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CHICAGO – There are women and men who work tirelessly on the streets of the South Side of Chicago to keep youths away from violence. They mentor with empathy and tough love for they often grew up the same way, surrounded by poverty and violence. Despite their goodwill, they sometimes find themselves staring into the barrel of a gun held by a wayward youth. How do these women and men find the strength to keep faith in their volunteerism, if they haven’t already become disillusioned?
Leonard Williams, a comedian well known in Chicago and beyond, was the recent victim of a carjacking. Pastor Corey Brooks asked him to tell his story on the 51st day of Brooks’ 100-day rooftop vigil to raise funds for his community center designed to transform lives.
“Like a lot of people who have tragic things happen to them, the day started off good,” said Williams, who was attending a private screening for a movie premiere.
“As I’m leaving there, I realize my gas hand is low. Mind you, it’s late, one, two o’clock in the morning. I’m doing everything I know not to do,” Williams said. “You get gas early. You get gas, you know what I’m saying?”
“Especially in Chicago,” the pastor said.
“Especially in Chicago,” Williams repeated. “And in my mind I’m saying, ‘OK, I can make it home on this gas.’ Couldn’t make it home on that gas. So I drive past my usual gas station that I normally go to, if I do have to gas up late.”
Williams found a gas station, a big truck stop, off the expressway in Gary, Indiana, that looked safe.
“And I go in to pay for my gas, grab some snacks. Come back out, and I notice, well, first, the pump was moving really slow,” Williams said. “As I’m going to get back in the car, I notice that the car at the pump next to me, a black tinted out Nissan, newer model, is just sitting there.”
The pastor nodded along, knowing what was coming.
“I say to myself, ‘Nah, that’s not how this is going to happen.’ And I really heard God say, ‘Yeah, just breathe.’ Three words. ‘Yeah, just breathe,’” said Williams.
At that point, the Nissan jolted forward and slammed to a stop in front of Williams’ car, cutting off the possibility of Williams jumping into the car and speeding off.
“The young guy comes out the passenger side with the gun drawn straight to my face. But by the time he got out the car, I already had my hands up,” Williams recounted. “He asked me to unlock my phone. So I unlock the phone, and I drop my key fob, and I say, ‘It’s yours.’ I turned around and walked off.”
“‘Unlock your phone.’ What’s that about?” the pastor asked.
“They’re kids, but they know what they’re doing,” Williams answered. “This is the generation that grew up playing Grand Theft Auto. They’re really playing Grand Theft Auto in real life.”
“So he knew to take my phone so he could turn it off,” Williams continued. “And that way, I couldn’t … track it. And I couldn’t call the police right away. It gave him enough time to get to expressway, get gone.”
“Man, let me ask you this. How old do you think he was?” asked the pastor, who reminded Williams that there was another recent carjacking by a 10- or 11-year-old.
“Really, really young guy,” Williams answered. “He had a mask on, had a hood on, but I looked in his eyes, that kid, he was a young kid, and he was ready to take my life. I saw that in his eyes too.”
The pastor knew the feeling of encountering this kind of nihilism all too well, having been threatened in the past by gangsters. He then shifted gears to Williams’ record of volunteerism in the community.
“What can we do to help these young brothers, man?” the pastor asked. “Because at the end of the day, it’s brothers like me and you, I believe, got to get involved in these young brothers’ lives. A lot of them are missing their fathers. Come from single-parent households, and I’m not making any excuses.”
“This is why I don’t hold any malice toward these kids, man. They’re shorties,” Williams said. “I’m glad I wasn’t carrying at the time to fire upon them. I don’t want to take anybody’s baby out of here. Myself, I’ve been involved in the community for a long time.”
Williams spent time with the Dime Child Foundation, an after-school program, as well as Team Englewood, before it became Urban Prep. He still volunteers, knowing that his guidance may be the only words that a child hears on any given day.
“These kids, they’re raising themselves because the parents that are at home, they’re working really hard, and they’re not home enough to raise these kids,” Williams said. “A lot of these kids are growing up with their grandparents, who are way too old to deal with all this young energy and to correct certain things.”
The pastor nodded along in agreement.
“I don’t have to look at you as the enemy when I see you in the street,” Williams said. “You don’t have to look at me as the enemy. We need to do this in love. But correction is necessary.”
“That’s right,” the pastor said.
“I thank God for the old heads that cuffed me,” Williams continued. “I’m talking about from the streets to the pool pit. They all pulled me to the side and said, ‘That’s not how you’re supposed to do it. Let’s do this differently.’”
“That’s what it’s all about. We got to get into the lives of these young people. We can stop the crime. We don’t have to lean on government to do it for us,” the pastor said. “We got to take the initiative. We got to do the work. We got to do everything we can to show these kids that we affirm them, we accept them, give them the attention that they need to pull them out of the lifestyle that they’re in and give them an opportunity. That’s why we’re trying to build this community center.”
There is no magic formula to the work done by men like the pastor and Williams. Most Americans could not handle that level of violence and keep the faith. But these two men did, and they continue to put in the work, knowing that to give into violence is to give up on hope, one’s fellow man and 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.