Pastor on the Roof

For nearly two months Pastor Corey Brooks has been living, praying, and preaching on the roof of a vacant motel on Chicago’s Southside. He says it will take nothing less than a revival to transform America’s inner cities.

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.

About the author, Catherine Newhouse

Catherine Newhouse is an UrbanFaith blogger from the Chicago area who attends the University of Missouri, where she is majoring in journalism, religious studies and international studies. She has written for Christianity Today, the Columbia Missourian and The Chicago Reporter, a newsmagazine that investigates race and poverty in the city. She blogs at ponderingpeace.tumblr.com and can be contacted via Twitter and email.
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