For this Chicago pastor, community justice means food justice
When you become a community-oriented church, the needs of your neighborhood become your reality.
Jonathan Brooks, known as “Pastah J” at Canaan Community Church in Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood, is quick to say that his church is community oriented, not justice oriented. “Justice is the result of living in community with one another,” he says. Parishes often focus on big issues such as creating world peace. Instead, says Brooks, they should build up their own community.
In his book Church Forsaken: Practicing Presence in Neglected Neighborhoods (InterVarsity Press), Brooks emphasizes that churches should focus on neighborhood engagement, “[lifting] up the beauty so that people are able to see the fullness of what God’s doing there.” For Brooks and his church, part of this work means improving food access in Englewood.
In Englewood, a neighborhood often portrayed as challenged by poverty and gun violence, accessing quality grocery stores and sit-down restaurants is a battle. Seeing this need, Brooks’ congregation worked to start a food co-op, which inspired Whole Foods to open a store there. The church also helped open Englewood’s first sit-down restaurant, Kusanya Cafe.
Brooks did not always feel so invested in Englewood. He left Chicago for college with no plans to return. “I had always narrated the story of my neighborhood from its brokenness,” he says. “Being back helps me to narrate it from its hopefulness and the resiliency of the residents, many of whom, like me, have done well despite Englewood’s neglect.”
What made you return to Englewood?
As kids we are told that Englewood is a place to escape from, not a place to invest in. It’s a place that makes you tough but then you get out. I chose academics as my escape. But my mom had a stroke my senior year of college and that caused all my plans to change. I found myself back home, living in my mom’s house. It completely crushed everything I thought God was doing in my life.
I went through a crisis of faith and that pushed me to go to Canaan Community Church. It was there I reconnected with God. I started working with the youth in the church. That work connected me to the community in a different way. I ended up becoming pastor at the church in 2006.
At the time, Canaan was a community full of people who loved God but who had negative views about the neighborhood in which they lived. I knew this had to change. The scriptures tell us to love our neighbors, but what does it look like to love our neighborhood?
It has been quite a journey to see God shift the negative narrative of Englewood for our church, for us to become a true community church completely invested in our neighborhood. We had to recognize the brokenness of our neighborhood and lift up its beauty so that people are able to see its fullness. That led Canaan Community to be a unique kind of church.
Why did Canaan Community Church make food justice a priority?
When you are connected to the place in which you live and the people who live there, the issues of that community become your issues and that leads you to fight for justice. One of the main things I noticed in Englewood was the inequitable access to high-quality food. The only things available in my neighborhood were foods such as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or Hug juices, which have no actual juice in them. I thought about what I want for my family: access to high-quality food without having to drive miles away to reach it.
A group of residents came together at the church to find a solution for this problem. We wanted an empowering solution, not one that said, “Here, stand outside of our church. We’ll have boxes of food that you can come get when we are ready to give them to you, and we’ll determine what can be in those boxes.” We came up with the idea to have a space where people could come spend their money and shop for what they want.
This became the 5 Loaves Food Cooperative. We pool all of our money and resources and use it to purchase food from Trader Joe’s that community members can then shop from. We’ve put on demonstrations about how to cook and about nutrition. The beautiful thing is that everyone in the community benefits from this work, regardless of income.
Has the co-op been successful?
The co-op has met every Monday for the past nine years, and it has continued to grow. We realized that we could meet our own needs without anybody else’s help.
We now partner with Growing Home, a local urban farm down the street that works with formerly incarcerated individuals and gives them a path back into the workforce. Their goal is to show the city how to use vacant land, how it can be used in neighborhoods with little access to fresh, local foods. They started about three years after we began the co-op. I was biking with my daughters one day and we came across a full-scale farm in the middle of Englewood with hoop houses and greenhouses.
We realized that instead of driving all the way to the Trader Joe’s we could purchase food from Growing Home, right in our neighborhood. In addition to providing the co-op with fresh produce, some of our folks participating have family and friends who are part of Growing Home’s program. It is a win-win.
We want people to recognize Englewood is not just a good place to come and help, it’s a good place to live. This is not a place to escape from, it’s a place in which to invest. It has been inspiring to watch that narrative become more real to people. It completely goes against the ideas many people here hold.
How can a co-op be successful at other churches?
A lot of people visit our co-op and say, “We want to do this at our church.” I always ask them if they have talked to the folks in their community first. It is the responsibility of whoever starts a program to sustain it. It needs to come organically from the ground. Our co-op would not have lasted nine years if our church was solely responsible for sustaining it, because we don’t have those kinds of resources. But because our whole community was invested, we were able to keep it going. We all work together to set up the store and break it down every time. We have to be committed to do that week in and week out or it wouldn’t last.
So yes it can be replicated, but it needs to come from those most affected. It can’t be helicoptered in. I also think that it is important to recognize that if a program is empowering then at some point people will no longer need it. We’ve had quite a bit of turnover in our co-op. But that’s what we want. We have patrons who get better jobs and don’t need to shop at the co-op to afford food. They can purchase it somewhere else.
There will always be somebody in need who comes in and takes the place of the person who left. You have to be OK with turnover and know it’s not about your numbers as an organization, it’s about what people need. The people of your church need to benefit as well. You cannot only see yourselves as service providers, you have to see yourselves as service recipients. It’s the only way it can be sustainable.
How did the co-op affect the broader community?
Trader Joe’s wrote in their newsletter that they were part of our co-op, and other stores got wind of it. One day I got a call from Walter Robb, the former co-CEO of Whole Foods. He wanted to talk about our cooperative and was interested in putting a store in Englewood. He wanted to know about our relationship with Trader Joe’s, how people were responding to the types of food we purchased, and the consistency of people coming. At the time we had been doing the co-op for seven years, and the number of participants had only increased.
He was impressed and invited me; Aisha Butler, the head of the local residents association; and David Doig from Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives to a meeting at our church. We talked about the concerns of Englewood residents, which led to a larger community meeting. We needed the process to include more than just a few voices. That initial meeting led to hundreds of community meetings. Eventually, a Whole Foods opened, and it will be three years in September that we’ve had a Whole Foods grocery store in Englewood.
What kinds of concerns did residents have about opening a Whole Foods?
The first meeting about Whole Foods opening a store in our neighborhood was one of the most contentious community meetings I’ve ever been to. It was held at the police station, and it was packed. If ever there was a narrative that people aren’t concerned about what’s happening in their neighborhood, it was completely eradicated that day.
Many of the questions people had weren’t answered that day. But the meeting gave Robb a sense of the ownership Englewood’s residents needed to have over the store. Our neighbors asked questions about hiring. They wanted to know if the store would benefit us, or if it would cause gentrification, if the purpose of opening the store was to drive us out. They wanted to know how they would be able to afford to eat there: whether Whole Foods would lower their prices and accept Link and government assistance.
The major concerns, of course, were about what was going to be offered at the store. Every resident of Englewood had been to Whole Foods in other places and been like, “What kind of fish is that? We don’t even know how to pronounce that.”
The other concern that needed to be addressed was price point. There’s only one other grocery store within walking distance of Englewood: a Food 4 Less. We made clear that grocery staples such as eggs, milk, and bread needed to be the same price as what Food 4 Less was offering. We understood that specialty stuff would be more expensive; it’s a Whole Foods. But we’re not going to shop there if we can’t get bread at a reasonable price. And the Whole Foods executives agreed. It was a great win for our community.
The executives truly wanted to know what residents wanted in their store. They brought a scale model so we could look at the future store’s layout. We wanted space for a community room and a hot food section, because there are so few restaurants in the neighborhood. And they said OK to everything. They listened to us and allowed us to create the decor. We wanted to see ourselves in the art, so we had a local artist do all of the murals. There are pictures of African American kids eating apples. It belongs to us, the residents of Englewood.
Would the Whole Foods have been possible without the involvement of faith communities?
Faith communities did not make it happen, but it would not have happened without faith communities.
We’re an important part of this community. Many of us have built so much equity through relationships that when we called the meeting to discuss opening the Whole Foods, people came because they trust us.
The fact that Robb reached out to me personally was very humbling. He could have just built a Whole Foods in our neighborhood without consulting anyone, but he called a local pastor first. I’m not a big megachurch pastor with influence, either. I’m just a little local pastor on the corner.
I’m hesitant to say that you need churches or faith-based institutions to accomplish things like this, because churches often think that we have to lead everything. We think that if we come help then we have to run it. Instead, we need to be a resource and just part of what’s happening in the community. So yes, we were necessary, but as partners. Not as leaders and not as the ones who tell people how it should go.
Do you have any advice for parishes that want to get involved in this sort of community action?
The key is to become a community-oriented church, not a justice-oriented church. When you begin with justice as your foundation, then issues are your focus. When you begin with community as your foundation, then people are your focus. When you focus on people, you eventually deal with justice issues that those people experience, but it’s not the whole totality of your ministry.
There are times when justice is not the best choice. Sometimes love is the best choice. There have been plenty of times at my church when we did not get what was just and right for our community. But because of our love for our neighbors and their willingness to accept any outcome as a starting point, we become stronger.
Community starts with love. You can be justice oriented and not have the best interest of the people you’re fighting for at heart. You can have your own agenda as to what you think someone else needs. And when that happens you have completely disengaged the very people you thought you were fighting for because you’re about justice, not about those people.
People may not understand that. But it’s what we do at Canaan Community Church. If you’re truly a community church then you will fight for your people and justice will follow.
What does a community church look like in practice?
When you become a community-oriented church, the needs of your neighborhood become your reality. And one part of this is to help the neighborhood overcome the lies it tells itself. To be a community church is to fight for whatever is hidden in your community. For example, in Englewood what’s hidden is the beauty. We tend to hold up the brokenness of our community, and our lie is that this is a place of brokenness that you need to escape from. We are slaves to that narrative, and we keep
running away from it, which only perpetuates the notion that our residents don’t value our neighborhood.
In other communities, there is already a tradition of holding up the narrative of beauty in the community, and it’s the brokenness that’s hidden. Take Evanston, for example, a wealthy suburb just north of Chicago. In communities such as Evanston, people feel required to hide their brokenness. In these places, people tend to hide their financial problems, their marital problems, or their substance abuse problems rather than deal with them. They feel the need to maintain a façade of beauty. In these communities a church needs to highlight the brokenness of the community: No one is alone in their suffering, and it is liberating for people to share their brokenness.
We’re all bound to the narratives our places hold. Unless we’re honest about our experiences, we will never understand how our place has shaped the kind of person we are and the way we see the world.
God sees both the beauty and the brokenness of all people and all places at all times. That should be our foundation: We have to start with seeing the world the way God does. We have to focus on the image of God in one another—the imago dei. That will help us stop trying to put one another in categories and instead see what love looks like. The fight for justice begins there.
This article also appears in the October 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 10, pages 18–23).
Image: Unsplash cc via nrd