Back of the Yards

by Megan E. Doherty


BEYOND THE headlines of the notoriously high gun and gang violence in Chicago, there is the debilitating loss of human capital in many communities of the city’s South and West Sides. For the last 28 months, I have been documenting the efforts of one man—“Brother" Jim Fogarty—who works to help people in the Back of the Yards reinvest in themselves and the transformation of their neighborhood.

We're on the 9th floor of a building in the Dearborn Homes housing project visiting Joyce, who has AIDS and is dying of terminal cancer. This one she can't beat. She called Brother Jim and asked him to help her go over some paperwork. “Final Wishes” planning guides. Where does she want her funeral? Who will carry her coffin? She breaks down in tears, her body convulsing through the sobs. She leaves the room multiple times to collect herself. In a moment of quiet reflection, Br. Jim looks stressed.

Jim is the last remaining member of a small street ministry, Brothers and Sisters of Love, which tends to those involved in—and victimized by—gang violence and urban poverty. When I met him, I knew that I wanted to document both the work he was doing in the community as well as the lives of the people he was engaging with. When I began walking the streets with Br. Jim in February 2013, he introduced me to the neighborhood and its residents, and I have been following, photographing, and walking with him every week since.

I wanted to do more than show the harshness of this place. I wanted to show how people here are struggling to achieve some kind of redemption; and what does this look like in Back of the Yards?

I asked Jim to elaborate:

"One of the problems is that for 150 years, successful projects, programs and infrastructures that have worked in immigrant communities have not worked with poor African Americans. A large part of that is due to racism, exploitation, and the destruction of infrastructures decades ago. The best friend of the African Americans, since the time of President Lincoln, has been the federal government—and the government has not been a particularly good friend. I guess what I am saying is that good will in challenging people's default perspective has not been working, and I don't see it changing any time soon. Most people who I can challenge on their default perspective are people who walk with me in the neighborhoods."

My work really isn't much when compared with what Brother Jim does—he’s been challenging people's default perspective for over 30 years. Unfortunately, many people have a particular fear of poor African Americans. And too often our only exposure or contact is "when things go wrong.” One thing we can learn from Brother Jim is that remaining present can engender empathy. We just have to put ourselves out there.

Br. Jim visiting with friends, as seen through a window of dandelions. In a neighborhood beset with so many problems, it's easy to forget how beautiful Back of the Yards can be.

I notice a guy holding up his phone in a car that was parked alongside us—they just wanted a photo. Br. Jim is used to this, and he gladly went over to stand for a proper shot. "I thought you were an exorcist or something," the man says, referring to Br. Jim’s ankle-length, patched-together robe of rags.

Br. Jim meets with Angela, who struggles with food insecurity and also doesn't have a state ID. He goes over her mail with her in an effort to find the documentation they'll need to help her get an ID.

A week after teenager Jeremiah Shaw was killed, photos were added to his memorial. One is a selfie on which someone had written “love none”. I didn't feel comfortable taking pictures of Jeremiah lying in his casket, but I liked the idea that in this image he is looking right back at me—and at us.

Brothers and Sisters of Love was founded over 30 years ago by Brother Bill, who felt called by God to don a handmade habit of rags in the style of Saint Francis of Assisi. Br. Bill has since retired, but people still remember and love him, as seen in this photo of a BSL anniversary mass held on June 12, 2013. Years ago, Br. Bill risked his life to intervene while rival gangs were shooting at each other in the neighborhood.

An unlikely sight in the neighborhood: On July 11, a group of 47 conservative Mennonites from the Sharon Mennonite Church walked through Back of the Yards singing and passing out free CDs. They had read about the ministry years ago and wanted to help. At first the residents looked confused and surprised to see this huge group approaching on the sidewalk. But all were glad—some even brought to tears—to hear them sing.

Br. Jim walks through the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago's South Side every week, passing out rosaries, listening to people, praying with them. Many people, like this family, want extra rosaries. One is never enough. Br. Jim always gives out more, encouraging people to pass them on to anyone in need.

Br. Jim walks the neighborhood no matter what the temperature. Unpleasant weather doesn't change the fact that people look forward to seeing him every week.

As seen from the roof of the Port Ministries, Br. Jim is doing what he always does: walking. The Franciscan Friary was established with a belief that the proper place for ministry work is in the streets.

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