In The Line Of Fire

  • It's a chilly night on Chicago's Near North Side, and Bill Tomes is sitting comfortably in the warm interior of his silver Buick Park Avenue. Playing softly on the stereo is his favorite cassette, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic's Saint-Saens. For a moment, at least, the melody seems to have transported him away from this place he calls the "killing field," an eerily barren patch of inner-city landscape that glows starkly in his headlights.

    Tomes--or "Brother Bill," as he has come to be known--has seen some of his best friends murdered on this field. The victims are not pals from his college days at Notre Dame or buddies from the well-to-do Evanston neighborhood where he grew up. They are mostly the hardened souls of the Gangster Disciples, their Vice Lord rivals and a tally of cross-fire casualties who lived in the wretched Cabrini-Green housing projects just a mile or so from Chicago's gleaming downtown.

    There is Charles Dorsey, dead at 27; Elbert O'Neal, 24; Aron Buckles, 21; Derrell Ellis, 16; Laquanda Edwards, 15; Laketa Crosby Rodgers, 9; and Dantrell Davis, the youngest, shot to death at 7. Tucked away at home, Brother Bill has a black leather attache case packed with more than 100 obituaries of these, the young and the dead, now gone from his flock.

    Fifteen years ago, an extraordinary epiphany drew William Wylie Tomes Jr. to a series of Chicago housing projects, including Cabrini-Green. Since then, as a Roman Catholic lay worker, he has embraced the people of the projects as if they were family and tried to steer them off the path to an early grave. As a consequence, Brother Bill is perhaps the only outsider who can walk freely through the 15 buildings that make up Cabrini-Green or penetrate the paranoid, often vicious circle the gangsters have built around themselves.

    "What up, Brother Bill!" a voice booms outside the car. Brother Bill gets out of the car and hugs the boy. "You da man," the boy says, his shoulders hunched in the cold as he awaits customers for the crack cocaine and heroin he is peddling.

    "Naw, Dee, you da man," Brother Bill belts out in his best street drawl. "Always will be."

    Everyone in Cabrini-Green, it seems, knows Brother Bill, 63. He is a difficult man to overlook, his 5-ft. 11-in., 220-lb. frame clad in a trademark flowing, sky-blue cassock made from hundreds of tattered denim patches. That robe has become an understood symbol of peace and humility in this place with precious little of either. Fifty-three times, by his count, he has waded into gunfire in order to stop it. Fifty-three times, the gunfire has stopped. And 53 times, he has emerged unscathed.

    He talks trigger-itching assailants into putting away their guns and going home to their families. He sits beside wounded gangsters who hope to die and persuades them to live. And he insists that there is nothing special about him or his accomplishments. "I'm an ordinary man on an extraordinary mission," he says.

    Inevitably, Brother Bill, whose small stipend of $20,000 is funded by the nonprofit Catholic Charities, has his critics. But not many. Some say he goes too easy on gangsters who recount their murderous acts to him without fear of betrayal, who borrow money from him and never pay him back, who curse, smoke and drink around him as if he were one of them. "He gives all his attention to the wrong people," gripes a Cabrini resident.

    Brother Bill doesn't subscribe to tough-love theories. He believes that gangsters will not change their ways simply through fear of prison or even the carrot of education or employment--but only by viewing themselves as under the light of a divine presence. He doesn't preach; he loves. His vulnerability, his willingness to put his life on the line, his unconditional offering of acceptance and forgiveness and, yes, love are a constant source of astonishment for men and boys weaned on hate and rejection. "I think he's an angel," says a 22-year-old Vice Lord. "I really think God sent him here."

    Lessons, though, walk at their own pace. And Brother Bill can hardly trumpet a major victory over gang violence. True, Cabrini-Green enjoys more spells of peace than it has in years. And some hard-core gangsters have managed to break away to find jobs and move from the projects. Nonetheless, in a city with an estimated 125 active criminal gangs with as many as 70,000 members, Cabrini-Green remains the most entrenched subculture around of poverty, drug use and gang violence. So much so that the Federal Government has begun, in piecemeal fashion, to simply tear the place down.

    But Brother Bill keeps only one stat: souls saved. And he tries to save them with one small act of kindness at a time. When a rusty green Ford sedan pulls up, he senses that Dee has become distracted. A customer has arrived. Dee hugs Brother Bill and walks off. Then he turns around and yells back, "Yo, I need a ride to the courthouse Monday. Can you gimme a lift?"

    Brother Bill nods a yes and gets back into his car. Driving off, he turns up the volume of Saint-Saens. As rain and snow come down hard on the windshield and the classical music begins a crescendo, the old Catholic missionary looks suddenly weary. He is still recovering from a recent triple-bypass heart operation, and he's been told the prognosis is not good. "People think I'm a fool," he says, "but I love these guys--all of them. I know that many of them have done some really bad things, even killed people. But no matter what, I won't turn my back on them."

    Brother Bill is standing with the gang members on their usual gathering spot outside a building in Cabrini-Green, the place where drug users looking for marijuana, crack cocaine or heroin can always find it. The air is frigid but charged with the warm sound of horseplay and laughter.

    "The first time I got shot, I cried like a baby," says Paris, a flamboyant 21-year-old. "And I didn't care who saw me--I just cried."

    Pat, another gang member, chimes in: "When that bullet goes into you, it hurts like nothing you've ever felt before." Says another: "It burns like hell--like fire."

    "Every time I take a bullet, I only have one request," says another gang member softly. "And that's for a cigarette. I always smoke when I get shot."

    The group laughs uproariously at memories of their brother sprawled and bleeding on the sidewalk, puffing a Newport. The stories help break the monotony of the gang's three-hour security shifts, in which they look out for cops and frisk customers entering the building to score.

    Brother Bill listens to the stories with mixed amusement and empathy. He knows too well the whistling sound of a bullet that misses. As he listens, he can't help recalling his life-altering experience 15 years ago--one that hit him with all the force of all the bullets he has since survived.

    "I was trying to decide between two good job offers when I stopped into St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church to think things through," he recounts. "When I knelt down, everything turned fuzzy except the face of Christ on a painting near the altar." The image at the altar issued to Tomes the first of several direct orders that would haunt him for the next three years:

    "Love. You are forbidden to do anything other than that."

    Tomes has told this story, about the first of what became a string of epiphanies, hundreds of times, and always with the same sense of genuine astonishment. Until that moment he had never thought of himself as a particularly religious man. Born in a middle-class home in Akron, Ohio, and raised in Evanston, he stood out as a gifted artist and athlete. He received Jesuit training at Loyola Academy before attending Notre Dame, where he studied English and philosophy and received a bachelor's degree, then two years later a master's in counseling and guidance.

    Tomes spent the next 15 years working as a counselor for Catholic Charities. He characterizes his life back then as quite ordinary. "I liked to drink with my buddies and date women," he says. He also had a penchant for material things. In nine trips to Europe, where he interviewed psychiatrists in 18 countries for a planned doctoral dissertation, Tomes built a valuable collection of Russian artifacts. During that time, Tomes never abandoned his own artwork: he has sketched life-size portraits of every Notre Dame football coach from Jesse Harper to the current Bob Davie, each of which hangs today in the Fighting Irish athletic office.

    By 1983 Tomes was fresh off a two-year hiatus to pursue his art. He returned to the work force with two lucrative job offers, one as a therapist in a hospital and another as an executive trainee with a major airline.

    The question of which job to take led him to the church, where he first heard what he describes as the voice of Christ: "I'll lead; you follow," repeated three times. And then: Don't be afraid; "give all your trust."

    "At the time, I didn't understand what there was to be afraid of," he says with a trace of irony. "I do now."

    Over the next few months, Tomes says, he received more messages. One was "You must forgive everyone, everything." Another was "Judge not, and you will not be judged."

    He picked up a Bible and found this verse staring him in the face: "Take nothing with you for the journey." Two times the next day, he came across the same passage in different parts of the Bible.

    A local priest told him those scriptural commands required that he give up his worldly possessions. "I thought he was full of it," Tomes says. But he kept running across that sentence in other religious volumes. Finally Tomes gave in--and gave away his televisions, his radios, his Russian artifacts and even his bedroom. "I moved into the basement of a friend's house and slept on cardboard."

    That year Tomes was asked to take on the role of youth minister for a parish and work with the street gangs in the surrounding projects of Henry Horner Homes and Rockwell Gardens. At the time, the neighborhood was rife with killing between the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples. On Tomes' first day in the projects, he was snubbed. Some gangsters threw rocks at him. On his second day, the gang voted in council whether Tomes should be killed, but decided that his intentions were only positive and that he should be protected rather than removed. The gangsters also accepted a couple of Jesuit volunteers, who were along to help Tomes.

    It didn't hurt either that Tomes, only an average hoopster, managed to impress the gangsters on the basketball court. "Once, I shot the ball, and it was clearly going left of the basket, but curved and went straight through the net," he says. "God was definitely helping me."

    A year after Tomes began working in the West Side projects, his labors caught the attention of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, and he expanded Tomes' purview to include gangs throughout the city.

    The phone calls usually come at night. The voice is always low, distressed, the tone conspiratorial. A Gangster Disciple or Vice Lord assigned to murder informs Brother Bill that warfare is on the horizon, that just moments ago he was instructed to kill a rival gang member. "I don't wanna shoot nobody, and I don't wanna die, Brother Bill," the voice whispers. "Please come over here. Nothing's gonna happen if you're here. Help me, man."

    When fighting erupts, Brother Bill has his routine down pat. From his Evanston home, it's a 35-min. drive to Cabrini. En route, he pulls on his robe and begins prayer. Upon arriving, he walks briskly to the scene, where the shooting has usually already begun. His pale blue robe aflutter, he stands in the center of gang gunfire. He says he can hear the crack of guns from snipers in the buildings as well as see shooters running on the ground or ducking in and out of entryways. But thoughts of his safety never cross his mind. He understands that he can be killed, but he knows this is the core of his work, and he feels an absolute peace. Sometimes gang members scream out angrily, "Get out the way, Brother Bill. Move!"

    It doesn't work. "No, I will not," Brother Bill tells them, "because I love you."

    Quickly the shots grow sporadic. Early last spring, after gunfire had shattered the windows of dozens of apartments, children ran out onto the balcony chanting, "Brother Bill, make the peace! Brother Bill, make the peace!" He heard, as did the shooters. Three more shots were fired that night, and peace was declared. "It's like if Brother Bill is willing to take a bullet because he loves you that much, it makes it harder for you to hate the other side," says Antonio, a 26-year-old gang member. "I think that's why the shooting stops."

    Several times a year, Brother Bill takes a group of gangsters to Notre Dame, to football and basketball team practices and games. The gang members guest-lecture to students and faculty at the Center for Social Concerns and university workshops. "They treat us like movie stars," says Paris. "I like going down there and telling them what our life is like and learning about theirs."

    In one case a Gangster Disciple scheduled to execute a rival returned from his dinner with the Fighting Irish basketball team too guilt-stricken to go through with the murder. Others simply take a liking to a life not spent looking over their shoulder. Brother Bill has other gambits too. Realizing that many gangsters spend countless nights holed up in apartments watching sports on television, he recently introduced them to a foreign concept: the sports bar. Initially they turned to Brother Bill to guide them on unfamiliar turf. Nowadays they freely go to Champions near O'Hare Airport and the Alumni Club in downtown Chicago to watch their favorite teams.

    Brother Bill has helped a few gangsters on the road to employment--one now works as a freight-elevator supervisor, another as an electrician--but most aren't interested in the regimen of daily employment or in earning a minimum wage, and that's not how Brother Bill keeps score either. As the outside world rolls on, William Wylie Tomes Jr. continues to cruise the projects in that silver Park Avenue, conducting his nonjudgmental, never-ending search for his people.

    And wherever he finds them, his message is the same as it was a decade ago, when he discovered a 21-year-old gang leader bleeding to death in a dark stairwell from four gunshots to the chest. As the faint siren of the paramedics' vehicle sounded, too far away, Brother Bill spoke softly into the ear of the young man the last words he would hear on this earth:

    "God made you. He loves you. He wants you to be with him forever."