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Bishop Brazier's gentle way inspires our work

LISC/Chicago, its New Communities and all of us who work for stronger neighborhoods mourn the passing of Bishop Arthur M. Brazier, who for a half century was an inspiration to, and force behind, Chicago-style grassroots community development.

“He was an instinctive organizer, a man who never forgot his roots, even as he influenced presidents and mayors about the city and the Woodlawn neighborhood he loved so deeply,” said Andrew Mooney, executive director of LISC/Chicago, where the bishop, following his retirement from church duties in 2008, served as senior fellow. Bishop Brazier was also chairman of the board of the executive committee of NCP.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Bishop Brazier and the Rev. Leon Finney, his successor in leading The Woodlawn Organization, were key movers behind the tearing down of the El along 63rd Street and the revitalizing mixed-income townhomes that followed.

“He was never afraid to take on the big issues,” Mooney said, “but he also knew when to be subtle and quietly influential.”

Bishop Brazier, 89, died Oct. 22 following a long struggle with prostate cancer.

“His spirit will live on through the parishioners, leaders and friends that he touched each day,” President Obama said in a statement issued by the White House that same day.

And so many did he touch! 

Bishop Brazier became pastor of Woodlawn’s Apostolic Church of God in 1960 and over 48 years grew its congregation to more than 20,000 while revitalizing the neighborhood along and around once-blighted East 63rd Street.

Until recently he was chairman of the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corp. (WPIC) – an NCP affiliate and prime mover on such projects as the Columbia Pointe residential development along 63rd Street.

Photo: Eric Young Smith

Former LISC Program Officer Sean Harden was among many who appreciate Bishop Brazier's gentle approach to people.

“It’s going to be a model for building a mixed-income community,” Bishop Brazier told RE:NEW, the NCP publication, in a 2007 interview in which he answered critics who claimed the project’s market-rate homes would trigger “Lincoln Park-style” gentrification.

“This neighborhood had gone from 60,000 to 27,000 residents,” he said of reversing Woodlawn’s decline. “We still have many, many poor people on public assistance. We need a middle class.”

This same go-to-the-heart-of-it approach characterized Bishop Brazier’s work, whether helping sponsor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1966 stay in Chicago, or founding, with the late Saul Alinsky and Nicholas von Hoffman, The Woodlawn Organization.

A national prototype for many community organizations that would follow, TWO under Bishop Brazier took on slumlords, block-busters, and most famously, the University of Chicago, which then was promoting “slum clearance” as a defense against approaching urban decay.

“His spirit will live on through the parishioners, leaders and friends that he touched each day,” President Obama said of Bishop Brazier in a statement.

Protest and confrontation, however, laid the groundwork for negotiation and partnership. Under the day-to-day direction of the Rev. Leon Finney, Jr., TWO would go on to partner with the University and with City Hall in the development of hundreds of subsidized apartments for the displaced, along with many other community-building activities.

One example: Bishop Brazier was the moral force behind the city’s controversial decision to remove the rusting El tracks that blighted 63rd east of Cottage Grove Avenue – a decision that opened the street to sunlight and to redevelopment.  

“He was a forerunner of the whole faith-based concept,” said Rev. Finney, who credits Brazier with pointing him toward the spiritual. “He changed my life.”

Bishop Arthur Brazier changed many, many lives -- all for the better. His style of community-building lives on through the work of those he inspired, but his sage and gentle guidance is sorely missed.

To see a writeup about Bishop Brazier on the Woodlawn NCP site, please click here.

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