In a smoky pool hall in an undisclosed urban ghetto, Tom Cruise, playing a young billiards protégé in director Martin Scorsese’s 1986 film “The Color of Money,” bends over his cue and shoots impeccably, not only winning the admiration of his challengers but provoking their jealousy. Almost 20 years later, a young pastor takes a hammer to the walls of that same pool hall; blood, sweat, and prayers now at work transforming the once notorious pool hall at the corner of 64th and Cottage streets into a common ground — a haven for the downtrodden, the once-forgotten street kid, and the weary intellectual.
When Brad Beier Came to Town
On Sunday morning, July 15, 2012, the windows are flung open to let some breeze into a muggy library room at the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall. Ivy creeps along the building’s exterior and sneaks through the windows, as a roomful of congregants cluster for prayer during a church meeting. A group of young people — two African-American men, an African-American woman, and a Caucasian man — share prayer requests. One, an incoming chemistry graduate student, asks for prayer for her studies. Twenty-year-old Pierre Carr, wearing braids down his neck, tells the others he is going to school in the fall to become a chef, a future he couldn’t have imagined five years prior.
Growing up without a father in Woodlawn, one of South Side Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods, Carr didn’t have a lot of direction. His mother feared that her adolescent son was destined for a life of gang activity, jail, even premature death — paths that many of his friends would take in years to come.
Beginning in the 1950s, Woodlawn — like many urban American neighborhoods at the time — began to decline economically as the white middle class fled to the suburbs. With them went many businesses, although through the 1960s, Woodlawn’s 63rd Street was known for its jazz clubs, many just down the road from a certain well-frequented pool establishment. The deterioration continued through the ’70s,’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, with the average household income hovering at just over $23,000.
In 2003 Brad Beier, a skinny, young, white pastor from Louisiana, showed up in Woodlawn with a basketball and words that offered hope to a few floundering teenage boys.
“At first, I thought he was a cop,” admits Tee Nimely, one of Carr’s close friends. But something about Beier eventually secured the boys’ trust. Maybe it was because he called them throughout the week to see how they were doing. Or because he didn’t give up on them. Or because he was the father figure they didn’t know they needed.
Louisiana-born Beier attended Louisiana Tech with the intention of becoming a doctor. But early in his college experience, he began serving as a youth minister at his college church, and by the time he graduated he was headed to Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, Miss.) to prepare to go abroad as a missionary. His wife, Shannon, on the other hand, had a passion for working with the poor a bit closer to home.
“We put our heads together,” Brad recalled, “and eventually God gave us this unified desire to stay in a city in America and [to] make sure we were in a very big city where there was lots of diversity and lots of opportunities to reach unreached people.”
After an apprenticeship with an urban church in Baltimore, the Beiers moved to Bethel Christian Church (PCA), a multiethnic church in Chicago, with the mandate to plant a church among students at nearby University of Chicago. Not the type to plant a church by the book, Beier also began working part time as the chaplain at a county jail and facilitating an aftercare ministry to men being released from prison. While developing relationships with undergraduate and Ph.D. students in Hyde Park, Brad was also getting to know the families of the men he had met in county jail; many lived in Woodlawn, just five blocks south of the university.
In the world of academia, he found skeptics, atheists, and some genuine believers. Some of each began trickling into the Sunday morning worship at the new church — dubbed Living Hope Church — that met in a university library room. In the culture of gangs and poverty, he met fatherless children, confused young men, and single moms just trying to make it. Some of them came, too.
Crossing 61st Street
It took Carr and Nimely a year or two before they came to church, but in the meantime they were hearing the gospel as part of a basketball ministry — a team that Beier had put together as a way to meet youth in the neighborhood. Here was a white guy from a privileged background who willingly moved his wife and four young daughters to a majority African-American area that most middle-class folks had fled long ago.
“In my life, he’s an example of what a man looks like — not just a man, a godly man who knows how to take care of his family,” says Nimely.
As the young men went through high school, some of their friends from the basketball team started falling off, joining gangs, using guns. One ended up in jail. Another ended up dead.
“When I lost one of my friends, that’s when my whole view changed,” Nimely reveals. “Everybody’s thinking that when you die you just go to heaven and everything’s OK.”
But Nimely wasn’t so sure. This uncertainty led him to accept Christ and to start hanging around the Living Hope community more often. At first, he was skeptical that he would have anything in common with Ph.D. students, but he soon got over that.
“You come to church with people who have degrees and resources. … [And you think] ‘OK, I don’t got that stuff; I don’t got that background. Will they think of me as just some street kid?’ But at Living Hope it don’t seem like that. You see people trying to build their relationship with Christ. You see their love for other people.”
Ph.D. biochemistry student Kathryn Scherpelz likes Nimely. She likes the hard questions he asks about faith. Before coming to Living Hope, the only place Scherpelz could have imagined meeting someone like him would have been at the hospital where she worked during medical school.
“In medical school, you come to regard Woodlawn as patients, like they’re an ‘other,’ and you treat them, and they get sick and get in gun fights,” she explains. Now they’ve become people and not just patients.
Both Kathryn and her husband, Peter, a graduate student in physics, have felt challenged and changed by the perspective they’ve discovered at Living Hope. Peter recently overheard someone at the university tell a newcomer never to go south of 61st Street — the line that separates Hyde Park from Woodlawn. He felt compelled to intervene. “I told [the man] it wasn’t that dangerous,” Scherpelz said. “There are a lot of worthwhile things and worthwhile people to get to know.”
And for that matter, the Scherpelzes have discovered there are just as many needs — albeit of a different sort — in the university culture. Spiritual apathy is primary among them. With dozens of traditional church buildings scattered across the historic campus, faith would appear to be booming. But, as Kathryn explains, many of these buildings house a smorgasbord of spiritual offerings — New Age religion and Christianity sprinkled together. “At its best [the university] is very open [to all spiritual things]. At its worst, it considers traditional Christianity as passé,” says Kathryn.
But every year a few atheists and agnostics join the Living Hope community, soon finding life truth and new life.
The Future of an Old Pool Hall
Several years ago, Beier began to feel the drain of not having a permanent building for the growing church. A tutoring and discipleship program Living Hope had built for children in Woodlawn was at the mercy of whatever local church would rent it space. A few times, they even got locked out of the library before church on Sunday mornings.
So Beier began poking around, looking for a place that Living Hope could call its own. He first noticed the empty storefront at 64th and Cottage in 2010. A big “Cash Loans” sign was painted along the side of the building, which had stood empty for several years. Beier didn’t know why the property was selling for $570,000. It seemed steep for a place that had once been “Chicago’s Finest Billiards,” a notorious local hangout that offered gambling on the first floor and prostitutes on the second. Maybe it was because “The Color of Money” had given it a reputation. Beier didn’t know. He just knew that it was the spot he wanted.
Through a providential turn of real estate fortune, the price plummeted, and in February 2011, Living Hope was able to purchase the property for just under $100,000.
During the past year, volunteers from churches and RUF campus ministries have poured in from across the country, donating time and effort to transform the pool hall into a church with a sanctuary, office space, plenty of room to run the children’s ministry, and four second-floor apartments that Living Hope plans to rent out for additional income.
Just nine years into Living Hope’s story, Beier is hopeful. He likes that when he looks out at his small congregation every Sunday, he sees black and white, young and old, seekers and growers. He sometimes grows weary of the transience that comes with college-student and low-income populations, but he’s seen a few folks stick around for the long haul and hopes more will follow suit.
Sometimes people advise him to find an easier calling in a safer neighborhood with a less transitory group. But for Beier, you don’t argue with a calling.
“We don’t disparage anybody who says they’d rather be a part of a more homogenous group, ’cause that’s fine. We do try to challenge people and say this is really the vision of God’s kingdom. … We’re all gonna be one family in heaven, so let’s get a taste of it!”