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Soul Search: Dallas churches unite to right historic wrongs

The Dallas church community has vowed to forge 25 partnerships with high-poverty public schools and push for 700 units of housing for the homeless — a down payment on a larger effort to heal wounds left by racism and injustice.

Part one of a two-part series on church efforts to fight poverty in Dallas

DALLAS — After four days of the Justice Revival, and more than a year of wrangling city pastors into an unprecedented multi-racial coalition, Rev. Jim Wallis finally took the stage at Dallas Market Hall. He aimed to ignite a movement.

All great achievements in social justice — abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights — have come through church leadership, he would tell them. "And we are being so bold as to say it can happen again — even here in Dallas." 

Even in Dallas.

Maybe that was a slip. Wallis surely intended no slight. He did, however, acknowledge in an interview earlier that day that he initially didn't consider Dallas, with its history of racial division and social conservatism, as a likely arena for a spiritual uprising to comfort the poor. He had been convinced, he said, by the vehemence of Dallas preachers who had recruited him to the city.

"We're ready," they kept telling him, in a message reinforced by the mayor and other politicians. And the pastors had laid down specific goals: 25 partnerships with high-poverty public schools in the next year, and the construction of 700 units of housing for the homeless.

Yet as Wallis took the stage on the final night of the revival, it seemed clear that the pastors' enthusiasm had yet to saturate the grassroots of congregations. Organizers had set up 6,000 seats the first night, but the event only drew about 1,500 a night for each of four days. The crowd watching Wallis was surrounded by empty seats, and many youth started filing out as he started to speak. Perhaps they didn't grasp Wallis's stature, as among the nation's most prominent progressive preachers, a best-selling author and the leader of a national push toward social justice.

Undaunted, Wallis rolled on in the bombastic style he derived from black preachers in Detroit, after getting "kicked out" of his white church as a 14-year-old for asking too many questions about segregation. He followed that tale with another epiphany, recounting how he and other seminary students, years ago, scoured the scripture, counting every verse addressing justice for the poor or tyranny of the rich.

"We found several thousand verses!!" he roared, his voice echoing through the cavernous hall, where a few hundred remained. "In the New Testament, one of every 16 verses is about justice. In Luke, one of every seven verses is about the poor."

The local organizers of the revival believe the city's churches need that message. There's more to the politics of Christianity, they insist, than wars over stem cells, gay marriage, abortion, and private school vouchers. And there's more to the mission than building stadium-sized sanctuaries and online ministries. Christians, they believe, should concentrate less on telling others what not to do, and more on humbly taking stock of what they themselves have done, or failed to do, in their own communities — particularly in Dallas, one of the nation's strongholds of Christianity, and yet a haven of social ills and racial division.

"When the community is unhealthy, that means the churches are unhealthy," says Randy Skinner, the local director of the Justice Revival and of Strategic Justice Initiatives, which has been credited with helping spur a housing renaissance in West Dallas. "The church is supposed to be the answer."

Divided past

Wallis founded the national organization Sojourners and is editor-in-chief of its magazine. He wrote, among other books, the bestselling "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It." He started the Justice Revival in Columbus, Ohio, a smaller, more manageable, and less divided city. 

"If we had a computer program that would spit out the best ten cities to start a movement like this, Dallas would likely not be on that list," Wallis said in an interview. "The image of Dallas is that of a divided city. But I found something different."

When local ministers convened a meeting with Wallis more than a year ago to ask him to consider taking his movement to Dallas, he met with 160 ministers when only 50 had been expected.

Wallis has openly criticized the religious right, but he rejects the notion that he represents an emerging religious left. Rather, he aims to bring churches of all stripes together into the public square, and into service of the needy, by dispensing with moral superiority of any one belief system and instead seeking issues of broad consensus. If churches draw battle lines on gay marriage or private school vouchers, why should that mean they can't join together to feed the hungry?

In Dallas, meetings of an uncommonly diverse cross-section of ministers identified public education and housing for the homeless as the issues all could get behind. The city's broad support of a progressive, poverty-focused movement speaks to a softening, at the least, of old ideological lines, both political and religious. 

"Denominations don't mean much anymore," said Rev. Ron Scates, a convener of the Justice Revival and pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian, a congregation full of CEOs and more than a few millionaires. 

Forgive Wallis his initial skepticism about Dallas. The city's history is fraught with anti-democratic, closed-door leadership, often at the expense of impoverished and minority populations. The white business elite has generally neglected and displaced the poor, through projects involving highways, neighborhood renewals, the Cotton Bowl and Love Field, said Michael Phillips, author of "The White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001."

For much of that history, power players promulgated the myth that the races in Dallas got along far better than other urban centers where riots erupted. And that made it easier for the ruling class to ignore the steady degradation of black and Hispanic neighborhoods after the civil rights era. Only in the last decade or so has a truer picture emerged and been embraced by a new generation of leaders across races, Phillips says.

"Politically and culturally in the city, people are becoming more aware of the ugly underside of that history, and that's part of what these ministers are doing," Phillips says. "You have an atmosphere where you could have a real breakthrough in recognizing the value of African-American and Mexican American communities and repairing their neighborhoods... And it's not just coming from the African-American church community, but white ministers as well.

"It's not a steady line from the dark days of yesterday to brighter tomorrow. It's a series of zigzags; that's Dallas history," Phillips says, "But I do think the city is poised to cross the threshold to being more democratic, more equitable and more open."

"10,000 cups of coffee"

The might of Dallas congregations, in volunteers and money, would be hard to match in any other societal segment, public or private. Some churches here resemble small cities, with upwards of 25,000 members. Working together, the revival's organizers believe, churches could literally work miracles in the poorest neighborhoods on the south side of Dallas. But those changes rest on the uncertain prospect that the power of the city's churches can be rallied, unified and held accountable over the long term.

As the congregants filed into the last day of the revival last week, they were greeted with statistics outlining the ugly remnants of the city's history, flashed on huge screens: half of the adults in South Dallas lack diplomas; 89 percent of city public school graduates aren't prepared for college or career; and the earnings of workers in South Dallas account for just 12 percent of the city's payroll.

Standing at a back corner, in front of a sea of empty folding chairs, one key organizer lamented that such messages reached so few eyes.

"The revival tonight is great, but this movement needs to be built over 10,000 cups of coffee," said Larry James, President and CEO of Central Dallas Ministries, one of revival's leaders and a low-income housing developer.

Complicating matters is the revival's choice of mission: Partnerships with 25 inner-city public schools, only a handful of them yet launched. In tackling the intransigent problems of a school system long ago abandoned by white and middle-class families, the churches will enter tender political, legal and racial arenas. They must first build trust they won't use the partnerships as a cover for proselytizing in public schools. More importantly, they must forge deep relationships that transcend paint-the-school days and 15-minute-a-month mentoring. To have lasting impact, churches must burrow their way, ever so delicately, into the academic and social turf where real change happens. And they'll need to sustain those relations over years, through the typical urban-school churn of principals, teachers and students in individual schools.

School partnerships, whether with churches, business or other organizations, often are limited to efforts around the edges of the academic program that, while laudable, ultimately do little to change the lives of students, said Sandy Kress, a former education advisor to President George W. Bush and former president of the Dallas school board.

"That stuff is good, but if it's not integrated into the effective instructional management of the school itself... you can have all kinds of nice things you're doing, and it doesn't make a difference," Kress said.

Country club pastor

James spoke bluntly of the church community's past failings.

"I was a pastor for 25 years" in the suburb of Richardson, James said. "And often I felt like I was running a country club. We need to get away from the ego and self-satisfaction of going to church to make you feel better about yourself, to have a better marriage, to have the perfect kids," he said. "Jesus talked about the poor, the blind, the lame, the prisoners, the oppressed — our faith should define our concern for these issues."

"And we're not there right now," he said. 

Near the spot where James hopes to build housing for the homeless, the First Baptist Church of Dallas will erect a $130 million sanctuary complex. "It's going to be the most beautiful facility in downtown Dallas," a "spiritual oasis" and "the largest church-building campaign in modern history" the church's pastor, Robert Jeffress, is quoted as saying by the Associated Baptist Press. 

James sees something else entirely: A monument to misplaced priorities.

"They could build 1,300 homes for $100,000 each with that money and give them to people who need them," he said. "This is the most churched-up city in America — with the least concern for social justice."

Part Two: Even as the church community in West Dallas struggles to survive and work together, affluent churches from North Dallas have recently poured time an money into the impoverished community, setting the stage for a renaissance. 

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