Jonathan Brooks is a man of many talents—a school teacher, writer, speaker, artist, musician, and community activist, he also serves as the senior pastor at Canaan Community Church on Chicago’s South Side. But whether he’s encouraging young people to serve as leaders in their neighborhoods or finding ways to engage the church in community revitalization, “Pastah J” is guided by a singular God-given calling: transformation.

Where most see Chicago’s West Englewood as a neighborhood known for violence and poverty, Brooks sees potential. His ministry is built around the idea that the church can become “intimately involved in the lives of people to the point where they trust it again and see the church as something that’s there for them, not for its own benefit”:

I engage them right where they are, on a relationship level. Like, I spend a lot of my day playing dominoes and cards on the porch with guys ‘til they trust me. Why is anybody going to listen to anything I have to say until they trust me, right? Especially Millennials—oh my goodness, trust is everything. You get their trust, and it’s deeper than anything you know or you can provide. It’s just that: “Okay, you really are who you say you are.”
Another thing I do is, I intentionally look different. I just chopped off my dreadlocks about a year ago. They were down my back—I had ‘em for 10 years. It was really weird for them that I pastor a straight stained-glass, red-brick steepled church, and when people come in, they’re like “Well, who’s the pastor here?” And I come out, and they’re like “That guy’s the pastor?” Ladies in hats and dresses are like “That guy’s a pastor? The jeans, gym shoes, and dreadlocks guy?” Or, in my community, it’s very popular for pastors to have fancy cars, wear nice suits and cufflinks and all that stuff. So, I drive a 2005 minivan.
I remember I was walking down the block to meet some guys who were rolling dice on the block, and I told them “Hey, what’s up man?” and introduced myself, like “Hey, I’m the pastor of the church down there.” And they were like, “You’re the pastor?” One guy was like, “What kind of car you drive?” Straight up, like, just asked. So I was like “2005 Honda Odyssey.” And he was like, “A what?” “Yeah, I drive a minivan, man. I got two kids.” So he’s like, “Where you live? Down the street?” I was throwing off his whole paradigm about the African American pastor that he had created, that movies and cinema have made—that they want to build big churches that have lots of money and, you know, whatever it takes.

On this week’s episode of The Calling, CT’s managing editor Richard Clark chats with Brooks about tent-making, dealing with cultural Christianity, and how churches can change the streets that surround them.

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The Calling is produced by Richard Clark and Cray Allred.

Theme music by Lee Rosevere, used under Creative Commons 4.0.