Six years ago, James Brooks fell to the concrete floor of his prison cell. His “cellie,” or cellmate, usually never left during yard time. But that day felt different—and it was. That day, when the call came to exercise, his cellmate jumped up from his bed and threw on jogging pants.
“Where you going, cellie?” James asked him.
“I’m going out,” he told James. “I just feel like going out and walking around.”
Then it was just James, alone in his cell.
“That was God,” James says of those moments. “He did that for me so I could have that time with Him.”
Alone, with God, James felt tears burst from his eyes as he fell to the prison floor.
He sobbed, and through it all, he heard God whispering to him.
“He was telling me, ‘You said you’re ready.’” James says. “’You said you want to change.’”
James realized he did. His mother had wanted this for James his whole life, but at that moment, at nearly 60 years old, James wanted it for himself.
On his bare knees, he acquiesced. He opened his heart.
“I surrendered to God,” he says. “It was so beautiful.”
Life did not always look so beautiful for James, even when he did not find himself surrounded by concrete floors and metal bars.
James grew up on the West Side of Chicago, in the Lawndale neighborhood.
Born right in the middle of five kids—James has two older sisters and a younger sister and brother—he came of age in the 1960s. He remembers Lawndale as a neighborhood where people cared about each other and hung out, talking on their stoops.
In 1966, he lived a half-mile away from Martin Luther King Jr. when King bolstered the Chicago Freedom Movement by renting an apartment on South Hamlin Avenue to highlight racial inequities in housing and economics.
One day, while walking along 16th Street and Ridgeway Avenue, James says he ran into King.
“You’re a great man!” he blurted out.
He shook King’s hand, and King replied, “God bless you, son.”
At Farragut Career Academy High School, James considered himself a jock, playing wide receiver and a defensive end so well he contemplated college football and just maybe, a career in the National Football League.
That ended when, at 18, he and his high school sweetheart found out they were pregnant.
“You got her pregnant,” James says his dad told him. “Your duty as a man is to marry her.”
So in 1971, James dropped out of high school and got married.
His young wife had their baby, a son. But the baby came too early and died.
“He was too small,” James says. “He didn’t have a name yet.”
He and his wife’s fledgling marriage disintegrated.
To earn money, James turned to something he had done for his father since he turned 10 years old: paint.
His father owned a family painting business, Brooks and Company, and the strong smell of paint compounds had been an integral part of James’s boyhood.
His uncles painted. His brother painted. He painted.
In 1975, James’s father died, and the family business fell to him. Shortly afterward, family infighting broke the business apart.
James joined the Painters District Council, the union that ensured decent pay and steady work. He’d stay with it for more than three decades.
During this time, the crack cocaine epidemic raked through America’s urban areas, and James became one of tens of thousands who got hooked.
He dealt crack. He smoked crack. And it led him to stronger drugs, like heroin.
He stayed in that world because of his habit. He kept at it because he saw easy money. By that time he had two daughters and he still dabbled in painting. But he couldn’t function without drugs.
Money from painting wasn’t enough.
So he stole—frequently and prolifically.
“I used to stick people up,” he says. “I needed to support my habit.”
Once, as he exited a motel with wads of cash, a clerk tried to stop him. He says she reached for him, he rushed out, and she fell and “busted her knee.”
James was charged and convicted of aggravated robbery and served his first prison sentence.
Several years later, James found work in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, the idyllic town that is home to Wheaton College, which has such alumni as Christian giants Billy Graham and Jim and Elisabeth Elliott. The town also harbors a reputation as the epicenter of churches. James, with his affable smile and gentle demeanor, blended in, gaining the trust of people for whom he painted.
Except drugs still shadowed him.
He would burglarize houses in Wheaton—“I learned how to disarm alarm systems and all that stuff”—and then go into Chicago to meet up with his drug contacts.
When those who knew him found out the charges against him, they were in disbelief.
“Not Mr. Brooks,” they would respond in surprise.
“People just loved me,” James says.
He estimates he committed 33 burglaries in Wheaton. In 2010, he got caught for three of them. James, in his late 50s then, would spend the next six years in prison.
It started badly. James got in a fight with a cellmate inside of Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner, a rural community in Illinois, and stabbed him because “he stole from me.”
Actual knives, of course, were contraband, so he fashioned his own weapons out of things like gum and bits of wax.
Then his mother, who was well into her 90s, died. Imprisoned, he could not attend her funeral.
But in thinking about his mother, he remembered how she raised him in the church. It had been head knowledge back then, and the message of Jesus’s death and resurrection for James had not struck his soul.
Until that day on the prison floor in April 2012, when James’s “cellie” went out for a walk. After James’s personal miracle of the heart in his prison cell, James found ample opportunity for spiritual development while in prison. He found a community of other Christians willing to invest in him. He got his GED, or high school general equivalency diploma. He joined a Bible study that met every day.
“You got a lot of people in prison who are saved,” he says. “Although they’re incarcerated, they’re free.”
As 2016 neared, a friend approached him, holding out a pamphlet for Bridge to Freedom, a faith-based residential re-entry program founded by Mica Garrett, now on staff with The Navigators, who also spent time incarcerated and experienced the transforming love of Christ while in prison. After having to forge her own re-entry experience without much outside support, she has resolved to do better for those going through something similar.
While still in prison, James filled out the application for Bridge to Freedom and wrote Mica a three-page letter sharing his story.
Two weeks later, she responded, telling him, “You’ve got a place to come to.”
These days, James lives in a quaint brick house used by Bridge to Freedom on the far South Side of Chicago. His live-in residential mentor, Peter Berghoff, whom James calls his best friend, spends time discussing the Bible with James. They do devotions nearly every day.
“When you come to that program, everyone is one,” he says. “We’re there to serve God.”
He smiles at the memory of the time he first stepped inside his new home church, Beverly Covenant Church, and realized he was not only the sole black man but also the youngest person there. All the others, he says, were white and in their 70s.
Still, they accepted James with warmth into their congregation, and he now worships and serves there.
At Bridge to Freedom, he helps prepare food when the organization is asked to cook for events. (Catering is part of how Mica fundraises for the organization.) At a recent Chicago Navigators event on a South Side beach, James did all the barbecuing.
During weekdays, James works—once again with paintbrushes.
On a Tuesday afternoon several weeks ago, James stood on the first step of a ladder on the second floor of a brick condominium building in Oak Park, just minutes from where he grew up in Lawndale. A paint color called Wilmington Tan splatters his loafers and white work clothes as he applies it just under the crown molding of the two-bedroom condominium.
It’s there where he chats while he paints, joking he can do both because “I’m just that talented.”
James gives a smile as wide as a semi-truck, and calls himself “still a work in progress.”
He has struggled with his health, from vascular disease requiring heart stents, from colon cancer—from which he has recovered—and the remnants of three gunshot wounds collected during his “druggie days.” He says if one of the bullets had hit him three centimeters over, he could have been paralyzed. Now, though, in his mid-60s, he reaches up and paints, as limber as a man in his 30s.
At the Bridge to Freedom house, Mica says it’s “huge” that James has taken to mentoring the two other men going through a similar re-entry program.
“He has walked by faith within the program,” she says, adding he’s eager to follow advice from his own mentors, like Peter.
Though James officially graduated from Bridge to Freedom in January, he says he plans on spending another year at the house and painting in Chicago in order to make sure he has enough savings to retire. He wants to move to San Antonio, where a brother and a sister live.
Though he didn’t have much of a past relationship with his two daughters, now in their 40s, he says “they’re proud of me—now.”
His boss, Kevin, took a chance on him, even with his past felonies, because he trusted him. Kevin isn’t a Christian, James says, but he says they talk all the time about God.
James has quit drugs, and doesn’t touch the cigarettes he once smoked either. He says in prison, he couldn’t access the drugs he once craved. After his salvation moment in his prison cell, he says he lost any desire to pick back up with his drug habit.
“If it hadn’t been for prison, I might have been dead by now,” he says. “Prison saved my life.”
James pauses and sits on the windowsill of the condo he’s painting in Oak Park. The sunlight hits the snow outside, streams through the glass and bounces off the paint tarps inside. It illuminates James’s face, which for a few moments, glows.
He looks up, and smiles. No burdens seem to weigh on him, and he looks, as much as a man can, at peace.
“My transition has been beautiful,” he says. “God is holding me.”
Story by Erin Chan Ding
Photos by Kristen L Norman