Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:11:44 AM CST

Top Stories

South Side church prepares to hit streets to meet violence with compassion

by Ross Williams and Ella Sonja West
Jun 11, 2014

In Woodlawn, on the South Side of Chicago, a crowd has gathered on the vacant gravel lot across the street from New Beginnings Church. Women line up under canvas tents to sign their names on bright pink enrollment cards, pledging to spend a few hours every Saturday afternoon on the most dangerous corners of the city.

There is a festive tone at 66th Street and South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where volunteers hunch over card tables registering for Sisters on the Street, a newly launched anti-violence initiative. A DJ spins rap music with Christian lyrics for dancing church ladies. One woman wields a large wooden cross like a drum major's baton.

Amid the frivolity is a sober reminder of the stakes: Mary Long keeps her sunglasses on in the shade of the tent, her 19-month-old grandson peeking out from behind her shoulder. She holds a cardboard poster: “No more of our sons must be lost,”written in black marker next to the yearbook smile of her departed son, 17-year-old Eric Williams, shot and killed in 2012.

Indeed, more than 1,500 violent crimes have been reported in the surrounding neighborhood this year alone, including 356 batteries, 123 assaults and three homicides.

Pastor Corey Brooks wants New Beginnings Church to become the epicenter for a non-violence movement. And there is work to be done—even if it takes a couple of decades.

Brooks launched Brothers on the Block in the beginning of May, an initiative to recruit 5,000 men to stand on the 500 corners the Chicago Police Department has identified as “hot spots” for crime.

“We’re not trying to be combative, ”Brooks says. “We just want our community to be a better place. And so this is part of us taking responsibility ourselves, not waiting for somebody to do it for us.”

They have their work cut out for them. Since young men are most likely to be involved in violence on Chicago’s South Side and West Side, that’s where Brooks decided to focus his attention. About  90 percent of homicide victims in the city are male, 75 percent of them are black, and the majority of them are under the age of 26.

But after men started enlisting in Brooks’ army of peace, the women of his church said they wanted to help, too.

“People started instantly [saying] they wanna be involved,” Brooks says. “We were getting a lot of emails and tweets and Facebook messages, ‘Hey what about the women, Pastor Brooks? You’re leaving the women out. We wanna do something too.’”

A week after the launch of Brothers on the Block, Sisters on the Street was formed. In the first week of signup, female volunteers surpassed men.

“A lot of initiatives have been catering towards men, but girls need mentoring programs as well,” volunteer Nicole Howel says, shielding her eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun with her hand. “You cannot paint one side of the fence… you have to look at both sides, and you have to address all issues.“

Another volunteer, Shonda Williams says: “Not only are we sisters coming together we’re also moms, we’re aunts, we’re friends, neighbors. When you see women coming together as a whole…. This does show unity. We all just need to grab the hand that’s next to us and keep walking.”

Chicago violence may have sparked the initiative, but this is more than an anti-violence movement, according to Brooks. He says he is trying to attack the problem at its roots.  That’s why Brothers on the Block and Sisters on the Street are focused on forging relationships and repairing neighborhood bonds that have been damaged by decades of bloodshed. They plan to attack on multiple fronts: mentoring, exposing young people to new possibilities, sharing information about social services and job training, especially programs to help people with criminal records.

At the gathering, Al Rider pauses, choosing his words carefully.

“I’m not naive about this process and the population we’re dealing with,” Rider says. “Especially the ex-offender population, because they already have some strikes against them. Part of my mission in this is to convince them you can do whatever you want to do.

“When we’re going on the corners, engaging those young people, we want to give them an opportunity to see what’s possible, other than the life they’re living. We don’t care what they’re up to, we’re gonna meet them right where they are.”

There is a mixture of idealism and tempered optimism among the recruits, but even the most optimistic among the volunteers believes that in a best case scenario, this is an investment that is going to take a long time to pay off.

Mary Long said she’s concerned about her grandson’s future, so she’s in it for the long haul.

“Even if he can reap the benefits 20 years from now I’m happy,” Long says. “If I can send my love into the future, I’m happy. It’s not about immediate results, it’s about getting the job done.”

Howel sees this as a way to reconnect with the past.

“It’s time to get back to the old way of doing things,” she says. “It takes a village to raise a family. Communities were involved years ago. I think we need to get back to that. We need to come out our houses and we need to be a part of the process and we need to be preventive and not reactionary.“

No one has mentioned the possibility of any kind of organized retaliation from the drug dealers and gang members now running those blocks. Volunteers smile and deflect questions about safety.

“It's dangerous everywhere,” Pastor Brooks says. “We’re just going to go, and we don’t have a lot of security precautions. We just want to make sure we’re not combative. We’re gonna go with a lot of love, and that’s the security we’re gonna use. I really do believe if we go into neighborhoods to build relationships, and show love, that things are gonna work out in our favor.”

Whether Brooks is right remains to be seen. The groups will be hitting the streets every week until the end of August, the brothers on Fridays from 6 to 9 p.m., the sisters on Saturdays from noon until 3.

The group hasn't reached anywhere near 10,000 volunteer warriors yet; at a training event a little over a week before the first night on the street, the enthusiastic crowd numbered only in the low hundreds.

Brooks says they’ve got enough people to cover the 500 “hot spots,” even if one group of brothers has to cover multiple blocks. The safety of the volunteers is far from guaranteed, but Brooks isn’t daunted by long odds.

“If I ever get an inkling God said it, I’m swimming. I can’t even swim, but if I think God told me to swim across the Atlantic, I’m swimming.”

Revised 6:54 p.m., 6-20-14