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CHICAGO – Since its beginning, America has been known as the land of opportunity. There are always opportunities to be found, even in America’s impoverished and deprived neighborhoods. One may have to search harder and longer, but they exist nevertheless. Within these neighborhoods, there are folks who have given up on opportunities. If their faithlessness becomes the dominant narrative, it defines the neighborhood culture. It must also be noted that this faithlessness was made possible because post-’60s liberalism ushered in an era of cradle-to-coffin dependency upon the government. What happens then when a child is born into such a culture? How will that child come to know that America is the land of opportunity, much less believe in it?
Pastor Corey Brooks has fought this battle against faithlessness ever since he set up his church on the South Side of Chicago over 20 years ago. The block where he ministers was named O-Block by the gangs in recent years in honor of Odee Perry, a young gangster who was shot and killed. The message of violence, gangs and premature death was not one that the pastor wanted to keep alive. So he began a 100-day rooftop vigil to not only raise funds for his community center but also to wage a war against faithlessness by renaming O-Block as “Opportunity Block.”
On the 54th day of his rooftop vigil, the pastor was visited by two young men, Mario Rawls and Ikee Williams, who he has mentored since they were roughly 10 years old. Before they met the pastor, they rarely heard the word “opportunity” spoken.
“The first question I want to ask is: Can you help people understand how hard it is growing up in this neighborhood?” asked the pastor.
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“It’s very hard, living in low-income apartments. It’s gang-infested everywhere in Chicago,” Rawls, now a film student, said. “We ain’t really had a lot of opportunities that a lot of people have in the world.”
Williams, a student at the pastor’s charter school, added: “Some of us, we ain’t had no choice but to go into adult life kind of early because of the violence. We ain’t grow up playing in parks or nothing like that.”
The pastor then turned toward Rawls, broaching a painful subject: “I know it’s hard for you to talk about it, but can you just take a moment, just tell them about some of the things that you’ve experienced in your own family with the violence, as far as violence is concerned?”
“Imma tell you my age. I’m 21. I’m going to be 22 this year. And I ain’t going to lie to you, I think I lost over 50 people,” Rawls replied. “My family alone fell victim a couple times from 2016 to now. So I’ve been taking a lot of losses. It’s hard. It’s hard to grieve.”
“Because you lost a couple uncles, a brother,” the pastor sympathized.
“I lost my brother recently, in August. Lost my cousins, back to back, 2017. Lost my other cousin, 2020, Nov. 6,” Rawls replied.
“You said something about grieving,” the pastor said. “Do you think a lot of kids who grew up in the neighborhood, who lose people, do they get an opportunity to really grieve?”
“Nah. Around here, we don’t have enough time to grieve,” Rawls said. “Sometimes it’s mentally, physically, everything just be draining, but I just keep going. Just keep going. I know the people I lost, they going to be proud of me one day.”
Despite seeing so much in his first 21 years of life, Rawls never surrendered to the faithlessness all around him.
“The community center, the church right here, they do what they can for us, and we appreciate that,” Rawls said. “When I was younger, I really didn’t understand what the stuff they was doing. I was like, ‘Ah, it’s lame.’ But now as I’m older, and I understand everything, I be like, ‘It’s everything for a reason.’”
It was through the church and the Project H.O.O.D. community center that Rawls and Williams were taught not only about opportunities but how to pursue them. For Williams, he dreams of pursuing a life either in fashion or music.
“If there’s any kid who’s going to be successful, if he don’t make it in the clothing and entertainment, he will definitely be a great salesman because he will text you and he will not take no for an answer,” smiled the pastor. “‘Pastor, you got some work?’ He will text you 15 times … Matter of fact, I taught Ikee real early, Ikee, there’s no free what?”
“No free money,” Williams answered.
“No free money. That’s right. You got to do what?” the pastor ribbed.
“Work hard,” Williams said.
“Got to work. You got to work,” the pastor said. “And Mario, he’s got his camera here. So he’s into media and photography and shooting videos.”
The proud pastor then asked them both what a community center would mean to this community.
“Man, that’ll be a tremendous idea … I’ve learnt everything on my own, but any knowledge I got, I will help any youth, any youth that want to get into this,” Rawls said. “Chicago is very toxic. We just got to get a peace of mind.”
Williams added: “It’ll be beneficial to have the center because it’ll be more opportunities for young kids. I know if I was younger and the center was up, I probably be more, I want to say more—”
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“Advanced, now? Further ahead?” offered the pastor.
“Yeah. It’ll bring a lot of opportunities, and it’ll keep a lot of us off the streets,” Williams said. “Instead of being in the street, you could be in the center learning how to do something that could affect you in a good way later in your life.”
Sometimes that peace of mind, along with exposure to pathways to opportunities, is all an aspirational soul needs to succeed in life.
Follow along as Fox News checks in Pastor Corey Brooks each day with a new Rooftop Revelation.
For more information, 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.
Camera by Terrell Allen.