If you grew up in the Chicago’s old projects you probably met Brother Jim. Jim was the other white guy who walked around Carbini, Henry Horner, and Rockwell. He was dressed like a monk in blue jeans. He may have given your mom food, prayed with you the corner, or ran to your homies when shots rang out.
“I get involved in people’s lives,” he says over and over again like a mantra. “I help people get something to eat, or a state ID – because without a state ID you can’t get a job. So that’s what I do. Sometimes it’s visiting people in the hospital, or just checking up on them at home…People think that I’m a priest, so I call myself ‘Brother Jim’ to let them know that I am not a priest.”
About 30 years ago Jim did want to be a Catholic priest. He ultimately moved to Chicago instead, started a family and befriended a portly, bespectacled man known as ‘Brother Bill’ Tome.
“I was a seminarian, and we heard about this guy, Bill, who was working with street gangs,” Jim says. “He had some Jesuit seminarians the year before, and I was studying up at Loyola. There were two priests living in a house with us, and I had told them I was interested.”
Brother Bill had been working in the Henry Horner Homes and living in St. Malachy’s Church, one of the poorest parishes in Chicago, Jim recalls. Bill liked to have his Jesuit volunteers wear a cassock so that they would be more noticeable.
“They took me to St. Malachy’s Church on the West Side,” Jim says of his first outing with Brother Bill in 1982, the memory still fresh in his head over 30 year later. “We got the cassock, but it was 12 inches too short. I wore it anyway…He showed me around St. Malachy’s, then we walked around Henry Horner. And the thing that really impressed me that first day was how much people really liked him. It was real interesting. As we were walking people would be honking their horns and waving at him.”
Brother Bill retired in 2002, however Jim continues to walk through the remains of Chicago’s old projects. Henry Horner Homes, Rockwell Gardens, Cabrini Green, the dumping ground for Chicago’s poor and the stronghold for Chicago’s late 20th century gangs. The city tore down the projects in the late 1990’s, but the ghosts of gangland still haunt Chicago, from the quiet Killing Fields of old Cabrini, to the war zones of the South and West side.
Now in his 60’s, Jim still heads out everyday to check on his friends. He doesn’t hand out money, it’s counter-productive. Instead, he helps them with food, offers an ear to the desperate, or helps navigate the maze of bureaucracy that is Chicago’s legal system. That’s what his faith has taught him.
“When we work with the poor the kingdom of god sort of breaks into our lives,” Jim says. “Being on the streets, I have more good days than bad days. Another thing to is that I think about faith. A lot of times people get stagnant in their lives, I still think that I’m growing. I still think that I’m coming to new understandings about what Jesus was talking about, what some of the prophets were talking about, what Abraham and Moses were doing. It’s a – so I find life interesting.”