Photos by Kenny YooBy the time Andre Pirtle bounces his silver 2006 Toyota Camry over the torn-up driveway and past the “Jesus Can Turn Us Around” marquee sign for Immanuel Church in Brookfield, the sun is setting. He’s been working more than nine hours, meaning his typical Wednesday is two-thirds over.
If he had business cards to hand out, they’d probably mark him as a preacher. In reality, his vocation pulls aspects of social worker, life coach and first responder. Above all, he is consistent. He leads.
“Consistency means you’re where you are supposed to be at every point,” he says, breaking down the watchword that defines his ministry.
Starting from the time he left his Wauwatosa apartment this morning, he’s punched the clock at many places that have come to count on him.
His first stop is Friedens Community Ministries near King Park, a network of food pantries where he’s moved from volunteer to board member, although he still mops the floors there when needed. But mostly he talks to everyone, whether he knows them personally or not: staff, the public (especially if there’s trouble), even people walking by as he leaves.
Then he’s off to Mitchell Park, depositing his car and disappearing underneath the 27th Street Viaduct. He’s looking for the homeless, especially the regulars living on this steep concrete slope. Nobody is around, so he sets down the water bottles he’s brought outside a tent.
Next stop is Woodlands, a condominium development on the city’s far northwest side where he grew up. Back in the 1990s, Woodlands was called North Meadows, an infamous name for a neighborhood verging on lawlessness. Pirtle has those kinds of Woodlands stories, whether he wants them or not. But he hasn’t come to revisit the past. He’s here to stop by the converted condo office from which he’ll work in a few weeks when he starts his new job as Woodlands community organizer for the Social Development Commission.
Woodlands is in the rearview mirror hours later when he parks his Camry in front of Immanuel, the Baptist church where he is associate pastor. It’s time to lead another week of ReignStorm, a gang rescue youth group organized earlier this decade when a teen boy was killed near a food pantry in a suspected gang murder. Many of the roughly three dozen children and young adults already inside – playing games, lounging and helping prepare food – once faced the pull of gangs.
Pirtle, who turns 29 this month, knows those pressures better than most. Gang members once made a run at him. They knew his family had gang ties and noticed Pirtle practicing boxing. Some imagined he’d become their future enforcer. He’s careful about how he talks about those days. He drops vague references to messing around with guns.
Immanuel isn’t easy to get to. Its location – one block north of West Capitol Drive, just west of the Waukesha County line – might as well be Madison for those from the city without transportation. Pirtle picks up as many kids as his Camry can hold, some as far away as the South Side. Other adult volunteers bring more. Some parents come with their children. One 18-year-old wearing a flashy tracksuit waited for hours, dropped off by his mother on her way to work.
Pirtle’s wife, Angela, makes food in the church’s large kitchen. The 25-year-old lines up frozen chicken cutlets and french fries on large baking sheets. She’s here before Pirtle, coming from her part-time job as a production designer at Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon, with only a brief stop at their apartment to let out their pit bull Afeni, named after the mother of Tupac Shakur. Andre greets her and some other adult volunteers, then heads out back to play basketball.
He’s short, 5-foot-6, and built thick. He pairs a boxer’s poise with shrewd eyes, a mane of shoulder-length dreads and a long, flowing beard, shocked gray at the corners of the chin. His intelligent, resolute presence surpasses his small stature.
Pirtle jokes about his height a lot. During basketball, it’s nonstop. Jokes are how he comes to terms with life’s pitiless truths, like not being tall or growing up in a neighborhood without mercy. Humor is one of his most valuable tools, a playful repartee unleashed to bend interactions in his favor. He puts people at ease and can thaw out stiff introductions or drain electricity from tense moments. His wife says he’s goofy.
So does Anjye Camfield, a 40-year-old mother of four seated in the large cinder block community room where the group is about to eat. Camfield has known Pirtle since he was a teenager hanging out at John C. Cudahy YMCA branch where she worked. Pirtle describes himself during that period as a kid in crisis, but that’s not what Camfield saw. She sized him up as a natural-born leader with an impish, Tom Sawyer-like ability to convince the roughest kids that breaking down chairs and tables after events was fun. Pirtle now mentors all four of her children, and she’s brought her two youngest with her tonight.
Pirtle credits the YMCA with saving his life, or at least turning it around. A YMCA staffer pulled some strings during a rough patch in Pirtle’s life to get him hired as a counselor at Camp Matawa near Campbellsport. It was an adjustment for a black kid from the city whose rich and white new co-workers all drove home at night in their own cars, but at least he was outside the reach of gang recruitment efforts. When he was contacted and told a car would collect him, he begged off by pointing out that five black men driving around rural Wisconsin would arouse suspicion.
Pirtle still works as a counselor. Each summer, he spends time at Camp Hometown Heroes, which hosts children of deceased veterans. The counselor role ignited a passion for mentoring and steered him toward his calling as a pastor. When he returned from his first summer away, Camfield hired him to assist at the YMCA. He enrolled in a pastor certificate program at City on the Hill on West Kilbourn Avenue and morphed into what Camfield calls “a super volunteer.” When he enlisted to help out at a branch of the Despensa de la Paz Food Pantry, which was operating out of the YMCA at that time, Pirtle met the man he calls his mentor, Max Ramsey, himself a pastor at Immanuel. Ramsey wasted no time bringing Pirtle to his church and handing off ReignStorm. “If he’s Batman, I’m Robin,” Pirtle says.
EARLIER THAT DAY, IN THE same Immanuel community room, Pirtle huddled with Ramsey as part of another outreach group, StreetLife. Around a dozen church volunteers joined them, bagging up 200 sandwiches, fruit-and-cereal bars, oranges, cookies, bottled water and silver pouches of Capri Sun. Starting at 6:30 that night, StreetLife members will walk through some of Milwaukee’s most disadvantaged areas to distribute the wrapped meals. They’ll work in two shifts, the last usually ending at midnight.
The goal of StreetLife is to be a fixed presence in the lives of transient people. Volunteers build trust over time and leverage it to suggest more substantial help when people are ready to receive it. Give one person one meal one time, it’s a nice gesture. Give the same person the same lunch every Wednesday night for as long as they need it – that takes on much more meaning. “Everyone thinks that they can save lives, but you don’t have to jump inside of a burning building to do it. Sometimes it starts with a simple conversation,” Pirtle says.
In the five years Pirtle has volunteered, he can recall only four Wednesdays the group did not go out. After tonight’s ReignStorm meeting, Pirtle will drive to the South Side and help work StreetLife’s second shift.
Ramsey created StreetLife in its present form in 2014. A former Army Special Forces soldier, he has no qualms walking among the city’s most desperate in the dark. And he has an eager disciple in Pirtle, who describes Ramsey as a surrogate father. The list of lessons Pirtle credits Ramsey with teaching him is long and varied, everything from personal finance to geopolitics. There might be shades of Pirtle’s whole humor-as-a-weapon shtick passed on as well.
“I heard my boss, the Lord, say, ‘Go talk to that young man,’” Ramsey says dryly, recounting their first meeting. “I took him to church. Church’s Chicken.”
But Ramsey says Pirtle gives him too much credit. “The truth is, I’ve learned as much from that young man as that young man has learned from me,” he says. “It’s funny how quickly the student becomes the teacher.”
Ramsey also began ReignStorm, only to pass it off to Pirtle when it became apparent kids responded better to the younger, looser guy who comes to meetings each Wednesday casually decked out in gray sweat shorts and a Black Panther T-shirt.
ReignStorm’s purpose is to give young people under tremendous stress a space to enjoy themselves for a while. Oceanna, a 20-year-old member of ReignStorm, credits Pirtle with teaching her a calmness. Until recently, Oceanna says, she was suicidal. “It’s kinda like a getaway,” she says. “They help you with problems.”
PIRTLE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH his actual father, also named Andre, is strong, although molded by the elder’s imprisonment throughout most of the younger’s childhood. The two met under supervision a few times a year. Pirtle won’t divulge his father’s crime, believing doing so to be disrespectful. Court records show he was convicted of reckless homicide in 1994, when Andre was 3. He served 13 years, and nearly five more after a 2007 parole violation.
Pirtle was raised by his mother, Kimberly Barrage, in Woodlands. Pirtle was proud she owned her condo outright with money she earned moving up the customer service ranks of a cellphone company.
But it was still a chaotic and traumatic time punctuated by the deaths of several neighborhood children. He can’t forget the boy who was shot so many times outside his house that his internal organs spilled out of his body and covered the grass. Pirtle watched the boy’s mother, senseless from shock, kneel beside her son’s body and stuff his parts back inside him. Shortly after, someone fired on a open-air memorial service for the boy. Another friend died at a basketball game that day. (“He was going up for a freakin’ layup, man. He got shot in the neck with a rifle.”) One friend died by his own hand, accidentally shooting himself in the face with a gun he acquired for protection.
MOST OF THE PEOPLE GATHERED for ReignStorm are black, Latino or mixed. A few are white, but a far smaller percentage than Immanuel’s overall congregation. That’s another reason Ramsey, who is white, reached out to Pirtle for help. “He’s opened up so much about a culture that I am not native to, that I will always be a guest in,” Ramsey says. “But he has taught me how to be a gracious guest.”
Pirtle does not shy away from discussions of race. He studies black history, and traces his family’s lineage as best he can. He suspects he’s descended from slaves, since his relatives were living in Mississippi in the 1920s, where his genealogical records run out. Genetic testing has linked his ancestry to Nigeria.
As with Ramsey, Pirtle is approached by other white pastors to broach racial issues with their flocks. In spring, he gave a sermon at Brookfield Congregational Church on the request of the Rev. Laura McLeod as part of an exchange program between urban and suburban ministers. McLeod, wanting the conversation to continue beyond a single service, asked Pirtle to help teach an eight-week course on deconstructing racism. Pirtle considers the experience a positive one that disabused him of some of his own preconceptions – among them, that no one in the suburbs wants to discuss race, or that nobody sees character before skin color.
The class wasn’t without challenging moments. One activity called for people to move around while music played. A woman asked him to dance, which Pirtle doesn’t like to do. She said, “Of course you do. Look at you.”
On a separate occasion, after Pirtle spoke at length on Jim Crow laws and redlining, one man said the whole class felt like an exercise in blaming white people. Another woman, whom Pirtle describes as having an inner beauty, asked him when black people will get over slavery. Pirtle compared the question to asking Jewish people to move past the Holocaust. “We’re talking about almost 30 generations completely forgotten about when people say, ‘Hey, let’s forget slavery,’” he says.
Through it all, McLeod had his back. The issue was personal to her, and she looked to Pirtle to bridge the racial divide in her own family. Her African-American teenage son, Henry, has struggled in school with some racial issues and adoption issues, McLeod says.
Pirtle calls Henry an awesome young man who “wouldn’t hurt a fly.” His upbringing shielded him from hard truths that come with his identity. “Because he is from the suburbs, he doesn’t always recognize that the world looks at him differently,” Pirtle says. “He sees himself as a regular kid. But he’s 6-foot-3. He’s solid, a good 215. Long [dread]locks.” Pirtle told him, “The world thinks you look like every criminal out here. You look like a rapper.”
PIRTLE’S EFFORTS ARE CEASELESS, BUT HE’S rowing against a swift current. There is a recognition that his work largely attacks the margins, the symptoms of problems rather than the causes. Like intergenerational poverty, something he calls “circle time.” Oceanna, the 20-year-old ReignStorm member, lives with her 2-year-old daughter, mother and grandmother. “That’s four generations in poverty,” Pirtle says.
As more Wednesdays drift by with little letup in demand for his ministry, he’s dreamed up a more permanent solution, though still preliminary: buying property at Woodlands to convert into a living-learning space, where people can come for food, shelter, vocational training and instruction in basic life skills.
Right now, it’s only a vision shaped during Pirtle’s long drives between commitments, but it’s one he is in a hurry to realize, consumed by the desire to create a system that survives him. Out of all his childhood friends, he can think of only one other who made it out of Woodlands successfully – a doctor who now lives in Brooklyn. Pirtle’s mind sometimes turns to moving on, but not before building a ladder to leave for the next generation.
He openly wonders whether his time on Earth will be short. Since he was a kid, Pirtle has watched black males die early and violently. He’s only 10 years younger than civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were when they were assassinated. Driving through Woodlands, he talks about Nipsey Hussle, a rapper and community activist shot dead this spring in the area of LA where he grew up. “Can you name five black men in their 60s?” he asks.
StreetLife, too, can be dangerous. He once stripped a gun from the hand of someone high on drugs. Another time, StreetLife volunteers helped a sex worker off the streets and into a shelter. StreetLife was canceled the following week while the group waited for the woman’s pimp to cool down.
Angela doesn’t like to think about the danger. Pirtle can’t keep his mind off of it. “Don’t forget I’m a pastor,” he says. “Churches are being shot up more than ever.”
People around him say Pirtle has a good sense of self-preservation and will take a step back when he needs time to himself. StreetLife meets on Saturdays as well as Wednesdays, but Pirtle skips that day for family time.
Still, the cumulative effect of these experiences seems to have taken a toll. He says he has insomnia, sleeping only a few hours a night. Angela suspects it’s PTSD-related. Pirtle says the earliest he can remember falling asleep in recent weeks is 12:30 a.m.
There’s also the question of how sustainable his work is for him personally. Nothing Pirtle has done today brought him any money. Even his associate pastor role at Immanuel Church is an unpaid title.
He was recently a salaried employee at another church, Zion UCC, but that ended when Pirtle walked away in a pay dispute. At the time, his annual income was in the low $20,000s with no timeline for a raise, which Pirtle claims broke an understanding between himself and church leadership.
His new job as a community organizer in Woodlands pays more, and he has a helpful, if irregular, revenue stream as a motivational speaker, but one wonders if that’s enough. Pirtle says he will continue to drive his Camry for Lyft whenever he has a free moment.
THE REIGNSTORM CIRCLE concludes with the second prayer of the evening shortly before 8:30. Once rambunctious, the group is now quiet, contemplative, and ready to wind down for the evening. The participants push their chairs back to the tables. Some clear garbage, others wash dishes. Pirtle is right in the mix, doing whatever is needed.
Soon, all the kids and the volunteers, and even Angela, will have gone home for the evening. Pirtle will call Ramsey to get an update on tonight’s StreetLife efforts. He’ll meet up with the group and stay until all the brown bags are gone, or until a larger situation arises that requires his humor, nerves and grace. He’ll do this again next week, and for the foreseeable future, locked in a battle of consistency with the dogged problems of Milwaukee’s downtrodden.
A Utopia Gone Very Wrong
TO UNDERSTAND Andre Pirtle, you need to know about where he was raised. Since 1970, the Woodlands Condominiums have resided at Milwaukee’s fringes, near the city’s northwesternmost corner.
The 56-building, 576- unit complex originally named North Meadows was designed for moderate-income families. The Federal Housing Authority subsidized mortgage payments for some purchasers. The condos drew praise for bucking the trend of escalating property prices, especially as the site had been designated previously for luxury homes. Some predicted North Meadows would become a model replicated throughout the country.
But the sheen wore off in the ensuing decades. A nationwide economic decline fueled crime and urban decay. North Meadows was uniquely vulnerable. Its high-density design crammed as many as 3,700 people into 55 acres, and its winding, haphazardly linked streets were difficult to police. Homeowners moved out, replaced in droves by landlords and renters. By the 1990s, “North Ghettos” had become a notorious hot spot for gangs operating in mostly unchecked isolation.
The turning point came in 2000. Forty-two units were bought by the city-created Neighborhood Improvement Development Corp. NIDC officials also campaigned for election to the condo association board, where they pushed reforms aimed at bringing in more owner occupants and beefing up screening of prospective tenants. The rebranding to Woodlands Condominiums soon followed. The Milwaukee Police Department requested environmental design improvements, such as removing shrubbery near bus stops, to make the area safer.
New investment in the surrounding neighborhood has helped, to some extent. The John C. Cudahy YMCA (now the Northwest YMCA) opened in 2000 on nearby land donated by Marquette Electronics founder Michael Cudahy. But the future of the former Northridge Mall, just to the east, is still a question mark.
“Get Away For A Day” appears in the August 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Find it on newsstands beginning July 29, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.
Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.