They talked about race and racial injustice. They helped pull weeds. And they pitched in at a vaccination drive to ensure that residents in a low-income area of Dallas received the COVID-19 vaccine.
That’s how the Fall 2021 semester began for 19 members of the Perkins community – 11 students and 8 faculty and staff — who participated in Ministry Dallas, a program that gives participants a hands-on experience with local ministries. This year’s program visited five different outreach ministries over five days in August, just before classes commenced.
At each location — Project Unity, For Oak Cliff, St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, Owenwood Farm and Neighbor Space, and Bonton Farms — participants worshipped, tackled service projects, met staff members (including several who are alumnae/I or current students) and got an inside glimpse of innovative ministry.
“This was an opportunity for students to meet people who are doing entrepreneurial, creative new ways of ministry,” said Tracy Anne Allred, Assistant Dean of Student Life and Director of Community Engagement at Perkins. “The goal was to expose students not only to the needs of the people of Dallas but also some churches and organizations that are filling the gaps and reaching out in traditional, but creative, ways.”
This year’s group included students from Ghana, Tanzania, and Kenya, as well as the U.S. This is the third year for Ministry Dallas; the program launched in 2018 but was suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic. Many of the activities were outdoors; where indoors, students wore masks and practiced social distancing.
The day’s program began with a teambuilding exercise. Participants copied small pictures, each part of a larger image, on pieces of paper. Then the group put the pieces together and discussed the experience.
Over lunch, students heard from the Rev. Richie Butler, founder and CEO of Project Unity and a member of Perkins’s Executive Board. (He’s also a 1993 graduate of SMU, where he earned his undergraduate degree.)
After founding a nondenominational church, Union Cathedral in Dallas in 2002, Butler met Bishop Mike McKee. Together they made plans to merge Unity with St. Paul United Methodist Church, a historically Black congregation in downtown Dallas. Now, he’s pastor of St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, a large, predominantly Black congregation, formerly led by the Rev. Zan Holmes, a Perkins grad.
After witnessing the anger and distrust evident at a community-wide conversation following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., Butler felt a calling to build bridges. Project Unity was born. It’s based on one key idea, Butler says: “What unites us is greater than what divides us.”
“If we don’t deal with race, it will deal with us,” Butler said.
Project Unity works to create conversations and to connect people from diverse groups, with a long list of activities like Together We Ball, which hosts a basketball game with pastors, police officers and community leaders. When the pandemic hit, the group scrambled to create “Together We Test,” making COVID-19 testing more accessible in southern Dallas.
Butler has also gotten involved in real estate projects aimed at providing affordable housing in typically underinvested areas of Dallas, to help address issues created by systemic racism.
“Real estate is a ministry to me,” he said. “Abraham was the first real estate developer.”
Project Unity also launched Together We Dine, which brings together people who might not otherwise meet for honest conversations about race. Anne Edwards, a member of Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church and a volunteer who leads conversations for Together We Dine, shared how the program has impacted her.
“It was such a blessing as we got to know each other,” she said. “Coming together and seeing other people’s perspectives has opened up a whole new world for me. Sometimes I’m a little nervous. But it’s important to have the dialogue we don’t want to have.”
Participants had a chance to experience a taste of what the “Together We Dine” dialogues are like, by gathering in small groups and reflecting on questions about their perceptions of race and racial injustice. Perkins student Uwezo Mwanjala shared his unique perspective on racial relations in the U.S. A Perkins student from Tanzania, Mwanjala arrived in 2018, around the time of the killing of Botham Jean, a Black resident in Dallas, by police officer Amber Guyer.
“I never experienced racism in Tanzania, because everybody is Black and very welcoming,” he said. “Everything was surprising to me. Racism is a generational inheritance, I think.”
Back to School Vaccine Event with For Oak Cliff
For Oak Cliff offered free first doses of Covid-19 vaccines to all ages 12 and up at the For Oak Cliff Community Campus, in partnership with Project Unity and Catalyst Health Network. Perkins participants assisted during the drive by helping sign in visitors and directing traffic.
For Oak Cliff is a nonprofit that “provides culturally responsive initiatives in South Oak Cliff to liberate the community from systemic oppression, create a culture of education, and increase social mobility and social capital,” according to the organization’s website. For Oak Cliff’s work focuses on four pillars: education, advocacy, community building and arts.
Worship with St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church
Due to renovations, St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church is currently worshipping at the Tolleson Family Activity Center on the campus of Highland Park United Methodist Church. Perkins students and faculty, including Dean Craig Hill, were warmly welcomed by the pastor and congregation.
Owenwood Farm and Neighbor Space
In 2017, Owenwood United Methodist Church in far east Dallas was no longer viable as a congregation. The neighborhood had changed, and attendance had dwindled to about a dozen members.
The North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church gifted the property to nearby White Rock United Methodist Church (WRUMC), which brought the spirit of creatively responding to the needs of the neighborhood that has helped keep WRUMC alive. Today, the property has been repurposed as Owenwood Farm and Neighbor Space, a hub for social services that support the neighborhood.
“We’ve been experimenting and learning how to become intentional about listening to our neighbors and what they need,” said the Rev. Josh Esparza, a Perkins grad (M. Div. ’19) and Owenwood’s campus pastor. “We’re trying to discern, ‘Where are the gaps, and what are the gifts present in the community?”
Four acres of unused land behind the church are now an urban farm in progress, worked by GROW North Texas staff along with a group of volunteers. Many people from the neighborhood pitch in; many came to see their neighbors, safely, during the pandemic. As the temperatures neared 90 degrees, Perkins participants pitched in to pull weeds and prepare the soil to plant asparagus.
“Once the food is harvested, it’s sold through subsidized markets, like the WIC market,” said Susie Marshall (M.T.S. ’09), executive director of GROW North Texas. “Families who rely on WIC receive a small allowance — $30 per person per year – for locally-grown produce,” making healthy food available in what is otherwise a food desert.
GROW North Texas is one of several partners that work with Owenwood.“We rely heavily on partnerships,” said Katie Pryor, Director of Neighborhood Outreach, also a Perkins grad (M.Div. ’19).
The sanctuary is now home to Diapers, Etc., a ministry that provides diapers and other hygiene items to about 150 families in the area on the last Saturday of each month. Justin Barringer (Ph.D. ’21, GPRS), Owenwood’s Director of Social Outreach, leads the program. (Read more about Barringer and Diapers, Etc., here.)
The space that once hosted Sunday School classes now offers English as a Second Language (ESL), job training and GED classes provided by the nonprofit Aspire.
Outside on the porch is The People’s Fridge, where neighbors can donate food and take what they need. Alerts of newly arrived inventory, sent via social media, quickly draw neighbors to the parking lot to pick up food.
Laundry facilities have been added, and two restrooms were expanded with showers, allowing two interns to live in the church during the past summer while they served the ministry.
“We are creating places of belonging and connection for people here,” said Esparza. “That can happen at a church, but it doesn’t have to be a church.”
Bonton Farms is an urban farm with goats, chickens, turkeys, fresh vegetables, and a mission to serve hurting people in the neighborhood. It’s located in the Bonton neighborhood, an isolated area that is surrounded by three highways, train tracks and a river.
About three-quarters of the men living in the Bonton area have served jail time by age 25. More than 60 percent of residents have no driver’s license, no car and little access to transportation.
The Bonton area is also a food desert. Neighborhood convenience stores are stocked with junk food and booze but few healthy options. Not surprisingly, Bonton residents experience diabetes, obesity, cancer and other health issues at significantly higher rates than the rest of Dallas. With the hope of reversing that trend, the farm offers healthy, fresh alternatives.
During their visit, Ministry Dallas participants pulled weeds, excavated some raised beds and enjoyed a meal in Bonton Café, which serves food prepared with locally grown, organic produce. The group also heard from Stephanie Bohan, an M.A.M. student at Perkins and Director of Health and Wellness Services at Bonton Farms, and Perkins student Barbara Taylor, who is interning at Bonton Farms this year.
Not surprisingly, the cardiovascular disease rate in the Bonton area is 54% higher than the rest of Dallas. Incidences of diabetes are 45% higher; cancer is 58% higher. Bonton is now building a 10,000 square foot clinic, which will offer primary medical care provided by Parkland Hospital, as well as some specialty medical care.
Bohan joined Bonton Farms recently, after 10 years serving as executive director of the Agape Clinic, a free medical clinic in East Dallas.
“We hope Bonton will become a medical access point as well as a place where residents come for exercise, nutrition, cooking classes and other educational programming,” she said. “We want to empower people to get healthy, so that we can break the cycle that has kept south Dallas sick for so long.”