A friend in deed

Armed with faith in the power of love, Brother Jim Fogarty takes his ministry to the mean streets

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By LYDIALYLE GIBSON

Sometime after burying his best friend, Alex Hall decided he'd had enough. Enough of the violence, enough of the heartache and fear and the funerals. Enough of life in a gang.

"You know how you get tired?" Hall said. "Well, I got tired."

And so he got a job, and then a better job. A longtime Dearborn Homes resident, he swept floors for the Chicago Housing Authority. He went back to school and learned computers. Then, a year and a half ago, Hall got himself hired on at the local public school, working as an administrative staffer for a college prep program aimed at gifted fourth- and fifth-graders.

"I've found my place," he said.

Hall's not sure he could have done it without Brother Jim.

"Oh, yes, he's had a big effect on my life," Hall said. "A big effect. I wouldn't trade my friendship with Brother Jim for anything."

Over the last two decades, Brother Jim has become a daily fixture of Chicago's public housing projects. He's hard to miss: a lanky white man with an easy smile strolling trash-strewn quads in a monk's habit sewn from scraps of blue jeans. At places like Cabrini Green, Rockwell Gardens, Henry Horner and the Dearborn Homes, Brother Jim looks in on friends and plays ball with neighborhood hoopsters and gangbangers. He makes a phone call to the gas company when somebody's heat gets shut off. He shows up for court hearings and trundles mothers and friends and sons and daughters out to the penitentiary to visit incarcerated loved ones. He prays with prostitutes and drug dealers and afterward takes local kids out for hamburgers and fries. Once or twice a year, he shuttles a few guys all the way out to South Bend to watch the Fighting Irish.

As much as anything else, though, Brother Jim is just around.

"Just by being physically there, he makes a difference," Hall said.

But sometimes being physically there is harder than it sounds. More than once, Brother Jim has stepped into the crossfire between warring gangs, waiting in silenceâ€"and sometimes for hours on endâ€"until the shooting stops. Hall remembers one such time nearly 20 years ago at the Dearborn Homes. Gang members were firing on each other from the windows of buildings. Brother Jim planted himself in the yard between them.

"He heard about the shooting in the area, and he came down to where the shooting was," recalled Hall. "He just stood there, and guys knew that he would do this. They respected him for thatâ€"that he would sacrifice himself for them. That he would care about them that much."

In a word, that's what Brother Jim does: care. At 47 years old, he is Jim Fogarty, neither an ordained priest nor monk, but a man of God nonetheless. A Berwyn resident and a weekly worshipper at Oak Park's Ascension Church who sends his son to Ascension School, Fogarty is the only active member of a Catholic Charities ministry called Brothers and Sisters of Love.

"Our mission is, simply, to love," Fogarty said. "But it's not the kind of love hippies had in the '60s, you know, throwing flowers on tanks. And it's not the love of 'Love the sinner, hate the sin.' It's the kind of love people have in relationships where they care about each other, the love parents have for their children."

In loveâ€"and forgiveness and fearlessness and a believer's trust in the Almightyâ€"Fogarty finds a remedy for gang violence, despair and a couple generations' worth of urban blight. Making his daily rounds, he doesn't pontificate or proselytize; he doesn't scold any sinners or give any lectures. He smiles and says hello. When people stop to talk, he holds out his hand and asks how they're doing. Rarely, though, does Brother Jim need to introduce himself.

"Hey, I've seen you," teased a third-grade girl in puffy snow boots as she passed Fogarty on her way home from school in the South Side's Dearborn Homes two weeks ago. "You're that guy. I know you." Then pointing to her feet and grinning, she said, "Do you like my boots?"

"I think they're great," Fogarty beamed. "Are they new?"

As he wound his way through the lobbies and hallways of most every Dearborn Homes building that afternoon, Fogarty amiably disrupted drug deals, breezing by with a handshake and a blessing for every person. On the sidewalks, a few teenagers stared or barely mumbled at Fogarty as he passed, but more than one hurried ahead of friends to say hello. Calling some by name, Fogarty chatted up the most taciturn of youngsters, unruffled by their shy one-word answers.

"Hello!" Fogarty greeted one young mother as her two children rushed at his knees, squealing his name. Next time, he promised, he'd stop by her apartment for a visit.

"It's that ethos of love," said Father Larry Reuter, vice president for Loyola's University Ministry and a founding board member for Brothers and Sisters of Love who says Mass twice a week at Ascension. "It's that non-judgmental way that some people find hard to believe. As a result, they've been able to develop great friendships and to help get people sober and get jobs. They've been able to clean up family situations."

"Brother Jim doesn't dictate, he doesn't pressure you," Hall said. "He makes sacrifices for people. That's what people like most about Brother Jim. Whatever you can't count on many people to do for you, Brother Jim will do."

"I'll lead, you follow."

Brothers and Sisters of Love got its start in 1980 with the professional conundrum of another penitent named Bill Tomes. Torn between two job offers, one at O'Hare and the other at a hospital, Tomes found himself kneeling before the altar at a Northwest Side church after an interview. He was looking for an answer. Instead, he found a calling.

"All of a sudden, everything that was in color in the church went black and fuzzy," Tomes said. "And God said, 'Love. You are forbidden to do anything else.' I said, 'Should I take the hospital job?' He said, 'I'll lead, you follow.' I said, 'Okay, what about the airport job?' He said, 'I'll lead, you follow.'"

In the end, Tomes took neither. That afternoon and during the following weeks, Tomes said he received a number of divine commands: trust God completely, never be afraid, and "forgive everyone everything."

"He said, 'You will have me and you will be poor,'" Tomes recalled. "I said, 'Such a deal.' What I didn't know was that he was giving me the rules for the work we do."

Three years later, Tomes finally quit his job, gave away everything he owned and turned up on the doorstep of St. Malachy Catholic Church on Chicago's West Side, where his master's degree in counseling earned him a bed to sleep on and a job as youth minister.

"'But in this parish,' the priest said, 'that means working with gangs,'" Tomes said. "I said, 'Fine.'"

And so in the summer of 1983, Tomes took his first amble through the Henry Horner Homes. Before long, he'd made friends with many of the guys he met there, playing basketball, pacing the buildings, showing up when there was trouble. St. Malachy's pastor dubbed the new youth minister Brother Bill, and Tomes fashioned himself a habit out of denim rags, which he patterned after St. Francis of Assisi's. (Like Tomes, the Catholic saint relinquished all his wealth and devoted himself to the poor.)

Then one day, gunfire erupted between Horner's rival gangs. Tomes raced into the fray.

"Initially the guys were startled, like, 'Don't you go down thereâ€"they're shooting down there,'" Tomes said. "And later it's like, 'Hey, they're shooting down there,' and they think that's your responsibility. They expect you to go in."

"Bill had tremendous impact on the gangs in that neighborhood and that parish and in the city of Chicago," Fogarty said. "Bill says when there's shooting, you should always turn your back to the people that you feel the most danger from, because it's like you're protecting them. You're showing them you care, making them think about what they're doing."

Love is all you need

In 1984, Catholic Charities started footing the bill for Tomes' ministry, and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin asked the denim-draped peacemaker to widen his turf to other housing projects. That same year, Fogarty arrived from the East Coast, a shy seminarian slightly cowed by the big city. Within six months, he was fending off bullets alongside Tomes.

"What Bill was doing, I was really drawn to it," Fogarty said. In 1987, he quit the seminary and signed on with Brothers and Sisters of Love.

"People advised me against it," Fogarty said. "They'd say, 'What are you doing? He's this guy going around standing in gang gunfire.' But it felt more right to be going to places like Horner and Cabrini."

Only problem was, Fogarty wouldn't get paid.

"I didn't have a place to stay, I was taking classes for my master's degree, I had no car and almost no money in the bank," Fogarty said. "I decided to take that chance anyway."

He found a part-time chaplaincy job at a West Side hospital and bunked at St. Malachy's. At night, he studied for his master's in divinity and laboriously stitched together his own blue-jean robe.

"Let me put it this wayâ€"I started sewing this thing in September 1987, and I started wearing it in February 1998," Fogarty said. "I spent so much time in my room sewing that people were getting worried. I think they thought, 'Jim's a little afraid when Bill's not around.'"

In 1990, a Catholic Charities donor put up the money to pay Fogarty's salary.

"Everything fell into place once I took that leap," Fogarty said.

In the two decades since then, Fogarty and Tomes have faced down their share of bulletsâ€"Fogarty remembers twice taking part in gangland peace treatiesâ€"but the bulk of their work is quieter, simpler. Sometimes it's harder: comforting a bereaved relative, finding jobs for reformed ex-cons, sustaining friendships with those who've committed terrible crimes.

"We are forbidden to do anything else but love, so we don't break relationships with the guys," Fogarty said. "I've got a friend who killed his wifeâ€"it was pretty gruesome what he did. I've gone and visited him several times. We keep in touch. And last spring he stopped a riot at the jail down at 26th and California. He prevented a riot, and the guards thanked him. The day he told me about it, I realized as I left the jail that he didn't have anybody else to tell."

Retired for two years, Tomes has spoken at 177 funerals and baptized more than one dying gang member.

"One with snow, one with something dripping off a balconyâ€"you know, whatever there was," Tomes said. "I've seen generations come and go. Mostly they go."

Neither Tomes nor Fogarty harbors illusions about some of the friends they've made. But they love, and they forgive everything.

"People say why do we stick with murderers and people who are guilty," Fogarty said. "Well, you never know what they're going to do. Also, I can see God is still in there. It would be very hard for us to shake the dust off our sandals and walk away. The thing that keeps me going are the moments of grace, when you get blown away by the goodness of people in terrible times. You realize that God loves the sinner and the saint."

These days, there's a lot less gunfire ringing in Fogarty's earsâ€"he figures it's been six or seven years since he's had to step into a crossfire. And just as well, too. In 1993, Fogarty married a woman he'd first met as a young mission worker in Pennsylvania's Appalachia, just before his arrival in Chicago. The following year, their son was born.

"The whole time I was in the seminary, she was that person I still loved," Fogarty said. "And while I was thinking about the priesthood, she was thinking about becoming a nun. We kept in touch, so she knew what I was going through."

Both stopped short of taking holy orders, but not because of each other, Fogarty insisted.

"Sometime after she dropped out, she called me and I said, 'Hey, why don't you come to Chicago?'" he said.

Fogarty's sonâ€"who answers to the name Liam at home and Will at schoolâ€"is a student at Ascension, and Fogarty helps out with the church's program for returning Catholics. Every Sunday, the whole family turns out at the sanctuary.

"When you go to church there, you feel like you get fed," Fogarty said. "They don't preach down to you; they don't beat you up. We go right past another church every week to get there."

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David from portland or  

Posted: January 31st, 2013 3:46 PM

Beautiful story. God sees differently than we do. His love is great.