October 22, 2020

Pastor Richie Butler ’93 remembers a particularly heated discussion during a town hall shortly after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014. The conversation grew fiery among the many members of the community in attendance to speak with the leadership of the Dallas Police Department, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office and the Dallas County Sheriff’’s Office.

“I noticed every negative emotion and energy – division, anger, mistrust, frustration, hate,” and many in attendance felt that justice would not be served, he says.

But out of that meeting, Butler says, came a calling from God: to serve as an activist in Dallas race relations, to unite factions on both sides of a fractious issue and to build bridges among people of all colors. That’s where Project Unity was born.

Through Project Unity, Butler has galvanized the community around the idea that conversations, not confrontations, will create and sustain relationships among diverse groups. And he has brought the topic to a place where many avoid discussing the issues of politics and religion altogether – the dining table – as well as to a place where differences are put aside during the heat of athletic competition – the basketball court.

“What unites us is greater than what divides us,” Butler says.

This year, Butler took on a new post that positions him to build on the social movement he started. He left his pulpit at St. Paul United Methodist Church, which was founded in 1865 by enslaved people in Dallas, to become pastor of St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, long considered a seat for social change in Texas. “This is a historical church, but we also want to make history here,” Butler says.

What unites us is greater than what divides us.

Project Unity has developed various events aimed at helping heal race relationships between law enforcement and Dallas citizens. One of the earliest, “Together We Ball,” is an annual day of family activities for the community culminating in a basketball game between pastors, police officers and community leaders held each August at the P.C. Cobb Stadium in Dallas. The event draws more than 1,500 participants.

“Together We Learn” is a partnership among the Dallas Police Department, the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas, Dallas ISD, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department and others to provide opportunities for teens to interact with law enforcement. Several hundred high school students have lunched with officers and received instructions on how to handle traffic or pedestrian stops.

However, Butler knew he needed broader engagement from the community after five police officers were ambushed and gunned down at a peaceful rally in downtown Dallas in July 2016. The gunman, killed in a standoff with police, was an Army Reserve Afghan War veteran who was angry over police shootings of black citizens and stated that he wanted to kill white people, particularly police officers.

After multiple conversations with faith and community leaders across the city, Butler called for a Year of Unity in 2017. In partnership with white Dallas attorney Rob Crain, then-incoming Dallas Bar Association president, the pair engaged leaders statewide and from organizations, businesses and faith institutions, with former President George W. Bush serving as honorary chair.

Richie Butler: It's hard to demonize 'other' when you have a relationship with them.

Year of Unity rolled out more events with “Together We Heal,” a day of activities at the American Airlines Center that honored the fallen officers. A Year of Unity Choir was created with more than 100 diverse voices, and the group performed at the 2017 State Fair of Texas and at a benefit for Hurricane Harvey victims.

The signature event from Year of Unity, one that is close to Butler’s heart, is “Together We Dine.” The project is a series of safe conversations about race over dinner. At tables of six to eight diners and a facilitator, they answer questions about race while others at the table listen. After everyone answers the question, the table opens for discussion.

Highland Park United Methodist Church hosted a “Together We Dine” in December 2019. The event has been held by design several times at the church, in majority white and affluent University Park, to send a message, Butler says, because it is an area where people of color perceive they are not welcome.

Dozens of members from the church have participated in “Together We Dine,” which has provided “enlightening experiences for our congregation,” says the Rev. Paul Rasmussen ’04, HPUMC senior pastor and a member of SMU’s Board of Trustees. “Sharing a meal and being in conversation with people from different parts of Dallas, who had different experiences growing up around race and discrimination, was powerful. It reminded me that the more we understand what someone else has lived through, the greater the possibility for connection and relationship, even if opinions differ.”

Some of the diners have continued to participate in small, diverse groups around the topic after dining together to learn more “about the realities of racism in our community in a setting that allows for openness and honesty,” Rasmussen says. Others have taken “Together We Dine” back to their places of employment, where there were racial tensions that aren’t discussed openly.

Butler hopes that individuals at “Together We Dine,” who come from across racial, economic and social spectrums, experience an epiphanic moment when hearing stories of encounters with racism, just as he did.

Richie Butler: Activism is in my blood.

Butler was raised by a single mother in a low-income area of East Austin. He attended a Baptist church and excelled in athletics, which led to a scholarship to play football at SMU in 1989, when the football program was being revived after a two-year ban because of sanctions (known as the “death penalty) imposed by the NCAA for recruiting violations. He was recruited out of high school to play defensive back by the late SMU alumnus and pro football great Forrest Gregg ’55, whom Butler still considers a mentor.

“He was good man who modeled hard work, discipline and focus, and didn’t allow us to settle for second-rate,” Butler recalls. “Even though the odds were stacked against us (the team went 2-9 in 1989), win, lose or draw, we were to fight, to give our best effort and not back down.”

Other mentors for the double major in psychology and religious studies included Clarence Glover, who taught the course “Black and White”; history Professor Kenneth Hamilton; law Professor C. Paul Rogers III, who has served as the SMU faculty athletics representative since 1987; and religious studies Associate Professor Richard Cogley. He also interned with then-Congressman Martin Frost (D-Texas) in Washington, D.C. “I found people who saw potential and took an interest in my development,” Butler says. “They encouraged me to push forward, to be all that God wants me to be.”

As an undergraduate, Butler knew he had a calling to preach.

Butler says his SMU experience helped shape who he is today. “I learned how to think critically and reflect on the information I was receiving, rather than just memorize and regurgitate facts. At SMU I was exposed to a world different from my working-class upbringing in East Austin.”

While a member of the football team, Butler reached out to other student-athletes around the Southwest Conference (of which SMU was a member at the time) to launch initiatives to help improve opportunities for them, and he lobbied the SMU Student Senate to create a seat for a student-athlete representative. “Activism is in my blood, and SMU helps foster that by directing students’ energies in a productive way toward improving the community,” he says.

Butler continues that activism today, and gives back to his alma mater by serving on the SMU Board of Trustees and Dedman College Executive Board, as well as on the Communities Foundation of Texas board of trustees, the Dallas Assembly and the Real Estate Executive Council. He has received numerous awards for his efforts on behalf of racial reconciliation, including SMU’s Emerging Leader Award in 2008; the 2018 Silver Anniversary Mustang Award; the Dallas Bar Association 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr. Justice Award; Dallas Business Journal’s 2018 Minority Business Leader honoree; and the 2019 Juanita Craft Humanitarian Awards Visionary recipient, among others.

Richie Butler and Dallas civic leaders and police.

While at SMU, Butler established lifelong relationships and networks among his classmates, including his wife, whom he met as a freshman. Neisha Strambler-Butler ’93, vice president of compensation and benefits at American Airlines, serves on the advisory board of directors for Project Unity. Butler credits her with keeping him balanced.

“God brings people into our lives for a reason. She recognizes my calling and cares deeply about social ills in society and how to make them right. She’s a brilliant woman, and I leverage her knowledge and experience with American Airlines for social good. We are partners in ministry together,” he says.

Former classmate Paige Dawson ’94, founder and president of MPD Ventures in Dallas, provides marketing and communications pro bono for Project Unity. She and Butler met while living across from each other in Shuttles Hall. When she read in the newspaper about Butler’s work with Project Unity, she reached out to reconnect.

“A great community builder and fundraiser, Richie has that rare ability to get people to say yes, so naturally my firm joined on to support the mission and raise awareness,” Dawson says. She also has served as a host for several “Together We Dine” tables. “At every one there has been some poignant statement or example from a minority attendee that has literally left me stunned at what people still experience.”

Butler knew he had a calling to preach as an undergraduate, even preaching on occasion while in school. He earned his Master of Theological Studies from Harvard in 1996. When he moved back to Dallas in 1998, he put together his first real estate development deal in South Dallas called Unity Estates, a planned community of 285 single-family homes sponsored by the 70-member African-American Pastors’ Coalition.

Solutions will have to come from the people.

Today, he chooses to go by “pastor” rather than the traditional “reverend” because the invocation of the shepherd brings him joy and affirmation, he says. “There’s a greater level of responsibility that goes along with being someone’s pastor.

He contends that solutions to issues of racism will have to come from the people, not the politicians. And he takes comfort in the knowledge that he is making a difference for his two children and their generation through his efforts to bring diverse groups together.

Charlene Edwards ’95, another classmate of Butler’s, holds out that hope for transformative relationships, as well. She became involved with Project Unity in 2017 when he was seeking program and event planning support to launch the Year of Unity, because she was compelled by Butler’s vision to bridge the divide between Dallas citizens and law enforcement.

Early on, she observed at “Together We Ball” events the “camaraderie among the different groups as they came together,” she says. “People’s lives, perceptions and actions are changed. They think before they say something that might be offen- sive, learn to become more compassion-ate about others.”

Adds Butler: “It’s hard to demonize the ‘other’ when you have a relationship with them, when you see them as a human being.”

– By Susan White ’05