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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”