When Jonathan Brooks was growing up in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, the message was clear: if you end up here as an adult, you have failed.
Getting out of the neglected South Side community was the ticket to success, he knew. And he did get out, for a time. He went to Tuskegee University in Alabama to study architecture with the hopes of being upwardly mobile enough to never have to return.
But when he had to move back to Englewood to take care of his ailing mother, Brooks started on a journey that transformed his attitude toward his community -- and the church.
“I began to see the community with new eyes, not only the brokenness and tough stuff that I had always seen growing up, but I began to see the beauty in the relationships there and the resilience of the residents,” said Brooks, who also is a teacher, a trainer and an artist known as Pastah J.
“I began to see how beautiful it was.”
Twelve years ago, he became the pastor of his childhood congregation -- now the nondenominational Canaan Community Church -- and he has developed an approach to ministry and community development that he outlines in his forthcoming book, “Church Forsaken: Practicing Presence in Neglected Neighborhoods.”
Brooks spoke to Faith & Leadership about the ways in which becoming the pastor at Canaan shifted his thinking from loving his neighbors to loving his neighborhood. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What is your takeaway message for folks who are interested in the kind of work you do?
The church has been a very integral part of the community’s flourishing. It was the center of the community. It’s where people went to find out about what’s going on in the neighborhood, what’s going on in the world.
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So my prayer is that the church would return to that understanding and not forsake its local place.
At the center of the message is this notion of not living above place. That we don’t have this idea that my faith is completely separate from where I live. Or I can live wherever I want because God is everywhere, omnipresent, and therefore it doesn’t really matter.
That’s not the way that God shows himself when he showed himself in human form. Jesus came down, was among the people, in the place.
We know clearly that there are no Godforsaken places, no Godforsaken people. There are only church-forsaken places, because it’s the church that’s called to be God’s hands and feet in the world. So if the place is still neglected and disinvested in, it’s not God that’s not there. It’s God’s people that are absent.
Therefore, we are not just called to sit inside the four walls and love one another. We are called clearly to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, which means that we’re called to love our neighborhood.
Q: Where did you get the idea for community development-focused ministry?
I was pastor of the church, I was living in the neighborhood, and I was teaching in a school in Englewood at the same time. God was orchestrating that my life would be all within this one community.
When I went to the park with my daughters, I saw kids that I taught. When I went to the grocery store, I saw people that were in my church. And when I hung outside, I saw people that I grew up with. It ended up this hyperlocal life -- living, working, ministering and being in one community.
I began to see the community with new eyes, not only the brokenness and tough stuff that I had always seen growing up, but I began to see the beauty in the relationships there and the resilience of the residents. I began to see how beautiful it was.
That changed the way I pastored. It changed the way I thought. It changed the way I lived.
It changed the way our church understood what our responsibility was in the neighborhood. God clearly spoke that our church was meant to be not only loving our neighbors but loving our neighborhood.
Thus began this journey of figuring out what it meant to be a church that was in love with its neighborhood -- all of its residents, all of its beauty, all of its brokenness, all of the things that make Englewood, Englewood.
How could we be God’s representatives and good neighbors -- love the community the way God loves it?
My prayer from that is that local churches would understand that that command that God gives us to love God and love our neighbor has implications in a local church.
So not only did that change my perspective, but it changed our process. We moved from our church focusing on what I call creating “safe space.” We don’t want just our children to be safe in our church building or to be safe in our homes or to feel safe in our families.
When you create a safe space, you only create a space that’s safe for your people or your children or your family. But Jeremiah 29:7 is clear. It says, “Seek the peace and welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
It’s those last couple of words that really hit me hardest: it’s “in their welfare, in its welfare, that you will find your welfare,” which meant that when Englewood did good as a whole, that’s when my family is doing good, because we’re a part of Englewood.
If I work with community residents, organizations, politicians, law enforcement -- whoever is a part of trying to make our community better -- when we all work together, we can not only create a safe space, but we create a safe place, meaning that all of the people of the community can have greater safety, greater joy, greater flourishing, including my family.
Q: What are some specifics that folks could picture for how your church functions differently?
I think the main thrust is incarnational living. The first thing that our church does differently is we believe that it is important that we are a part of the community. My church went from being about 90 percent commuter to being about 65 percent local Englewood residents that walk to church.
It changes the way we think, because we no longer have an “us and them” mentality. Practically, what that would mean is we don’t do “outreach.” We do community engagement and events.
On Mondays, for example, we have what’s called the 5 Loaves Food Cooperative. So rather than having a food pantry that has the mentality, “There are people out there who need food; let us prepare bags of food for them, tell them when they should come and pick it up, tell them what things we’ve put in the bag,” we’ve completely flipped the paradigm and made it about “us.”
That’s a practical way of thinking “we” language. We are a part of this community; “we” do this together, and “we” meet our own needs. “They” don’t need the church to meet their needs; “we” need to meet our communal needs, and the church is just a part of that.
Each person gives $5 a week, and we put all of that money together and use it to go purchase groceries. We bring them back to the church, and then we come and we shop together. You get your milk, your eggs, your bread, your healthy vegetables, tomatoes, salad, things of that nature.
Before we had our own grocery store -- which we have now in our neighborhood -- those of us who had vehicles would go to stores and bring those things back so that the seniors wouldn’t have to take three buses to get to a grocery store.
We’re all able to get much more when we pool our resources together versus one person going to the grocery store trying to buy all the things that they need.
Q: Are there other examples?
When ministries are created, lots of churches just say, “Hey, these are the ministries we have. We have ushers. We have greeters. We have musicians. We have benevolence.” Then they say, “Who are the people who want to work for that?”
What our church does, though, is we try to match people’s gifts with needs that the community has expressed. We say to the community, “What are we going to do about this need?”
One of the needs in our community that was expressed was we were having trouble with watching a lot of our young people end up in the prison system. I worked with young people, walked with them and then ended up having to visit them in prison or in Cook County Jail.
So we said, “How can we get ahead of this?” We put our heads together as a community and came up with some ideas.
We try to push education, so we provide a college scholarship that is funded just by community events. We have different events throughout the year.
But here’s the catch about our college scholarship: it’s not merit-based. What allows you to get this is if you make the commitment to return back to the neighborhood once you complete school.
That was a community idea. We have a leadership vacuum in our neighborhood, because people keep thinking that to be successful you have to escape from the place. So how do we address that vacuum issue?
We say, “We want you to go to school. We want you to get experiences. We don’t even mind you leaving. But how amazing would it be if you brought that back?”
This is what happens when it’s about us and not just about that individual student or our individual church.
Our church doesn’t have to get the accolade for it. No. What we’re hoping is that we see the community change through the activity that the church participates in.
I tell people often that we don’t lead a lot of stuff. If you come to Canaan, it’s not that impressive. You don’t walk into our church and go, “Wow, this is amazing. Look at their facilities. Look at all the things they’re doing.”
We participate with the resident association. We participate with other organizations in the community, work with politicians, work with anybody that wants to see the community flourish.
We’re not a huge church with a bunch of different things going on. We’re a church that understands that to lead sometimes is to follow and partner.
Q: Tell us about your five-year effort to establish a cafe. What did you learn from that?
That was one of those partnerships that happened organically. There was a group of residents that had come up with this notion -- we were trying to have meetings and organize and participate in the neighborhood, but we never had a space. We didn’t have a space where you could sit down and talk, because the only things in our neighborhood were fast-food restaurants.
We wanted to open up our first sit-down restaurant. Once we talked about it, we realized we wanted it to be a not-for-profit, because the goal was to use it not just as a place to eat but as a place to gather.
There was one guy who kind of took the lead. His name is Phil Sipka. Phil became a member of Canaan; he came to Canaan because he saw that we were worried about the community flourishing, and that’s the kind of church that he wanted to participate in.
[He said,] “I don’t have a 501(c)(3). Is there any way that the church can participate?” The church became the fiscal agent for gathering donations and became a voice for the Kusanya Cafe. Kusanya is Swahili; it means “to gather together.”
Where most coffee shops can come up in one year even, it took us five years to get the coffee shop off the ground -- to find a space that we could have it in, to find a place where it could be built out where a landlord wasn’t trying to swindle us, to get all of the proper permits and all of the different things necessary.
We ended up having to purchase a building, because there were no landlords willing to build out the space. Another resident took the plunge of purchasing a building on behalf of the cafe and then the cafe moved in, and it was the first entity in this multiuse building.
It will be five years in November, and it’s been quite a journey to watch it, but this cafe has become a staple in our neighborhood.
It is where everybody goes. It’s where everybody meets. It’s where everybody sees one another, and it has become exactly what we hoped it would be. You walk in and everybody just says “hello” and knows your name, and it’s been excellent.
But the No. 1 thing that has been so excellent about it is it proved to me that Jeremiah 29:7 was correct.
Because it’s not just that our neighborhood has a gathering place. But I can take my children there and we get to enjoy it together, and I get to bring my friends when they come into town. And all of the negative stereotypes and ideas about my neighborhood get washed away in one visit to the Kusanya, because this is what we did for ourselves.
Canaan was a big part of it, but Canaan’s name is not on the top of the Kusanya Cafe. It doesn’t say “A ministry of Canaan Community Church.”
It is a stand-alone cafe that is for our community, and when you walk to the front door, there are three R’s on the front. It says, “Resident-owned, resident-operated, resident-sustained.”
What we want more than anything is for the community to understand that this is our coffee shop. We take care of it. We keep it open. We keep it nice, and as long as we are responsible for it, there will continue to be investment in it.
That’s one of the main things that I preach in our congregation -- that whoever has the ownership will have the responsibility. Whoever has ownership will sustain it.
If you want something to sustain longer than your church or longer than your tenure as a pastor or longer than your tenure as a ministry leader, then allow the neighborhood to own it. It becomes much bigger than anything your local church could create.
Q: You have a book coming out about your work. Is the book intended to help people replicate what you’ve done?
Well, it’s not really about replication. I don’t believe you can replicate. Context is too important.
What I do is give principles in the book about what I learned from my context and my experiences. I think the principles are transferable.
Although I live in an inner-city neighborhood in Chicago, I’m still talking to the affluent soccer mom that lives in Wheaton, Illinois, because the principles are transferable.
There are specific things that God has called the church to do that -- because we’re seeking comfort rather than the call of God in our lives -- we have kind of forsaken and done things our own way. Then we’re wondering why we’re not seeing the impact that God desires.
That’s why the book is called “Church Forsaken” -- because it’s really talking about the various ways that we’ve forsaken what God has called us to do as the local church.