Rev. Willie E. Brisco, Community, Common Sense and Comfort

By Patricia Obletz

Reverend Willie E. Brisco is dedicated to social justice. He is the spiritual force who twice has been nominated and elected president of MICAH, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope. In both 2010 and ’12, he ran unopposed. MICAH is a member of Wisdom, which is the Wisconsin branch of the Gamaliel Foundation. Gamaliel’s work is based on the practice of the community organizing genius, Saul Alinsky. He trained potential organizers how to motivate local community leaders to create, maintain and expand the reach of independent, grassroots and faith-based community organizations to inspire ordinary people to impact the political, social, economic, and environmental decisions that affect their lives.

Rev. Brisco and I met twice to talk about his new calling at MICAH. By chance, both times were on January 25, in 2011, and again in 2013. The first time we sat down to talk on the record, we covered his life from childhood to the start of his new role in the community as president of MICAH. He said then that MICAH would expand task force efforts to build Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “beloved community” by establishing “deliberate and intentional relationships” with residents and services agencies of every community in Milwaukee. Filling in the gaps between services and advocacy “creates a united front,” he said, “to advance social, civic, environmental and economic justice for all.” He said he had faith that this plan would succeed because God had put him on this path.

Nearing the end of our second two-hour conversation, Rev. Brisco said, “Whatever your religion is, it’s all about love and caring for each other.” This knowledge is what drives him.

Compelled by his God-given wisdom and the calling of his soul, Reverend Brisco now uses his experiences and faith to help Milwaukeeans reduce if not eliminate the institutionalized racism that still plagues society. He is fearless when addressing government officials on this issue.

We have to get over any fear of black people

“(W)e have to get over any fear of black people, because if we don’t, America will perish. America is in more danger than people realize because of our policies, and fear or anxiety over our differences. The Republicans are a party that is almost as fearful as the Nazis and KKK, because they think they are losing their country.”

His career path, like his heart, mind and soul, has been forged by destiny and his origins.

Born in 1953, Willie Brisco was sheltered in the arms of a family who practiced unconditional love and studied the life of Jesus Christ, who showed the world how to practice The Golden Rule: respect others as you wish them to respect you. Brisco spent his childhood with his mother (his parents divorced when he was a toddler), two brothers, one sister, grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, and the God of their Baptist religion.

Brisco said that his grandfather had a “very talented way of getting family members to understand just how much they needed each other.” These influences are apparent in Brisco’s warmth and compassionate way with people of all ages, colors and faiths at meetings, protest rallies, city hall, state Capitol, churches, parks and press conferences.

Sense of Superiority Invites Evil

On the family farm of his childhood in the small district of Sardis, Mississippi, not too far from Memphis, Tennessee, Brisco’s first encounter with racism occured with his aunt on his first trip to town. Every time white people approached them on the sidewalk, his aunt made him step down off the curb and into the street until the sidewalk was free again.

Back on the farm, where “every meal was a banquet of home-grown vegetables, meat and dairy,” he told his mother about his experiences in town. She responded by telling him about her sister’s encounter with racism. When a bunch of white boys from school followed her and spat on her, she threw stones at them. That night, a sudden explosion of brilliant lights and revving motors ringed the farmhouse, exposing the arrival of trucks loaded with armed white men seeking retribution. His grandfather stood up to those men and said he would punish his daughter himself rather than let them have her. And so he was forced to whip her hard to satisfy the menacing crowd.

Brisco was only ten when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his 1963 “I have a dream” speech, which ignited his passion for social justice. Yet, every time Dr. King spoke in public, the grown-ups around Brisco said they feared for Dr. King’s life, and for their own. They were all too familiar with Jim Crow laws. Brisco was 15 when James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. King. Brisco’s belief in non-violent activism for justice hasn’t wavered since.

Faith, hope and love for God and all people brought Brisco safely through his childhood in Mississippi to Detroit, Michigan, where he attended sixth grade. After a year, the family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he attended North Division High School, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Brisco said he had no idea he was poor until his family sold the farm and moved to Detroit. The awe he’d felt upon seeing people in fancy dresses, suits, and cars every day, not just at church, still sounded in his voice. He said that his first experience with violence had horrified him, and woke him up to a hard truth. While playing marbles with a friend after school, he and his friend got into a fight. Brisco recounted his still vivid memory of punching this friend in the nose, the sudden gush of blood that dripped down his cheeks to the pavement. And of how sickened he’d been by the knowledge that he had hurt another member of the human race. After that, he became much better at thinking things through before reacting to someone in anger. He attributes his daily communication with God to his ability to stop and think before acting, in anger or not. Proof of this accomplishment arrived when he was 16 in Milwaukee.

At age 16, Brisco visited family down south that summer; an uncle gave him an old gun. Back in Milwaukee, for a reason he cannot remember, young Brisco stashed the gun in his jacket pocket when he went with friends to the Juneteenth Day Festival. An obviously drunk man bumped into Brisco; his first instinct was to grab the gun. This fact terrified him. His inner voice immediately warned, “If you bring out the gun, you will have to use it. If you use the gun, you will hurt someone.” That same sickening felt at the sight of his friend’s blood years ago filled Brisco again. He put that gun away for good.

House of Corrections Without Correction

Brisco said he has no memory of taking the civil service exam, but one day at work in the shipping department of an ink manufacturer, he got a call requesting that he come to the Milwaukee County Courthouse for an interview. Thirty years ago, Brisco began his second career at the Milwaukee County House of Corrections; he rose to the rank of Deputy Superintendent before retiring in 2009. “It was a house, but it didn’t have a lot of correction,” he said. Instead of the hardened criminals Brisco had expected, he met “human beings who were lost souls and misguided spirits.

“Most of the people in prison took a wrong turn and had no one in their lives to help them turn around,” he said. Moved by the misplaced people who wound up in prison, Brisco added prison reform to his list of social justice activism. “Most prisoners need only treatment for addiction and other mental illnesses,” he said.

“God,” Rev. Brisco continued, his voice rich with passion, “did not intend us to have disposable people, or to warehouse people. He intended for us to be able to fall down and get back up. He also intended for us to practice ‘Me for you and you for me.’ I learned this in my years at the prison. We must be able to show individuals that they can recover, that they can be restored completely as one human being who contributes to his community and to society.”

MICAH, as a member of Wisdom, the Gamaliel Foundation’s Wisconsin arm, has developed a strong prison reform campaign known as 11×15, which aims to halve the state’s prison population to 11,000 by 2015. How? Research says that treatment instead of prison programs returns healthy people to the community, Brisco reminded me. “We CANNOT throw away people’s lives,” he said. “We cannot continue to release prisoners whose addiction or mental illness got them into prison in the first place. Ninety-seven – 97 -- percent of prisoners return to the community. Minnesota and Wisconsin have nearly the same number of residents, but Wisconsin incarcerates more than double the number in Minnesota prisons.

“The best thing you can do to help people is to show them that you love them,” Brisco said. “Once people feel safe with you, they are more open to learning how to overcome the obstacles that so far have prevented them from leading meaningful, productive lives.”

Nourishing Spiritual Hunger

Even as Brisco was moving up the ladder in the county penal system, he also was becoming a deacon at The Way of the Cross Missionary Baptist Church. In addition, he was president of the men’s ministry and the men’s chorus. In 2007, Brisco helped form the Abiding Fellowship Church, where he also served as deacon, and as leader of the men’s programs.

The next year, Willie Brisco was called to the ministry. This path opened after a friend from his Bible study group asked Brisco to host his WBNC radio program, for which Brisco needed only to read scriptures and discuss them with listeners. Brisco agreed, and his reading of Philippians 4:6–7 stirred listeners to call in, and to ask Brisco to pray for them. That night, gazing up into the starlit sky after leaving the radio station’s studio, he realized that he wanted to be a minister. He told Reverend Dr. F. L. Crouther, his pastor at New Covenant Baptist Church, and it wasn’t long before Brisco gave his first sermon.

One Sunday in 2009 after Brisco retired from the House of Corrections, Dr. Charles Mock gave a sermon at Brisco’s church and mentioned he would be speaking on social justice at another church that Monday. Brisco attended this talk and just happened to sit next to Reverend Joe Ellwanger, the fearless civil rights activist who had marched with Dr. King and had accompanied him to the White House to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson of the need to pass an equal voting rights law. Brisco and Ellwanger spoke afterward and discovered their mutual passion for prison reform, peace and civil rights. Over lunch, Ellwanger encouraged Brisco to get involved with the Gamaliel Foundation and MICAH. What intrigued Brisco most is that the organization welcomes everyone interested in advancing social justice, whether they believe in God or not.

Brisco joined MICAH in 2009, the same year he also became an Associate Minister of the New Covenant Baptist Church under the leadership of Rev. Crouther. Brisco also attended the Gamaliel Foundation’s “boot camp for social justice.” He was heartened by the number of people who came from all over the United States with the same goal of changing the hearts and minds of people to achieve social, civil, environmental and economic justice.

Brisco said that segregation was a mandate, and that changing that law took changing the hearts and minds of the people. “I will never look at a glass half-empty again,” Brisco said. “I am a citizen of this planet first before I am a Democrat. And if you’re in office for a political agenda and not for the downtrodden, I have to oppose you,” he said at a rally protesting the Republican attempt to suppress voters in Wisconsin.

Because he is outspoken about common sense ideas when it comes to helping to improve life for the majority, Brisco spoke his mind at MICAH meetings. That’s why he soon received an invitation to serve as a MICAH board member, and as chair of the Jobs and Economic Development Committee. The following year, the chairman of MICAH’s board urged Brisco to run for president. His leadership up to that point included work on the Milwaukee Transitional Jobs Collaborative, and serving MICAH’s parent organizations: Wisdom at the state level, and the Gamaliel Foundation on the national level. He currently serves as Wisdom’s representative to Gamaliel’s African-American Leadership Commission.

The Heart of Social Justice: The Golden Rule

“We still have to change the hearts and minds of people,” Brisco said. “Just as Jesus did by walking everywhere, preaching freedom for those… who were kept bound, the poor, lame, blind. He touched them and healed them. That is social justice.” Brisco knows that only when people work with compassion can their programs help individuals overcome their adversity and become productive citizens. He said that Jesus wasn’t predicting the future when he said that the poor would always be with us. Jesus was saying that man will fail to “love thy neighbor as thyself (Mark 12:31).” Brisco says that, so far, Jesus was right, but that this fact cannot stop people from working to achieve spiritual freedom for all.

Rev. Brisco had no problem standing up to the Wisconsin governor as 2011 began. Once Gov. Walker exposed his objective to pave the way for greater corporate control, and tax cuts for his backers, Brisco met with legislators, labor leaders, civil rights activists and agency directors at the MICAH headquarters to strategize tactics for overcoming the governor’s first few bills. In 2012, this coalition evolved into the “Community Forum,” whose aim is to improve education, job development, reduce gun violence, and build a non-violent force to help young people succeed in Milwaukee.

Brisco believes that “the people can seize power by building deliberate and intentional relationships with all citizens.” His vision of a 21st Century “Hands Across the Viaduct (HATV)” is already building deliberate and intentional relationships from one end of Milwaukee to the other. United minority groups have economic and voting power, critical to the resistance against the authoritarian arrogance of America’s corporate rulers. Milwaukeeans need to know about and join the united force that is working to promote decent jobs and economics, education, drug treatment instead of incarceration, healthcare in local clinics, as well as to overcome wrongful immigration practices and other human rights issues.

Rev. Brisco is proudest of the concentrated joint efforts of the Milwaukee agencies that generated an unprecedented 87 percent voter turnout for the 2012 election. “What comes next remains to be seen, but,” Brisco said, “reaching this benchmark shows us what we can accomplish together.”

Rev. Brisco knows that fear, narcissism and poverty encourage violence. But, from getting to know the people who fill the prisons, to linking MICAH with other activist organizations, to advocating for prison reform, anti-gun violence prevention, and economic relief through ensuring legal hiring practices, to standing up to Gov. Scott Walker, Brisco stays on message, inspiring young and old with his rousing speeches and actions aimed at improving life for all of us.

Disclosure: Rev. Brisco and I met in 2007 at a Vocational Scholarship Committee meeting, which he chaired. At that time, he was still Deputy Superintendent of the Milwaukee County House of Corrections. The next year, Brisco joined the five-person panel for my 2008 Creative Forces TV show sponsored by MATA Community Media, Milwaukee Area Telecommunications Access. The focus of our discussion was on “spiritual freedom through art and education” in honor of mental health month. Brisco had recently installed an art program in a prison.

We met again in 2010 and he asked me to work with him at MICAH, Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope. I’ve been on the MICAH communication team since then.

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Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on November 08, 2017

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