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.