Christian Community Development Was Born in Chicago | Sojourners

Christian Community Development Was Born in Chicago

Photo of Jonathan Brooks. Graphic by Tiarra Lucas/Sojourners.

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

For me, seminary was a weird time. I attended seminary in my home state of Illinois during the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. This was before it became hip among liberals to display their #BLM bona fides on their front lawns, their cars, or their office doors. I spent a lot of time in professors’ offices arguing with them about the movement and, specifically, how their insistence that protesters “needed to be more peaceful” failed to account for the violence of the police.

When I inevitably got too angry, I would make my way over to the library where I would usually run into one of my classmates and neighbors, Jonathan Brooks. Brooks would commiserate with me about just how difficult it was to be a Black man in a seminary setting while cities across the U.S. burned hot with Black rage.

We were certain that this was how theologian James H. Cone felt while he was in seminary during the Civil Rights Movement. There were times where it felt as though what we were learning in seminary was so uselessly esoteric that it could never meet the material needs of Chicago’s Black communities. What I respected about Brooks, both then and now, was his insistence that theology could and should meet these material needs.

Brooks is now the lead pastor of Lawndale Christian Community Church in the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale. The major theological conviction of LCCC is to love God and love the neighborhood, which is predominantly Black and has experienced years of government disinvestment. The way the church community puts into practice its theological convictions is by working with neighbors to improve the material circumstances of all who live there.

I sat down with Brooks to talk about what it means to practice presence in neglected neighborhoods, the history of LCCC and its connection to Christian community development principles, polarization in church, and Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Tell me a little bit about the neighborhood of North Lawndale.

Jonathan Brooks: North Lawndale is an inner-city neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago.

It is a predominantly African American neighborhood, and the Latinx demographic is growing because the border neighborhood, Little Village, is busting at the seams. Lawndale was historically a Jewish community. It transitioned in the early- to mid-’60s to being more African American.

Eventually, our Jewish counterparts took on the white moniker and joined in white flight. So, Lawndale is a resilient community that is very tight knit. Being a lifelong Chicagoan, I’ve never lived in a neighborhood as tight knit as North Lawndale where there are so many people who know each other and have known each other for a very long time.

The same number of people that live in North Lawndale are the same number of people that live in the Englewood neighborhood I grew up in. The Englewood neighborhood has almost three times the amount of land mass, but the same number of people. So, when you think about the population numbers and consider geography, mass, and location, you realize why everything is so tight-knit and why something like LCCC as a ministry could be created.

I love Lawndale. I think it’s beautiful. One of its greatest claims to fame is that it’s the space where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. decided to live and reside when he was here in Chicago.

The MLK housing exhibit is right on the corners of 16th and Hamlin. And [the Dr. King Legacy Apartments] is a housing development that we built on that corner in honor of his work to end slum housing.

And if you know anything about his time in Chicago, it didn’t go as well as he had hoped.

A lot of the economic disinvestment that we see in our neighborhood to this day happened after [King’s] assassination. But the street that he lived on was just decimated due to frustration, anger, and injustice. And then the mayor [of Chicago at the time], Richard Daley, vowed to never invest in the area again.

Tell me a little bit about Lawndale Community Church, your ministry, and how you came to be the lead pastor.

[I came to LCCC because] I was connected with the organization that came out of Lawndale, the Christian Community Development Association. Wayne “Coach” Gordon became a mentor of mine during that season. He saw the work that I was doing in Englewood where we were able to open our own coffee shop, the Kusanya Cafe, we were able to help get a full-scale grocery store open in the neighborhood while in partnership with Whole Foods, we were able to start our own co-ops and gardens in the neighborhood — all of this based on the Christian community development philosophy, which emphasizes living in a community, reconciling people back to God and to one another, and redistributing or making sure that we’re stewarding the available resources. In 2021, Coach and I started co-pastoring LCCC together and then, just recently in August of 2023, he retired.

So, Lawndale Community Church was birthed in 1978. It was birthed at a time when there was literally no investment happening in North Lawndale. This was [after] King, white flight, and African Americans moving [to Chicago during] the second wave. And that’s another important distinction between the South Side and West Sides. And I think it’s important to understand how LCCC was birthed.

The first wave of African Americans that came up during the Great Migration mostly [became] Southsiders. And so these are folks who maybe owned a business or had some kind of means. And so they chose to leave the South due to the racial terror that was happening.

And so they made a life in areas like Bronzeville and Chatham, [founding] middle class, highfalutin kind of churches. [It was] just a different way of being on the South Side. Whereas, the West Side of the city is usually folks who were [part of] that last wave of people coming up. They just hopped on the train, got off, and they just figured out how to make a life [in Chicago]. And so right [from the Black community’s] infancy in Chicago, you see this dichotomy in class. You see the more educated, the more wealthy on the South end of the city. And then you see those who were a little poorer or maybe had less education moving West. And you even see it in the churches. You get more storefront-style churches and Pentecostal coded churches on the West Side versus the more staunch Baptist or Methodist missionary churches on the South Side.

LCCC starts off as this kind of storefront church. Wayne Gordon is a white man from Fort Dodge, Iowa, who feels this call to the West Side of Chicago, which in 1978 was just insane, right? What are you doing, man? You’re from Fort Dodge going to North Lawndale in the 1970s? But he just wants to be a high school teacher and a football coach or a wrestling coach at Farragut High School in Lawndale. Living in the same neighborhood that his students live in, [he begins] to understand the realities of their life and learns to not come in teaching and talking to them without understanding what they deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Coach gained a lot of credibility with his players, with his students, and he was also a missionary with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and was leading Bible studies with his athletes, with his players. And in these Bible studies, he’s teaching things like “the church is not a building. A church is a group of people that gather together and care about their place and want to be God’s representatives in that place.” And these kids are eating it up. They said to him, “Well, the church is not a place and it doesn’t matter where we are. We’re in this little storefront building with this washing machine. You and your wife live upstairs. Why don’t we just be a church?” I love Coach’s response to that. He always says that he thought if he gave them the super spiritual Christian answer, they would [drop it]: “Well, let’s pray about that and see what God says.”

But they didn’t [drop it]. They filled it in. So the start of LCCC is this group of high school students, this coach and his wife, and other people from the neighborhood meeting on Sundays in this little dusty storefront. These kids had enough [sense] to say, “If Jesus wants us to love our neighbor, shouldn’t we love our neighborhood too?”

So here we are 45 years later, [and LCCC still] has that ethos, with youth as the focus, understanding that we want to be a church that doesn’t just love our neighbor, but loves our neighborhood as well. This has led us to start many ministries through our church, including a health center, Lawndale Christian Health Center, which was started in 1984.

We have a housing ministry, Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, that’s [built] well over 5,000 units of affordable rental units. And then built almost 250 single-family homes from the ground up in the last 30 years or so. And now it’s dealing a lot around business creation, incubation, using co-op as a model, and just got the okay from the city to do a thousand new homes on the South and West Sides.

Cliff Nellis came here in 2009 and wanted to get plugged in. He is a lawyer and started the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. So now we have a full-scale legal center that’s opening up its second site in K-Town.

And then we also have our Hope House ministry, which works with men coming out of prison and tries to help them get off of drugs and alcohol. It’s been around for more than 25 years now. And it’s a real staple over here in our neighborhood.

Lawndale Christian Community Church and the Christian Community Development Association are connected. In what ways do you think CCDA has changed for the better over the years?

One of the things I think Coach did very well, as a white man moving into a Black neighborhood, was he recognized that he needed to be led by other African Americans. He knew he needed [the support] of African American leadership. And so he had some leading him in the beginning. One of those key people was Tom Skinner, the African American evangelist who just blew up the Urbana conference back in the 1970s. But John Perkins was also another key figure, a civil rights leader, a church leader from Jackson, Mississippi.

And from these relationships came this association, which met for the first time in 1989 in Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

It’s now well over 3,000 folks who come together annually at the CCDA conference. CCDA has grown tremendously. And I think what we saw in its first 30 years is what happens when things grow from small grassroots associations to huge nationwide organizations.

And what CCDA has been, especially for somebody like me, is a place where you connect with folks who understand why you decide to move into communities a lot of people are trying to move out of, why you spend so much time focusing on justice as the center of the gospel, [emphasizing] that unless things are made right here on earth, we’re not truly understanding the gospel’s implications.

When I think about where CCDA is now, through a lot of growing pains, and leadership [changes], and even growing in its understanding of gender issues, and equality, and LGBTQ+ conversations, that’s because it’s a space that's not based on a doctrine. It’s based on this idea of caring for the poor and the most marginalized, living with them, and not just doing stuff for them. So our politics, our theology, our doctrine can be all over the place.

I was heavily involved in CCDA during my seminary years. And one of the things that was a big issue for my generation was the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. Are LGBTQ+ people in leadership within CCDA? Is CCDA an open and affirming space?

I never use the language of “open and affirming” unless an organization has made that statement.

So, I personally would say no because there has been no statement made that says CCDA is an open and affirming association. However, I’ll tell you my personal beliefs about that. I grew up in the Black church and I grew up in a space where there were no rainbows on the front of our church. [Sometimes, there would be] LGBTQ+ people directing the choir or leading a Bible study. The love was the inclusion.

[But speaking from my own perspective,] I’m seeing space being made [at CCDA] to where people are teaching, leading workshops, leading from the stage, and I know they’re a part of the LGBTQ+ community. I’m not sure, because we don’t gather around a shared doctrine, that a space like CCDA would ever be able to [make an official statement on being open and affirming] because it would exclude some people just by making that statement. There are people who are part of [CCDA who also belong to] denominations that [are not open and affirming].

And that’s a hard space to be in. You gotta be able to hold tension to dwell within a space like CCDA. You gotta know that you're going to be uncomfortable if you’re going to actually be a part of CCDA.

I know that you’re speaking for yourself. But I’m curious to know, as you are involved with CCDA, what your perception is about whether an LGBTQ+ speaker would be invited to the CCDA conference.

Yes, there has been. There’s an expectation that you’ll be uncomfortable. And it’s one of the things that we say at the very beginning. There will be speakers you will not agree with. You may not agree with their lifestyle. You may not agree with their beliefs. You may not agree, but we want you to listen. And if you cannot do that, this is not the space for you.

We are holding all of our differences, valuing the full humanity of every person who steps into the room.

How do you see the church being a space for healthy disagreement? What are some of those healthy disagreements that we need to have in a church space?

We’re trying to model this within our local church context. LCCC is not a space where we gather around shared doctrine and beliefs. That’s not why people come to Lawndale. They don’t come to LCCC because they sign some doctrinal affirmation. Our doctrine is The Apostles’ Creed. It can’t get more general than that.

So why do we gather together?

Because you’re my next-door neighbor and we have the same concerns: Our kids go to the same schools, we hear the same gunshots at night, we have the same things going on. So, I need to be in a space with someone who understands what’s going on in my life right now, who’s going to walk with me through it, a person I can call in the middle of the night.

How can we, as the American church, have better conversations in a very polarized world? What I would say is you have to find something in common. We try to figure out every way we’re different versus beginning with all the things we have in common, so the conversation [should] begin there. Churches don't know how to have conversations anymore.

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