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Soul Search: Race, religion and education in West Dallas

Rev. Rayford Butler watched as the churches of West Dallas slipped into irrelevance and the surrounding community suffered. The hard truth: neighborhood pastors failed to work together, selfishly competing with one another.

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

DALLAS — More than 100 small churches dot the skinny, pockmarked streets of West Dallas. Most limp along with tiny congregations, preachers who don't live here, and sanctuaries rotting alongside the ramshackle housing that surrounds them.

For a quarter century, Rev. Rayford Butler has watched the slow collapse of his church community, in this neighborhood he calls "the stepchild of Dallas." His own church, Greater Mt. Hebron Missionary Baptist, a moderately sized brick building, doesn't seem particularly noteworthy from the street. Until you come to understand its one of the few healthy churches left here, and see the tiny church down the block, its wooden exterior rotting, its roof sagging, its front door chained.

"If you ride through West Dallas, you see church buildings, but most of them look kind of dogged out ... That's what my church looked like when I first started pastoring," he said. "Back then, I had plenty of friends. But when the Lord started blessing us, and we built a brick church and added a whole complex, the churches who were less blessed ... They didn't want nothing to do with us ... It was like, ‘If you come up, I want to pull you down with me.'"

West Dallas, one of the nation's poorest neighborhoods, has become an early focus of churches involved in a citywide movement called the Justice Revival, which aims to reclaim at least 25 public high-poverty schools through church partnerships and to build housing for the homeless. The organizing pastors see such projects as a down payment on a sustained church movement to heal still festering wounds in poor communities resulting from a history of racism and injustice.

And yet Butler's experience, along with research by Justice Revival Director Randy Skinner, show the rifts among preachers within the community are as deep or deeper than those with more affluent strangers the city's north side, Butler said.

"Churches with that poor mentality, they don't want to help you, because they're thinking that you're thinking that you're better than them," he said. "The North Dallas churches, they don't worry about any of that. They know you're not going to look like them and they don't care, so there's no pressure."

Skinner surveyed West Dallas churches and found that only a tenth could be considered vital, meaning they have pastors living in the community, stable congregations, and active ministries outside the church.

"The pastors (who live here) feel what the people feel," Butler said. "They see the death and dying all around here in West Dallas, from the trash on the corners to the dilapidated housing to the old school, with the old-school mentality."

In the grand scheme, churches must commit to the community around them — not isolate themselves from community ills, Skinner said.

"It's like a chess game between good and evil. A drug dealer knows his turf. He knows the people in every house and his soldiers on the street. As a church, you need to know your turf. You can't just set up and hope people come. You have to know your neighbors and know their needs.

"The church has really lost influence in this community," Skinner said. "Really, at some point, they stopped doing their job."

Beginning to heal

Few neighborhoods on the city's south side reflect the city's economic division more than West Dallas. And yet here, many see the beginnings of a renaissance in both schools and housing, largely owing to the work of more affluent churches outside the community.

In one of the few already entrenched Justice-Revival church-school partnerships, the congregation from Watermark Community Church has populated Sequoyah Elementary with about 25 regular tutors — roughly one per teacher in the school — and countless other volunteers pitching in on beautification projects.

The influx of outside support, from a suburban zone, has sparked a dramatic change already, principal Stephanie Love says. The day after the downtown revival ended, young white women, some of them former teachers, came in a steady stream into the school's office, on their way to classrooms full of impoverished African-American and Hispanic children.

That scene plays out every day, Love said.

"They just started in August, and their impact in just a few months has been ... overwhelming," Love says. "I've never had this level of support in any building I've ever worked in. Most ‘adopters' do special projects, like a coat drive or a holiday drive. They've been here every single day."

The volunteers don't merely read to students or provide occasional homework help. The school has trained them, made records of student weaknesses available, and fully integrated Watermark tutors into a structured academic plan. The church has provided "tens of thousands" of dollars worth in free tutoring just since the school year started.

The help couldn't have come at a better time: Sequoyah this year lost its "learning center" status, meaning DISD axed funding for about a half dozen teachers and an assistant principal. The centers were created as part of a desegregation plan, under court scrutiny, in the 1980s. The district had intended to provide more funding at poor and minority schools in service of equity. And then almost the entire district became poor and minority, rendering the centers an anachronism. Today, just five percent of DISD students are white.

Jeff Ward, a lawyer by training who now works for the church leading outside ministries, said Watermark, along with many other Dallas churches, have shifted their focus to what he calls the "neglected" scriptures.

"God doesn't want us to just come on Sunday and play church," he says, sitting in the school's cafeteria, wearing a tattered T-shirt and ball cap. "When the scriptures talk about serving widows and the poor, those aren't metaphors."

Beyond gifts and gardens

Just down the street, at Pinkston High, volunteers from a host of churches, working with the Christian nonprofit Mercy Street, have supported the beginnings of a renaissance at a high school where as many students drop out as graduate.

Principal Norma Villegas credits church supporters with beautifying the grounds with gardens and renovations, as well as mentoring scores of students who desperately need adult confidantes.

"They're visible in the building; they have lunches with them (students), they take them to Bible study" outside the school, Villegas said. "It's unfortunate to say, but on report card day, sometimes we have more mentors here than parents ... My parents ... are in survival mode."

Such efforts have emerged almost exclusively at the grass roots, between individual schools, churches and nonprofits. As he emerged from an assembly at Pinkston, DISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he had heard only the barest details of the Justice Revival and its plans to adopt 25 schools.

Hinojosa grew up in West Dallas, and his father ran a church here. He welcomed churches adopting schools — provided they understand their role.

"As long as they don't try to influence students and their beliefs," and leave academic programs to the educators, churches can help schools, he said. Regarding school personnel and programs, "They can have a voice, but not the only voice or the dominant voice."

That particular intersection of the church-school relationship may well determine whether the Justice Revival has any lasting effect, said Sandy Kress, the senior education advisor to President George W. Bush and a former president of the Dallas school board.

The traditional fare of school partnerships, whether with churches, businesses or nonprofits, has been charity around the edges of the academic program — and it usually comes to little if any sustained impact on student achievement, he says.

Without addressing any particular project of the Justice Revival, Kress warned that the considerable potential impact of 25 school-church partnerships ultimately rests on how firmly, if diplomatically, churches demand excellence — and whether they know what to demand. 

"Whether this works or not rests on how knowledgeable they are about what it takes to improve a school, that they understand how to use data and know the research," Kress says. "How committed are they to having the most effective personnel — and are they tough on that? Do they know what an effective principal looks like? Or can they be swayed by a charismatic or political figure?"

When the organizers of the Justice Revival talk about long-term partnership, they offer few specifics beyond their desired approach to schools, one of humility: How can we help? What remains to be seen is what happens when some schools give them answers that ultimately will go students little good.

The more fundamental questions: What do students need, are they getting it, and what can churches do about it?

"When a neighborhood feels pride in a school, they want to defend it, and that goes beyond jobs and patronage," Kress says. "But if a school ... has a dropout problem and low academic performance, it needs surgery. And sometimes the patient resists the surgery — and the family of the patient resists the surgery.

"If churches push the system to step it up, that's great," Kress says. "What becomes a little worrisome is, if they become another face of the status quo. And it could go either way."

Spiritual work, political will

In the meantime, Butler deeply appreciates the work of Watermark church and many others who have come to his community with open hearts. Their commitment, to him, seems to go far beyond the drive-by variety.

"They hug these children and play with them and talk to them," he said, in an interview at an afterschool center near his church, as children played happily in the hall. "When they leave, the children feel like they've been entertained by friends, but just somebody giving them something ... They've been a blessing to us."

Though church and business partnerships with schools can be a dime a dozen, and easily dissolved, he believes the Justice Revival has staying power. That's in part because it's backed by politician, including Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, as well as big business interests, he said.

Residents and business leaders in North Dallas to start seeing poorer neighborhoods "as an asset — not a problem," Leppert said in an interview.

The cycle is clear: allowing poverty, violence and illiteracy to fester in some neighborhoods drags down economic development, employment and the tax base in all neighborhoods, Leppert said.

"We're much too reliant here on the North side" for business growth and taxes, Leppert said. "We need to spread the growth throughout the whole city ... And it all comes back to education."

Butler, for the first time, hears such talk and believes his neighborhood has a real chance at a turnaround.

"It's real now," he said all the commitment to his neighborhood from powerful outside players. "Because West Dallas is more important to Dallas than it used to be. It's all about the transformation of Dallas, and they need this part of town to make it complete ... You could say it's about politics, and be on the safe side. But it's working for us ... So I don't care how they think of it, as long as it gets done."

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