The “Justice Revival” in Dallas last November brought together hundreds of Dallas area churches—many of which had never before collaborated—in a three-day event focused on putting faith into action for justice. The goal of the event, which culminated with a “day of action” when more than 2,000 volunteers fanned out across Dallas to work on a variety of projects, was to build partnerships among churches and others to work on long-term change in education, housing, and other issues important to poor people in the Greater Dallas area. “Our message has always been that this is the beginning,” Aaron Graham, national field organizer and Justice Revival director for Sojourners, said of the November gathering. “The work starts now.” We asked Dallas-based journalist Catherine Cuellar to take a look at what has happened in the city since the November Justice Revival.
Sharon Tillis had every comfort of a “good Christian wife”: a home, a car, a job, and children. In her 40s she also faced some challenges other Christians hadn’t—bipolar disorder, domestic violence, and shame about surviving incest. Deciding whether to stay in an unhealthy marriage or get divorced and risk homelessness, she chose the latter.
“God was with me every step of the way,” Tillis says now of her journey. After two years of counseling, time spent sleeping in her car and on the couches of friends and family members, and 18 months in and out of shelters, Tillis finally has a home to call her own again. CityWalk@Akard, a mixed-use high rise developed over the past five years by the nonprofit Central Dallas Ministries (whose chair, Larry James, served on Justice Revival’s leadership team) includes 200 affordable apartments. Of these, 50 have been designated as permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless residents like Tillis. CityWalk’s expected completion in spring 2010 is in the context of a Greater Dallas Justice Revival goal of developing a total of 700 new units.
“I could go to church and stay at members’ houses a couple of months or so. The church can provide me, I guess, with gas money or whatever I need, food. But to provide me housing—that’s a miracle.” Tillis says. “I feel independent, self-sufficient. I feel like I can do anything now. I have peace of mind. I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to lay my head. It gave me all of that. It gave me hope.”
Tillis was among CityWalk’s first 10 tenants, welcomed with an official ribbon-cutting and grand opening festivities in March 2010. Four months prior, the Greater Dallas Justice Revival set goals of establishing not only 700 safe and fit homes for the poor, but also 25 church-school partnerships. “That’s an anemic goal,” says James of Central Dallas Ministries, who—given the thousands of homeless and destitute people in Dallas—can’t see change soon enough. “Making the direct connection between these two social concerns and the community’s faith is what distinguishes the Justice Revival’s contribution to the ongoing conversation and quest to see real reform occur in our city,” James says.
“Dallas typically responds to a Christian message,” James says. “If my message and my life isn’t good news to the poor, I need to rethink my life.”
Organizers are also rethinking future Justice Revivals. The event sponsored by Sojourners Nov. 10-12, 2009, at Dallas’ Market Hall fostered cooperation among historically disparate Christians—convened by a wide array of leaders including Latino evangelical Mark Gonzalez and retired United Methodist civil rights activist Dr. Zan Holmes, and led by nondenominational, Catholic, and Protestant pastors. “I’ve never been part of anything as diverse as that leadership team,” says Dr. Joe Clifford of First Presbyterian Dallas. “The leadership team that planned the event and what happened after the event was the most exciting part for me. Those groups don’t get together.”
Says convener Dr. Sheron C. Patterson of Highland Hills United Methodist Church, “The leaders that came together for the Justice Revival were really led by the Holy Spirit to make a change. We wanted the city to be transformed in Jesus’ name. We laid aside our differences for unity. Partnerships have been made. We are getting to know each other, and like each other. Revival takes a while. The struggle goes on.”
The Dallas event drew far smaller numbers in its three nights of keynote speaker and altar call-focused events than participating leaders had hoped to see. “If we’d met in a church, it would’ve felt like a success,” Clifford says, “but Market Hall was a cavern. It didn’t have any soul, so it didn’t work. When you set up 7,000 chairs and 900 people show up, it’s depressing.”
“It’s really hard to do three straight weeknights. It’s a lot to ask,” says Aaron Graham, Sojourners’ national field organizer and Justice Revival director. Volunteer turnout for a day of community service projects city-wide at the end of the Justice Revival eclipsed attendance at the mid-week evening programs. “We had more than 2,000 people at the Day of Action,” Graham says. “That’s a strong sign that people are really ready to put their faith into practice in the community.”
With Graham back in Washington, D.C., after 16 trips to Texas in 2009, Dallas’ local grassroots Justice Revival effort is being led by Randy Skinner. When Skinner moved to “Big D” about a decade ago, the city was a national leader in its number of churches—and its crime rate. Like the city he and his family now call home, Skinner is rich with paradoxes, as a graduate both from seminary and police academy, making him ideal to lead efforts addressing the community’s issues. Skinner’s research on Dallas’ history laid a foundation for conversations he facilitated among more than 100 nonprofits and churches across Dallas—helping to pave the way for the Justice Revival.
“People don’t want to move into an area where you don’t have good schools, safe schools,” Skinner says. As a result of Dallas’ Justice Revival, Skinner says, “We’re starting to see this awareness now of the school system. ... Justice Revival kind of became this umbrella group where all the churches came together and said we want to work with youth.”
That in turn led Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert to both participate in the Justice Revival and appoint Skinner to chair the city’s ethics committee. “The faith community is critical in addressing major social issues in our community,” Leppert says. “They are closest to the problems in neighborhoods across our community and have the resources and spirit to serve and have a significant role in addressing them.”
One successful example of church-driven servant leadership is the Jubilee Park and Community Center, founded by members of the affluent Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, another partner in the Dallas Justice Revival. The Jubilee Center was founded in an impoverished neighborhood in celebration of Saint Michael’s 50th anniversary in 1997; the work of acquiring land around the center and developing facilities for a much-needed park culminated in official ceremonies in 2000.
In 2001 Oran M. Roberts Elementary, the only school within the Jubilee Park neighborhood, was one of the lowest-performing public schools in Dallas. With hundreds of Saint Michael members and students from private parochial schools volunteering as tutors, Roberts now boasts distinguished academics. The Jubilee Center also offers continuing education including English as a second language, GED, computer classes, English, and Spanish. This spring 100 women started participating in exercise classes throughout the week and received government funding for a nutrition program.
“Coming in, I expected quite a bit,” says Jemonde Taylor, who was recently ordained as a priest at Saint Michael. “And I have to say, even with that high expectation, what I’ve seen is exceeding it.”
Taylor holds up Saint Michael’s model partnership as one that can be replicated. “I think these are good goals because they’re tangible and they’re things people can do,” Taylor says. “They’re not abstract.”
According to Skinner, 80 percent of Dallas school students face food insecurity. “Because of the system, we don’t have a safety net in place for kids like that,” Skinner says. “Then we find out the [low] nutritional value [of food] in the school, they don’t even allow in fast-food restaurants.” In West Dallas, more than 1,000 students participate in church-run feeding programs. Through the Texas Hunger Initiative, according to Skinner, there’s a large amount of money available to feed kids that’s not being used. “If we could get churches beside each school to get an industrial kitchen or get it up to code and start preparing hot meals, we could feed each school. The money’s there, it’s just not being utilized.”
Under the Justice Revival banner, Central Dallas Ministries and Saint Michael were among 25 churches to launch “Feed 3” in March. The initiative nurtures young bodies by addressing hunger, young minds through the “Heart of a Champion” and “Elevators” character development programs, and souls through church adopt-a-school programs. Ultimately, every church in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas—comprised of 74 urban and rural congregations, including 22 within Dallas city limits—will partner with a public school. Dabney Dwyer is the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas’ missioner for outreach and coordinator of the Episcopalian “One Church, One School” campaign, launched in partnership with the Greater Dallas Justice Revival.
“For me [Justice Revival] was sort of a catalyst that helped us decide, Yes, this is something we want to promote to churches in the diocese,” Dwyer says. “This is an easy way churches can get involved in their community directly because every church has a school in their neighborhood in need—whether Title I or Head Start or nonprofit, there are kids that need mentoring, reading, whatever.” According to information about One Church, One School at www.DallasDiocese.org, Texas schools lose a student every four minutes. “To me it’s an easy fit because the structure is in place,” Dwyer says. “All you have to do is walk alongside them and help educate kids. It’s not about evangelizing or trying to increase church membership, just helping children and helping teachers by supporting what they do.”
Dwyer says several large Episcopal churches in the Diocese of Dallas are considering new partnerships, and each congregation has signed up dozens to hundreds of its members as student mentors. United Methodists were scheduled to follow suit in April. By the fall semester of the 2010-11 school year, Skinner expects to see 100 church-school partnerships created or expanded by Justice Revival: “God wants us to have our hearts broken and touched over the condition of our inner-city schools.”
“Now the work begins,” says Central Dallas Ministries’ Larry James. “The city will be changed over 10,000 cups of coffee, hundreds of Sunday school classes, and a new kind of sermon that is being heard in many of the Justice Revival churches today.”
Catherine Cuellar, a Dallas native, is a multimedia journalist and community activist. For more information on progress, visit www.DallasJusticeRevival.com.