Bishop Hamel Hartford Brookins was surprised Sunday when during his 85th birthday celebration at Brookins AME Church, friends, family, clergy and elected officials unveiled the renaming of a street in his honor--Bishop Hamel Hartford Brookins Square.
The street renaming, sponsored in part by the city of Los Angeles, occurred in front of Brookins African Methodist Episcopal Church which Brookins founded in 1977 and where Rev. Frederick O. Murph is the congregations' leader.
Brookins was elected and consecrated the 91st Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church General Conference in 1972.
Brookins rose to prominence in Los Angeles as a pastor whose exemplary political acumen and community service were unparalleled. He is credited with helping in numerous campaigns to elect many local politicians who rose to national prominence, including former mayor Thomas Bradley, Congresspersons Diane Watson and Maxine Waters and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Brookins also emerged as a fighter in the civil rights arena during the historical Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling. He is also credited with helping to quell the Watts riots of 1965. Brookins is also credited with spearheading an economic plan that helped to bring economic prosperity to the city.
Cecil "Chip" Murray, former pastor at First AME Church who served as master of ceremonies, peered out into the crowd and observed with humor, "You can tell these people love Bishop Brookins, because when you get black folks to stand in the sun than in the shade, that's saying something." The Brooklinaires Gospel Choir and soloists Shirley LaCour and Felicia Akuomoah enthralled attendees by singing several musical selections.
Councilman Bernard Parks, who sponsored the street renaming, pointed out how important it is to preserve the legacy of community pioneers who were instrumental in building black Los Angeles. "Brookins, Hudson, Weeks and Kilgore--you could see and touch them everyday," said Parks, naming some of the "giants" in the black community. Turning to Brookins, he said, "That's what brought us here to today--we wanted to give you this honor while you're still here to smell the roses."
The wheelchair bound Brookins, who has been convalescing at the Brier Oak Terrace Care Center, is recognized by many as one of the most dynamic and legendary preachers to ever preach in a pulpit. Brookins beamed with pride as noted speaker after speaker recalled the numerous community and civil rights milestones the pastor had contributed for decades.
Bishop Brookins' wife, Rosalynn Brookins, glanced with affection at her husband and reflected, "I'm so proud to stand as your helpmate. As your wife, caregiver and friend, I say thank you. If it were not for you, I would not be preaching the gospel. Bishop, I thank God that he allowed you to nurture a woman of God to preach the gospel. I was lost, but God saw 22 years ago that you and I should walk side by side. Don't be tired Bishop, we still have a long way to go."
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa beamed at the crowd of 200 attendees and thanked the Bishop for being a positive influence in the community. "People have not only come for the renaming of the street, but for the legend among us," said Villaraigosa. "We are here to honor a man whose whole life has been about giving."
Villaraigosa recalled that the visionary pastor was assigned to Los Angeles from St. Paul's church in Wichita, Kansas to establish a fledgling AME church that soon grew in size and influence. "Brookins came to First AME at a very tough time in Los Angeles. It was a time of segregation and division and he was a leading force in bringing a calming force to this community. But Bishop Brookins didn't stop there, he built many churches along the way."
Villaraigosa also noted that Brookins was among the leaders who worked tirelessly for Nelson Mandela's release from prison. "He reached out and challenged apartheid and was even banned in Rhodesia," recalled Villaraigosa.
Villaraigosa also acknowledged that Brookins became a supporter when he was running for the second time as mayor. "Brookins called me over at a dinner and whispered in my ear. He said, "You have to run again and when you do, Bishop Brookins will be behind you," the mayor recalled. "I felt an energy force course through my body when he said that to me. I knew I would be coming back (to running for mayor) in a different way."
Pausing, Villaraigosa added, "Today we celebrate a man of goodness, a man of inspiration, a leader for all time, a man who has not forgotten his congregation or his faith. I am proud to be here with you to acknowledge his contribution throughout the nation and throughout the world."
Bishop John R. Bryant, presiding prelate 5th Episcopal district, lauded Brookins for envisioning an ambitious economic development program for South Los Angeles. "He said that if we pooled our dollars, we could do major things together. He started the economic development plan for the 5th Episcopal district. Servant of God, well done."
Rep. Maxine Waters also lauded Brookins. "This is your day and we are all here for you," said Waters. "Bishop Brookins is an icon who has stamped his name in the book of history."
"We thank God for your leadership and ministry," said Rev. Dr. John J. Hunter, pastor of First AME church. "I know that many are looking down from heaven and saying servant of God, well done."
Assemblyman Mike Davis said, "I revere Bishop Brookins not only for his spirit but for the strength that he exhibited at his church."
Accolades from Congresswoman Diane Watson were presented by Watson's press secretary Lois Hill Hale. "Bishop Brookins is why Diane Watson is where she is today. The congresswoman wanted you to know that she owes her whole career to Bishop Brookins and that the Bishop is a national treasure, an icon who has the gift of identifying potential leaders and placing them into positions of greatness."
Before the ribbon cutting ceremony and the serving of lemonade and red velvet cake, Bishop Brookins' son, 10-year-old Sir Wellington Brookins, stood with Rev. Francine and brother Steven and thanked the steering committee and everyone for attending the event.
Speaking with the eloquence and poise reminiscent of his father, Sir Wellington said, "I call you my hero because you made me think anything is possible. We love you and we are proud of you."