Deacon George Brooks
“You have to walk the talk,” says George Brooks, something he has been doing his entire life. Walking the talk during the Vietnam War caused him to receive his own FBI file and having his garbage stolen. Walking the talk guided him to leave his expanding law practice and devote all of his time to peace and social justice. Walking the talk has allowed him and his family to live side by side with convicted felons. Yes, George Brooks walks the talk, but today he talks about why he has decided to take the path less traveled.
“I’ve always been aware and sensitive to the
issue,” begins George. As
a child, he remembers taking food baskets to the projects in Chicago,
“I’d be the only white person there.”
He also remembers hearing a racist comment being made and how
upset it made him. He says he was nothing compared to his grandson though, “He
(my grandson) started writing anti-death penalty letters in grade
school,” says George, “He’s the goofiest one of all.”
In 1990, George left his expanding law firm to devote more of his
time to social justice. He
went to work as Director of Advocacy at Kolbe House, which is the
Chicago Archdiocese prison and jail ministry.
It is responsible for providing chaplins and volunteers. Based
at the Assumption parish, the Kolbe House also has a food and clothing
pantry and provides support for the families of the incarcerated.
“A lot of people mistake it for an actual house,” says
George, “people will call me and say I’m getting out and I need
somewhere to stay.” “I
have to tell them it’s not an actual house, that’s just the name.”
In 1992, he joined the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which he
said, “was an incredible experience.”
“We fed each other spiritually,” says George, “ I was
working with some great people committed to social justice.”
The group would meet once a month and George says that he would
always look forward to the meetings, “The experience opened doors for
me,” he said.
thinks back to his first experience with the Cook County Jail system.
“I was in my first semester of the diaconate program, and we
had 10 different ministries to choose from, one was the jail
ministry.” He said he
thought back to Matthew 25; “when
I was in prison you visited me.”
He had made his decision. “We
pulled up to the parking lot and saw the gun towers and barb wire,”
started George, “and thought what are we doing here.”
George admits that once he got inside, he was never afraid.
“I’ve been in jail ever since,” he said.
George spent eight years working as a chaplin in the Cook County
Jail and he says that he loved ever minute of it.
“I became good friends with the inmates, and I’m not ashamed
to say that.” “I’ve
had people convicted of violent crimes live in my house, said George.
He strongly believes that he needs to set an example, “If I’m
out here saying that past offenders should be accepted…I need to prove
it.” He admits that the
support he received from his family and his community made the
experience even more meaningful.
In 1994, George faced one of his most difficult challenges, John
Wayne Gacy. He was
appointed to make statements and speak out against the execution of Gacy.
His first thoughts, “You must be crazy.” George said that it was at this time he realized that he had
never really given any thought to the death penalty. He said this case forced him to face a moral struggle.
His feelings were strong, “If ever you should execute someone,
you should kill John Wayne Gacy, he was a monster,” thought George.
Careful not to jump to conclusions George said he prayed about
it, read, and reflected. “I
reached the conclusion that either the death penalty is moral or it
isn’t,” he said. To him
it was just that simple, “If you decided it was immoral (which he did)
it was immoral,” no matter who was on trial, even John Wayne Gacy.
On the day of Gacy’s execution George went with a group to pray
at Stateville Prison. “It
was a perfect example of violence begetting violence,” says George.
“It was like a Bulls' rally with tailgating.” Once the execution had taken place, George says the police
had to come and prevent the crowd from attacking him and the others
joined in prayer.
experience made George even more committed to defeating the death
penalty. “At the time I had no facts,” starts George, “ so I
began to study.” Now an
expert on criminal justice and the death penalty, George has even
written an analysis of recent death penalty occurrences titled Disarming
the State’s Lethal Weapon. “I
can’t believe more people aren’t passionate and committed to the
cause,” says George. “We aren’t helping anybody by having a death
penalty.” It is the
injustice that drives George to work for justice, injustices such as
wrongful convictions and systemic flaws.
As of December 31, 2001 there were 101 men wrongfully convicted
and released from death row.
He feels the worst thing people who want to get involved with
peace and social justice can do is to just talk about it, you have to do
something. “The one thing
you can’t say is that there are no organizations around, so I’ll do
nothing,” says George. “There
are enough around, and if you want something else, take an initiative
and start one.” George also feels that more people should be aware of
catholic social teachings and readings, “You can find comfort in the
writings, speeches and homily’s of the Pope…they can really energize
you,” he says.
a tough battle ahead of him, George Brooks says he will continue to work
to correct the injustice called death row, or as he puts it, he’ll
just continue to “walk
by Mystique Adams
Sister Karen Nykiel
Art and Jeanne Sheridan
Rose Marie Surwilo, O.S.F.
Doug & Ellen Kasper