to stay until $450,000 has been donated to buy and raze the building. His church will continue to raise funds to transform the lot into a safe space for the community's youth. So far, the church said about $35,000 had been raised by the end of November.
"I can't sit back and let another resident of this community endure any more violence," said Brooks, 42, senior pastor of New Beginnings Church across the street from the abandoned motel.
Since beginning his stay atop the roof, Brooks said he has witnessed kindness from strangers across the city who share his vision of transforming the urban wilderness of Chicago's South Side into a safe and healthy community where children are thriving instead of dying.
"We're bringing people 'under the tent,'" he said. "Even though people may not live in the inner city, they're showing a lot of love."
Inside his tent, Brooks has set up a makeshift office complete with a computer and electric heaters powered by a generator. He greets visitors and takes calls on his cell phone from pastors, police and politicians. Mayor Rahm Emanuel called earlier this week to offer encouragement and express gratitude for the pastor's campaign.
The campaign began Nov. 19, the day 17-year-old Carlton King Archer was buried. The teen was killed days earlier in a gang-related shooting. Despite warnings that gang retaliation could disrupt the funeral service, Brooks assured Archer's parents, Daryl and Kimberly Hopkins, that the memorial to their son would be peaceful.
But as mourners filed into New Beginnings that day to view the casket, shots rang out and chaos erupted outside the church. Young people sought cover inside the sanctuary. Brooks's and the teen's father dashed outside to see what they simply could not believe.
"I had no idea that it would be at the level that it is and what it was," Daryl Hopkins said. "We were afraid. I hadn't seen anything like it. I was really embarrassed that we brought that to the church."
Brooks re-entered the church ashamed that he had had not been able to keep his promise of a peaceful service to the family. Standing in the pulpit, he pleaded with the young people in the audience to hand over their guns. The violence had to stop, he said. By the time everyone left the church that day, the pastor and police say four guns had been confiscated.
"After he spoke during the service I was enlightened and overwhelmed," Hopkins said. "I was much more happy that we were able to be a part of that. I felt good knowing that my son was part of that."
Brooks has walked both sides of the street in his life. Growing up in Muncie, Ind., he said he saw pastors who were always asking for money, drove Cadillacs and wore fancy three-piece suits.
Nonetheless, he said he got a call to preach when he was 14. Brooks said he did everything he could to avoid following that call. He drank, smoked marijuana and slept around.
At 19, he met a woman who wouldn't date him unless he attended church. So he went one Sunday for her sake, listened to what the preacher said for the first time in his life, and decided to follow his conviction that he had been called to be a preacher himself.
He eventually graduated from Ball State University and earned a Master of Arts in Ministry Studies at Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Ind.
After serving two other congregations, Brooks founded New Beginnings in 2000 as a church for those seeking a fresh start and a clean slate after tough times in their lives. The church building is the former Roberts' Show Lounge, once one of Chicago's legendary South Side destinations for jazz.
"I wanted a new beginning myself," said Brooks. "There are a whole lot of people looking to start over."
In the summer of 2010, he and members of his congregation envisioned a new beginning for the seedy motel across the street that rented rooms to prostitutes and drug dealers. They picketed every weekend for four months until the city shut it down.
Members envision a campus where young people can play sports and nurture their artistic talents, and families can learn to manage their finances, cook nutritious meals, resolve conflicts and get medical care. The church eventually wants to extend its elementary school, Master's Academy, through 12th grade, said Brooks' wife Delilah.
"We're trying to tackle a lot of social giants in our particular place," Brooks said.4 comments on this story
Brooks has continued to preach to his congregation from the roof through a live Web Stream every Sunday at 10 a.m. and noon. During the week, colleagues handle the day-to-day business of the church so Brooks can focus on his vigil and the events that led him to the roof.
The Rev. Stephen Nance, minister of outreach, said he doesn't mind filling in for Brooks while he's on the roof. He appreciates how Brooks has "put himself out front to encourage other ministers to get involved in others' lives."
Meanwhile, the tent has become Brooks' private sanctuary where he is able to tune out the daily distractions.
"You get desensitized to young people being killed. You become numb to it," he said. "Being up here has helped me realize, it's not normal."