May 31, 2012
By Cora Jackson-Fossett
Dynamic, insightful, courageous, and committed all describe the Right Reverend Hamel Hartford Brookins, a legendary preacher-activist who rose from humble beginnings to the highest ecclesiastical level in the worldwide African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Bishop Brookins passed inLos Angeleson May 22, at the age of 86, leaving an enduring legacy of service and dedication to God and community. In response to his death, condolences and reflections flowed from renowned clergy, elected officials, civic leaders and long-time friends.
"Bishop Brookins was an outstanding, stellar, spiritual leader who led the A.M.E.Churchin fulfilling the ideals of our founder, Richard Allen - self-help and able to lift people from various circumstances. He was a true friend and I learned so much from him,” said Bishop T. Larry Kirkland, Sr., presiding prelate of the 5th Episcopal District of theA.M.E.Church.
A celebration of Bishop Brookins’ life takes place on Friday, June 1, atFirstA.M.E.ChurchinLos Angeles, an edifice he built more than 40 years ago. Hundreds of people are expected to fill the sanctuary to pay respects to his wife, the Rev. Rosalynn Kyle Brookins; sons, Sir-Wellington and Steven Brookins; daughter, the Rev. Francine Brookins; and countless relatives and friends.
Throughout his adulthood, Bishop Brookins made distinctive impressions upon his surrounding environment. From the 1950s to the 2000s, his name appeared in media around the world applauding his ministry, attacking his activism, saluting his achievements or questioning his motives.
But according to the Rev. Dr. Melvin V. Wade, pastor ofMountMoriahBaptistChurchinLos Angeles, Bishop Brookins’ actions were always dictated by his calling to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Yes, Bishop Brookins was for the rights of the least and the left out. However, I knew Bishop Brookins when he was pastor ofSt. PaulA.M.E.ChurchinWichita,Kansas. My father made it clear to me that Bishop Brookins was an outstanding proclaimer of the Christian Gospel.”
1950s – Making Waves inWichita
The bishop came toWichitaafter earning both B.A. and Bachelor of Divinity degrees fromWilberforceUniversityand Payne Theological Seminary as well as completing graduate courses at theUniversityofKansas.
Assigned toSt. Paulin 1954, he stirred the congregation with his powerful preaching and drew public attention leading efforts to implement desegregation in the schools as dictated by the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Also, Bishop Brookins was elected president of the Wichita Interracial Ministerial Alliance, a 200-member organization.
“H.H. was convinced that the church could not just do business between its four walls on Sunday morning, and therefore he was always involved in ministry to the wider community. He would often say, ‘You can’t lead from behind’,” said retired A.M.E. Bishop Vinton R. Anderson.
1960s –Preaching, Building, Marching
Bishop Brookins became pastor of the historicFirstA.M.E.ChurchinLos Angelesa year earlier and the membership eventually grew to 3500 under his leadership. Devoting much energy to his flock and ministerial duties, he also established free summer camp for more than 2,000 youth.
With civil rights protests at its height, Bishop Brookins joined the fight for justice and is credited for organizing Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit toLos Angelesearly in the decade. He also marched with Dr. King in the southernU.S.and mentored a young Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Bishop Brookins was one of those pivotal forces for social justice and empowerment inL.A.history. He was my mentor. I appreciate him very much and miss him very much already,” said the Rev. Jackson.
Most significant during the 60s was Brookins’ construction of ‘a million-dollar, mega church.’ Initially aiming to rebuild on the church’s location at 8th and Towne Streets, Bishop Brookins encountered financial and congregational resistance to his plan.
Undaunted, Brookins declared to members, “I don’t know now how we’re gonna do it, but I’m telling you, we’re gonna do it.”
Once he secured new land, he recruited Black architect Paul R. Williams to assist. They hired a contractor and the edifice was completed in three years. In 1968, Bishop Brookins paraded the congregation, with actor Tony Curtis as grand marshal, from the old church to the new edifice where FAME stands today.
1970s – Elevated in Ministry and Politics
At the 1972 General Conference of theA.M.E.Church, Brookins was elected and consecrated as the 91st Bishop of the denomination. His new assignment encompassed five central African countries, includingRhodesia, now known asZimbabwe.
DuringZimbabwe's struggle for independence, Bishop Brookins united with the Black Freedom Fighters in opposing the white minority regime. Speaking engagements took him around the country preaching ‘freedom.’ After one such gathering attracted 15,000, the government decided to escort him out of the country.
“I didn’t sleep at all that night; I kept on all my clothes. At 6 o’clock the next morning, I was ready,” recalled the bishop.
“In a time when leadership was required to face the extenuating circumstances facing people of color, H. H. Brookins championed the rights of those who were the victims of a system of discrimination, racial profiling and segregation before it was popular to do so, when one would be viewed as a rabble rouser,” noted the Rev. Dr. William S. Epps, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles.
In 1981, he was invited back to attend the installation/inauguration of the new President Robert Mugabe of the independent nation ofZimbabwe.
Another highlight of this era was Bishop Brookins’ critical leadership in electing Tom Bradley as mayor ofLos Angeles.
“Tom Bradley probably would have not been mayor were it not for H.H. Brookins,” remarked Bishop Kirkland, who credited Bishop Brookins with bringing him toL.A.
“He used to laugh and tell me he brought me fromGreenwoodtoHollywood. In 1977, Bishop Brookins appointed me as the first pastor of the church he founded, Brookins Community A.M.E. inSouth Los Angeles.”
That same year, Bishop Brookins selected the Rev. Dr. Cecil ‘Chip’Murrayto pastorFirstA.M.E.Church, an incredible individual who made a lasting mark on the church and community.
1980s and 90s – Growing Legacy of Service
The next 20 years in the life of Brookins were highlighted by significant efforts to further aid the less fortunate. He developed pubic-private partnerships to transform several church-owned, debt-ridden properties into affordable housing units inLos Angeles.
In the 1990s, he was assigned to church’s Second Episcopal District where he appointed the Rev. Vashti McKenzie toPayneMemorialA.M.E.Church, a courageous move considering that few woman headed major churches in any denomination.
“This bishop took a chance on a young woman preacher," she said at the time. It was a visionary move as well because she went on to become the first women elected to the episcopacy in 2000.
Bishop Brookins was a prominent player in major events in the 90s such as delivering ‘The Prayer of Atonement’ during the Million Man March in 1995.
In addition, he was instrumental in establishing a formal economic development program in the A.M.C. Church to provide reduced-rate loans to Black entrepreneurs and churches, student scholarships and emergency funds to those in need.
By now, the actions and influence of Bishop Brookins had reached an international level as evidenced in 1996 when Ebony Magazine named him the 15th most powerful Black Man inAmerica.
2000 – Winding Down
In his later years, Bishop Brookins slowed down physically, but never mentally. Despite limited mobility, he regularly attended worship services, preached to congregations on a frequent basis, and lent his name and advice to those seeking higher public office.
Thousands of people gathered in the Beverly Hilton in 2002 to salute Bishop Brookins accomplishments. Among the celebrants was former President Bill Clinton who befriended the Bishop while serving as governor ofArkansas.
A few years later, Councilman Bernard Parks joined with the City ofLos Angelesto designate the intersection in front of Brookins Community A.M.E. asBishop Hamel Hartford Square. The Bishop was hand to cut the ribbon and enjoy accolades from U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and more.
Upon learning of his passing, Congresswoman Waters said, “Bishop Brookins was a dear friend, who provided extraordinary leadership in the church, Los Angeles community and the United States We will never forget him … his legacy will continue to influence many potential leaders of our society.”
(Yussuf Simmonds, Sentinel Managing Editor, contributed to this story).