Interview by Dirk Johnson
Chicago has its share of outspoken religious leaders, but you managed to capture the spotlight last winter by spending 94 days atop a Woodlawn motel to protest gun violence. Now you are devoting your summer to walking across the nation to raise $15 million for a community center. What spurs you on?
The shooting death of Carlton Archer [in West Woodlawn in November 2011]. He was 17. Shot in the alley where he lives. And when kids were coming to our church for his funeral, a gunfight broke out. So at the funeral, I asked young men to turn in their guns. And four of them did. They had taken guns to church! I decided right then, I’ve got to do something.
This hotel [across the street from Brooks’s New Beginnings Church, at 6620 South Martin Luther King Drive] was a haven for gangbangers, drug dealers, and prostitutes. Bringing attention to the place made it harder for them to do their business. Police told me there was a big drop in crime in the neighborhood.
What did your wife, Delilah, say when you told her you were going to camp on top of a motel?
At first she started laughing because she thought I was joking. But when she realized I was serious, she was supportive and committed. It’s been that way all along. Not many people know this, but we sold our home in Bronzeville to start the church. So she’s used to sacrificing.
Your 3,000-mile walk kicks off in New York on June 5 and ends in Los Angeles sometime in September. You’re scheduled to pass through Chicago on July 15. Anything special planned for the homecoming?
We’re going down Lake Shore Drive. We plan to have thousands of people walk with us. Our whole congregation will be there.
Have you had support from other African American ministers?
Rev. Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson called me. And Rev. James Meeks is doing some walking with us.
Where are you sleeping during the walk?
In our partner churches and the homes of volunteers. And we’ve got a tent.
In Chicago, will you be able to sleep in your bed?
I sure hope so. At least for one night.
You are a 43-year-old father of four. How have you been preparing for this daunting journey?
Walking an extra mile each day and changing my diet—no red meat or pork, no sugars. Oh, I miss the prime rib at Ditka’s!
Who’s going with you?
I’ll be the only one who walks the entire way, but we’ve got six to ten going. My two sons, Desmond, 22, and Cobe, 11, do some walking. There are a couple of students from the seminary and a security guard. A couple of volunteers drive cars along the way.
Cobe gave up playing with his basketball team this summer to walk. Is he disappointed to have to step away from hoops?
I think he’s actually the most excited about the walk of any of us. And you know, all the time that we’re able to spend together, it’s a real chance to be a father.
Ever any second thoughts about tackling 3,000 miles?
Sometimes I’ll think, Oh, what have I gotten myself into? But that’s my head. In my heart, I know it’s exactly the thing I should be doing.
You were a high-school basketball star in your hometown of Muncie, Indiana. When did you get the calling for the ministry?
I was 16 years old, but I really resisted it until I was 19. In high school, I did a lot of partying. I didn’t do anything terribly wrong, but I wasn’t really a great kid. Then I got a basketball scholarship to Armstrong State in Georgia. I left after one semester. I knew what I was supposed to be doing, and it wasn’t playing basketball. I was supposed to be helping people.
New Beginnings has a music and dance studio, a school, and a congregation of 2,500. What was the building like when you bought it in 2005?
It was an old skating rink. They’d have raves there. White kids from the suburbs would come and party with black kids in the inner city. It was in terrible shape. There was graffiti everywhere. And rats.
Along the way, you made the choice to preside over gang funerals when other ministers refused. Why?
I’m not criticizing any other pastors, but it seems to me that when people are hurting, that’s when we’re supposed to be there the most. We’re supposed to show them real love, whether they come to our church or not.
Have any other members of the Chicago clergy or African American community been critical of your approach to fighting gun violence?
I’m sure there are some who disagree with what I’m doing. My answer to them is, “OK, then get into the action.” If you have another way, that’s fine. There’s enough work for all of us.
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WALK THIS WAY
A few logistical details of Corey Brooks’s cross-country trek, which passes through Chicago on July 15
HIS ROUTE: Stops were picked to draw attention to local gun violence. Brooks will start in New York, end in Los Angeles, and travel through Newark, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Phoenix.
HIS SHOES: After test-driving six different brands, Brooks landed on New Balance 1540s for his whimpering puppies.
Photography: Chris Strong