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ELI STEELE: Pastor Corey Brooks is reviving the American Dream

One rarely hears of the American Dream these days. The belief that anyone can move upward and achieve their own version of success regardless of what class or zip code they were born into has taken a beating in recent years.

In speeches, politicians often point out how the American Dream is only for the privileged class, seldomly evoking the unifying qualities of the dream. In many middle- to upper-class K-12 schools, educators continue to dismantle the honors track and other ladders of upward mobility, giving the goal of achieving racial equity a higher value than the dream. From universities to corporations, many elites, seeking innocence from America’s history of racial crimes in this post-George Floyd era, pour millions upon millions of dollars into racially engineering diversity, a practice that belittles the dream. Within this national culture where power is to be found in the external markers of one’s identity, why pursue the difficult and often lonely path of the American Dream?

Far from this privileged and racialized world, one might be surprised to learn that the heart of the American Dream beats in one of our nation’s most ravaged, deprived and violent communities: the South Side of Chicago. Pastor Corey Brooks has spent the last three decades ministering folks from all walks of life through his New Beginnings Church and refuses to believe in the demise of the American Dream. If he had, he would not have proved countless doubters wrong while raising over $20 million this past year to build a 89,000 square feet facility for his Project H.O.O.D. (Helping Others Obtain Destiny) community center. 

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As I drove down King Drive early in the morning before the groundbreaking ceremony for the community center, I saw no visible evidence of the American Dream. Mere feet from the pastor’s church sits a massive housing project that occupies much of the long block. For many of its tenants, intergenerational dependency on the government is the only life they know. On the other end of the projects, buildings that once housed Walgreens and McDonald’s have been abandoned and graffitied. At the nearby elementary school, nearly every child failed to reach grade-level proficiency in math and reading and, sadly, this is not an exaggeration. 

What did the pastor see in this desolate landscape that I was missing?

When I met the pastor on the rooftop built on top of shipping containers where he has been living for the past 344 days with the goal of raising $35 million to build the building debt free, he told me that the American Dream is never “out there.” It is not the fancy car or the house with the white picket fence. Rather, the dream lives within each one of us, in our souls. The dream fuels the belief in ourselves to make something of our talents, to confront the unknown, to become somebodies, and to have a meaningful impact on those around us. 

Yet the pastor knows that the dream has been defeated by bad faith within too many people in the neighborhood. This bad faith, put plainly, is faithlessness in oneself, one’s fellow man and in the society we live in. How does a young boy on the South Side keep good faith in America when he is constantly told he is oppressed and a victim of white supremacy? When he is told that efforts to better himself is acting white? When he is told he cannot agent his own uplift without help of the government? When all around him he sees a permanent black underclass ruled by gangs who think nothing of snuffing out a life?

“That is why it is so important for me to believe in the American Dream,” the pastor told me. “If I don’t believe in it, don’t talk about it, don’t model it, then how do they know the dream exists?”

He was talking about the near impossible task of turning bad faith into good faith by awakening the dream within each soul in the neighborhood. He played no role in creating this world of bad faith, and he knows that many individuals feel it is unfair they were born into a world where they have to start from so far down on the bottom. But that is their fate. 

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I have known the pastor for close to six years, and I have never heard of him speak of the American Dream until now. However, when I look back on his actions, he may be the most American of Americans that I have met. 

Eleven years ago, there was a crime-infested motel across the street from the pastor’s church. He would look out his office window in the mornings and watch schoolchildren walk past scenes of prostitution, drug use and even taped off murder scenes. After listening to too many politicians and residents chase their tails with the blame game and after hosting the funeral of yet another life taken far too young, the pastor placed a ladder against the side of the motel and climbed to the roof. 

People called him crazy and laughed. They told him he was going to freeze his butt off. But the pastor stayed on the roof through the brutal Chicago winter and after 94 days he raised the $400,000 needed to buy and tear down the motel.

At that moment of jubilation, as he descended from the roof, he believed that building the community center would not be far off. He had no idea he would be in for a long 10 year haul of false starts. 

That didn’t stop the pastor from bootstrapping his Project H.O.O.D. community center on the cramped second floor of his church. The children of that time could not afford to wait for a building. The pastor started the Refuge afterschool program to keep kids busy and safe, the Violence Prevention Team to prevent killings and retaliation killings, re-entry service programs for convicts returning to society, electrical and construction training programs to give young adults an alternative to the gang life, and more. 

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“What we were trying to do is bring them back the dignity they lost in all kinds of environments that meant them no good. They learned how to work, they learned responsibility and accountability, and that’s how we transformed lives,” the pastor told me. 

I knew he was leaving out the many tragedies he encountered along the way, including an aspiring construction worker shot dead from behind as he walked to the mart on an errand for his mother. Most people would have cracked under the burden the pastor carries. 

As the neighborhood residents and kids readied the grounds for the groundbreaking ceremony, I found TJ Grooms, the assistant pastor, and asked how the pastor had kept his faith steadfast.

“One of my favorite scriptures says, ‘Faith without works is dead,’” Grooms responded. “A lot of times when we talk about faith, we think of faith in terms of success. But the real key is can you have faith even in failure, when things aren’t going your way, when things don’t materialize?

“Faith requires you to see what the normal eye cannot see. It requires you to be able to see that and then to be able to require what you see to actually be a reality to you. It is literally turning the invisible into the visible.”

Grooms’ words made me aware of how powerful the pastor’s faith was. When he decided to go back onto the roof on Nov. 20, 2021 — 10 years after his first rooftop journey — he had tried everything imaginable to raise the $35 million needed to build the community center debt free. He reached out to donors, talked to politicians, dined with VIPs, and, in the end, he realized that the only thing he had in his power was his faith. It would be his faith that would awaken the spirit of the American Dream on the South Side.

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The pastor believed naively that he could raise the full funds in 100 days. He launched the CEO challenge and many CEOs across America donated generously. However, at the end of the 100 days and after a brutally cold winter on the roof, he had raised $5 million, an impressive amount but far short of what was needed.

I remember being on the roof with him in March after the first 100 days had passed by. There was no visible path forward. The pastor had exhausted all possible actions. All around Chicago, a grumbling was rising that it was time for him to end the circus show and get off the roof. To make matters worse, the pastor’s mother was now on her death bed, her body ravaged by cancer.

I will never forget the look on his face when I asked him if he thought of throwing in the towel. Nobody would blame him. He turned and looked me in the eye for a long moment and said, “Eli, I am not leaving this roof.”

And so he stayed on the roof through the spring rains, the summer heat and humidity and into the glorious fall. All the while, he worked nonstop inside his tent, trying to make the invisible into the visible. Soon, I began receiving texts from him that a million dollars had been donated and that another five million had been raised. When people saw that he wasn’t leaving the roof and that his faith was sustaining him through these uncharted waters, they began to come alongside him in support. Over 20,000 individuals across American donated. 

After raising $20 million, he decided to come down from the roof and begin the process of building his community center. While the second floor of his church had served Project H.O.O.D. well, he knew it was in his community’s best interest to build the facility quickly so he could scale up his programs and reach far more people. He also believed that the act of seeing the actual building being built would inspire even more people to help him reach the finish line debt free.

As I watched the pastor make his way down from the rooftop toward the tent where the groundbreaking ceremony was to take place, he couldn’t stop smiling despite his profound exhaustion. Everybody from the destitute to CEOs hugged him — they wanted to be close to the man who took a monumental leap of faith and was now on the verge of making his American Dream a reality. 

But the pastor knows he cannot rest. As hard as it was for him to humble himself to ask for donations and to stay on that roof for nearly a year, he knows his work is far from done. He told the large gathering that the reward for passing this test was the reward of the next test. And it is this next test that would be the hardest — reviving the American Dream in the hearts and minds of his neighborhood. 

On my drive back to the hotel, I remembered one of my conversations with the pastor in the tent during the brutal cold of January. I asked him why this building was so important — perhaps he could find an abandoned building and convert it. He considered the thought for a moment. Then he said, “I know I said that the American Dream is not ‘out there’ and that it is within us. But if I can transform my dream into a reality, into an actual physical building, then I can show my community that the impossible is possible. If I can do that, then I can point to the building and look a child in the eye and say, ‘what’s your excuse?’ I can tell that child, ‘if I can achieve this victory through my faith in the Lord, myself, and my fellow man, then imagine what you can do.’” 

The road ahead will be hard and arduous but the revival of the American Dream has begun.

For more information on the pastor’s community center, please visit Project H.O.O.D.

Eli Steele is a documentary filmmaker and writer. His latest film is “What Killed Michael Brown?” Twitter: @Hebro_Steele

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