Reporter’s Notebook: Chicago pastor turns gangsters’ lives around with stunning compassion

on Feb25
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When I first met Pastor Corey Brooks in Chicago several years ago, I was somewhat caught off guard by his gentle and peaceful nature. I admit I expected him to be more in the mold of a fiery, in-your-face type of preacher. After all, this was the pastor that established his New Beginnings Church and Project H.O.O.D., a community center, in the heart of Woodlawn, one of the most violent of 77 communities that make up Chicagoland.

While most people in that neighborhood are salt-of-the-earth, working-class folk, it is also home to some of the most notorious and violent gangsters. How could this pastor transform these cancerous elements into productive members of society with his gentle and peaceful nature? What was his magic sauce, so to speak?

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A few weeks ago, I returned to the South Side and met Pastor Brooks in his office on the second floor of the church where he ministers every day. In the middle of our talk, the door opened and the Bentley Twins walked in and sat down. Born Varney and Varmah Voker, they grew up as “project babies” in the 16-story Calumet Building that once stood just a few blocks from the church. The twins had joined the Black Disciples gang at a very young age and rose quickly to become two of the most legendary gangsters with an affinity toward Bentleys, hence their moniker. They were and still are also known as the BD Twins due to their Black Disciples affiliation. 

After serving their sentences in federal prisons, the twins returned to Woodlawn intent on rebuilding their drug empire when they encountered Pastor Brooks. I first heard the story of this encounter when I met Varney over a year ago while filming my documentary “What Killed Michael Brown?” During that interview, Varney explained that the pastor told him he was the “new sheriff in town” and that if he returned to the streets, he’d better do it in another neighborhood. Varney also pointed out that the pastor had opened his eyes to how he had destroyed his own community with the drugs that enriched him. 

While I understood that explanation as the reason for why the twins had crossed over to the good path, it still did not explain why the twins — who had led a brazen, us-against-the-world lifestyle for over four decades — would uncharacteristically place their fate into the hands of the pastor.

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As I sat in the pastor’s office and watched him talk with the twins, it became clear that there was a profound sense of respect on both sides. This respect was not the kind that one defaults to when encountering a man or woman of God. It was far deeper than that. It was the kind of respect that says I know you — sin and grace — and I still believe in you and I still want to see you become the best you can be. 

The pastor’s magic sauce was that he practiced the best kind of judgment toward the twins, a compassionate form of judgment. There was no pity in this compassion; the pastor truly understood the twins and their life choices. He was not ignorant of what they had done and, though I never asked, it is likely that he ministered some of their former victims. At the same time, the pastor knew that while the twins had fallen further than most humans on this planet, there was still room for goodness within their souls. (That is the beauty of our complex humanity.) The pastor also understood that humans cannot move forward into goodness without the possibility of redemption. 

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In today’s cynical world, I have to admit that even I fell out of touch with this kind of compassionate judgment. Too often on Twitter or Facebook, we see unthinking online mobs reduce the entirety of a human being down to one sin, which then is used to beat that individual down to pulp or some sort of acquiescence. Canceling a human, not redeeming a human, is the prize here. 

This lack of compassionate judgment sadly extends far beyond the online world. I will never forget the pastor in Ferguson, Mo., who told me that the church had practiced this wrong kind of judgment for too long. When she raced to Canfield Drive after Michael Brown had been shot, she and other members of the clergy were dismayed to learn that they barely knew any of the youth protesting in the streets. In the years past, their churches had turned away teen moms, drug addicts, criminals and other sinners. That’s why the clergy had little to no connections with the descendants of the unwanted in the streets.

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Where would the twins be if Pastor Brooks had judged them without compassion? Would the streets of Woodlawn be even more violent and drug-riddled these days?

Perhaps what is even more remarkable than the pastor’s compassionate judgment was his decision to set up his church in the middle of Woodlawn. With his considerable talents, intellect and passion, he could easily be heading a megachurch in some suburban town. But he chose Woodlawn because of his deep faith in the people of that community to turn despair into hope. It was this same faith that provided the twins a place of goodness and possibility to come home to when they left prison.

Eli Steele is a filmmaker. His latest film is “What Killed Michael Brown?”



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