Thirteen years ago, Grace United Methodist Church was dying.
“I was told there were 50 in worship, all of them silver-haired, and children had not been in the church for 15 years,” says Rev. Bill Bryan of the Junius and Haskell landmark that once boasted 2,000 members.
Not far away, the few remaining members of St. John’s Methodist Church and Agape Memorial Methodist Church were wringing their hands about how to survive membership flight to the suburbs.
And the other three neighborhood Methodist churches – Lakewood United, Greenland Hills and Munger Place – were barely holding on.
But instead of dying quietly, these churches banded together to fight for their lives by serving the neighborhood that had seemingly betrayed them.
The churches formed the East Dallas Cooperative Parish, combining money and resources to turn vacant Sunday school classrooms into facilities offering medical care, clothing and food for neighborhood residents.
Thirteen years later, the churches have gone from struggling to thriving. Through the Parish’s umbrella, they operate 19 service agencies and help about 45,000 people annually.
“(Parish members) are people who have a commitment to servicing people – not to grow a big church. They feel a real calling,” says Rev. Roy Harrell of Ross Avenue Baptist Church, which also is a Parish member.
“We’re dealing with reality here. People are down to basics here in terms of survival.”
The Parish now has 10 member churches, representing four denominations. The Parish is a nationally recognized model of how older, inner-city churches can save both themselves and their neighborhoods.
“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have wanted to share so much, but with the limited resources, we have to,” says Martha Murchison, pastor for St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
“I think people who have stayed saw something had to happen. Churches are a vital part of keeping neighborhoods vital.”
Munger Place United Methodist Church is a massive, two-building landmark at Live Oak and Munger. In its prime, 60 years ago, it had more than 2,000 members, says Elizabeth Blessing, parish administrative assistant and a lifelong Munger Place member.
But during the 1950s and 1960s, as the suburbs boomed, Munger Place’s membership gradually declined, dropping below 200, Blessing says.
The church was so empty that it shuttered the three-story building once used for Sunday school classrooms and offices.
Today, the first floor of the building houses the Wilkinson Center, the Parish’s largest program. The Wilkinson Center is a food and clothes pantry and job bank and counseling center that serves 30,000 people a year.
From its morning opening to evening closing, the center bustles with volunteers and clients.
Parish offices share the second floor with classrooms used for after-school tutoring. The church recently constructed a new parking lot and is in the process of making other renovations.
“We had these buildings, and we put them to use,” Blessing says. “That’s the key. There were services to provide.”
“What we were doing before was trying to save ourselves internally and keep the four walls together,” says Rev. Jimmie Mobley of Lakewood United Methodist Church.
“The real purpose of the church is to serve, not save ourselves. By serving, we are growing. The churches that were dying are thriving.”
Lakewood United Methodist also benefited from Parish membership, receiving new members and renovations. Now, about half of the church’s 200 members are involved with the Parish, Mobley says.
“People who visit know what we’re doing, and they like it and want to be involved,” Mobley says.
Grace United Methodist Church also experienced a rebirth similar to Munger Place. During the 1920s, the church’s rolls included Texas’ governor, three former Dallas mayors and the Dallas police chief.
But over time, Grace deteriorated to less than 100 members.
Today, the church has 250 members and is open seven days and six nights a week. On Wednesday nights, the church hosts a Bible study, choir practice and a Yoga class, attracting about 80 people – more than what a Sunday sermon used to bring in.
“They stopped trying to be secure and started giving it away,” Bryan says of the church members who helped start the Parish.
Grace is in the middle of a $2 million renovation project. Its basement has been converted to house the Agape Clinic, a Parish program housing five medical examining rooms and a pharmacy for volunteer doctors who provide Saturday morning medical care for neighborhood residents.
Last year, the Agape Clinic served 3,000 neighborhood children at a cost of less than $1 apiece, Bryan says. The medical care is free, but donations are accepted.
Sunday school classrooms house the Open Door Pre-School, which provides free care for 50 neighborhood children from low-income, non-English speaking homes. Now, the program has a waiting list, Bryan says.
The church’s fellowship hall is converted into make-shift offices once a week for volunteer lawyers who provide free legal services to neighborhood residents. They take their cases to court once a month at Grace, where volunteer judges hold court in the fellowship hall, Bryan says.
“There are three things you can do with a building,” Bryan says. “Lock it up. Close it up. Fill it up. The Parish stands for ‘fill it up.’ Filling it up with activity is how you’re safe here.”
Of course, signs of Grace’s old days remain. The sanctuary’s red carpet is patched in places with duct tape, water spots stain portions of the ceiling, and paint is peeling on some walls.
But Bryan says with time, those problems will be gone.
“We found out that when we cooperated, we weren’t six, small, individual Methodist churches,” Bryan says. “We were strong.”
When Roy Harrell arrived at Ross Avenue Baptist Church 12 years ago, he faced a situation similar to that of the neighborhood Methodist churches – a declining membership, which resulted in a big empty building.
But Harrell didn’t have other neighborhood Baptist churches with which to band together. So, in an unusual cooperative move among denominations, his Baptist church joined the Parish to work with Methodists.
“Most Baptist churches wouldn’t have done it,” Harrell says.
“Even though we may disagree on theology, we’re dealing with a human need that doesn’t recognize a denomination.”
“The neighborhood changed, and the churches stayed. So to survive, you have to adapt.”
“It is unusual for it to happen,” Lakewood’s Mobley says. “Methodists and Baptists working together – woo.”
“What benefit that brings to us is we learn about other denominations and their theology. We have learned to appreciate each other.”
Through the Parish, Ross Avenue Baptist Church offers a Cambodian and an inner-city ministry.
“Traditionally, churches want to give a basket of food at Thanksgiving, toys at Christmas,” Harrell says. “What we do here is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, four weeks a month, 12 months a year.”
A New Mission
Northridge Presbyterian is located on Bob-O-Link and is surrounded by large homes with green, well-manicured lawns. It’s a different world compared with the run-down apartments, bars and liquor stores surrounding Ross Avenue Baptist.
“We’re in an isolated situation,” says Roger Quillinn, pastor of Northridge. “We’re in a nice neighborhood, not a major thoroughfare. Instead of turning our backs on the inner-city, we have decided to connect with some churches in the inner-city.”
Northridge, with a membership of 475, saw the Parish as an outlet for mission work – a source to funnel money and volunteers.
Northridge recently worked with Parish members St. Andrew’s and East Dallas Christian to open an English Language Ministry. Northridge provided about $16,000 in start-up funds for the Ministry. Planners projected 35 students for the course, but 85 showed up.
“That one, I’ve been blown away by,” St. Andrew’s Murchison says. “All of the ministries have some element of that. Our few hours of planning has turned into something so big.”
Often, when churches or individuals think of mission work, a Third World country comes to mind, with people building schools and feeding starving children.
Blessing says the Parish has brought a new meaning to mission work.
“We found the mission fields, and it’s us,” Blessing says.
“That’s been the exciting part. There’s a strong group coming back to the inner-city churches because of the hands-on work.
‘To help someone without degrading them is difficult. To change takes an enormous amount of work and energy. The biggest thing we try to provide is hope.
“We know it will work. We have to know it will work. If it’s right, it will survive. We had a minister here once say: It’s never wrong to feed someone. It’s never wrong to be kind. It’s never wrong to offer hope.
“It’s never wrong to do the right thing.”
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