On Sundays Jim Fogarty and his wife Beth worship in the beautiful sanctuary of Ascension Catholic Church in the relatively peaceful and prosperous suburb of Oak Park. Since 1984, however, Brother Jim, as he is also known, has spent most days walking the gang-infested, poverty-ridden streets of the South and West sides of Chicago by himself, believing that loving unconditionally and trusting God to guide him will make a difference in neighborhoods plagued by violence, unemployment and hopelessness.
His one-man organization is called Brothers and Sisters of Love. Like the ministry’s founder, Bill Tomes, Br. Jim has begun each working day since 1984 by putting on a “habit,” composed of patches of blue-jean denim, and launching himself into the community.
People who need quantifiable, bottom-line statistics to evaluate the work he does will probably have a hard time with Br. Jim’s ministry. As he walks he greets people — many of whom know him by name — with a smile, showing compassion, listening, praying with them when asked, blessing homes, visiting the sick in the hospital, visiting people in jail, going with them to court, helping out at funerals, leading prayer at murder sites, helping residents understand legal issues, occasionally taking kids out for a hamburger and handing out rosaries. The Brothers and Sisters of Love website states that he is “a visible presence in areas where violence is occurring.”
“Our mission is, simply, to love,” Br. Jim was quoted in a 2005 article in this paper.
“Fogarty finds a remedy for gang violence, despair and a couple generations’ worth of urban blight,” the article explained. “Making his daily rounds, he doesn’t pontificate or proselytize; he doesn’t scold or give any lectures. He smiles and says hello. When people stop to talk, he holds out his hand and asks how they’re doing. Rarely, though, does Brother Jim need to introduce himself.”
The word fearlessness refers to when gangbanging made parts of the inner city feel like a war zone. When they began working together in 1984, Br. Jim, along with his mentor Br. Bill Tomes would get wind of two gangs shooting at each other, and the two would walk into the middle of the conflict.
Br. Jim said some things have changed since those early days in the 1980s. A large portion of high-rise public housing has been torn down and most of the gang fighting that used to happen there has been eliminated.
“Gangs are still a problem,” he said, “but they are decentralized, local and smaller. Teenagers will organize a block and each block will be independent of the next block.”
Although his ministry is based out of St. James Catholic Church at 29th and Wabash, it is not affiliated with any one parish, and since Catholic Charities stopped funding Brothers and Sisters of Love in 2005 due to their own financial constraints, Fogarty supports the ministry by doing all his own fundraising.
The road from Oakdale, California, where he was born in 1957, to the streets of Chicago was neither straight nor easy.
“While I was religious,” he said of his childhood, “most of my friends were not. I wasn’t a person who liked to spend lots of time in the church, but I had this sense that God was everywhere, and I believed that God loved everyone.”
He attended West Virginia University, where he majored in business. Because there weren’t a lot of jobs in his field available at the time and because he had a yearning to get closer to God, he chose to give a year of his life to the church after which he would look for work. He joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Syracuse, New York, followed by two more years working at a mission in Frenchville, Pennsylvania.
“My idea as a white, middle-class, educated Catholic,” he said, “was that if I went in and shared my faith and my abilities, I could lift people up from their poverty and kind of help them become like me.
“Naïve? Yeah,” he acknowledged. “It was my first cross-cultural experience, and I found out right away that it wasn’t going to happen. I found things that spoke to me didn’t speak to these kids.”
Fogarty knew he was called to work with the poor and thought becoming a priest was the best way to do that. Working with Br. Bill showed him a way to follow his calling and remain a layman. A couple of years later, in 1993, he married a woman he had met a few years before while working at a mission in Pennsylvania.
Fogarty had always thought of Brothers and Sisters of Love as Bill’s ministry — until Br. Bill had a quadruple heart bypass. That was when Jim Fogarty really became Br. Jim. He’s been walking the streets of the inner city ever since, and at the age of 59 still feels called to do so.
His wife, Beth, teaches at Ascension School. His son is in his early 20s. Getting married and then becoming a family man required some adjustments.
“I don’t stay out as late as I used to before we got married,” he said. “I was easily out till 10 or midnight. Now I try to be home by seven or eight.”