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Worthy partners: Two churches get support for preservation, outreach Joan G. LaBarr, Feb 29, 2012
PHOTO BY THE REV. JOAN G. LA BARR
The Rev. Judith Reedy (left) leads weekly chapel services for children at Open Door Preschool, a ministry of Grace UMC in Dallas.
By Joan G. La Barr Special Contributor
DALLAS—Years of diligent work and big dreams have paid off for two North Texas Conference congregations. In January two of Dallas’ historic urban congregations, Oak Lawn and Grace UMCs, received word they would get generous grants from Partners for Sacred Places, a national organization that matches community-oriented historic congregations with donors who want to support their work.
Partners for Sacred Places, which has one of its three regional offices in nearby Fort Worth, announced Oak Lawn would receive $100,000 and Grace $25,000 from donors who chose to remain anonymous.
Other regional offices are in Chicago, Ill., and Philadelphia, Pa. Attesting to the organization’s national scope, another recent major grant is directed toward repurposing space vacated by three Roman Catholic congregations in Johnstown, Pa., following the merger of five former parishes into one.
The Rev. Judith Reedy, Grace UMC pastor, said the grant will help complete the fourth and final phase of the church’s 20-year capital campaign. Oak Lawn UMC is assessing needs as leaders determine how the grant will be used. One likely possibility is replacing 54,000 square feet of flat roof that covers all of the sprawling building with the exception of the sanctuary, said the Rev. Frank Drenner, pastor.
The two grants are the most recent and by far the largest of a total of $145,000 awarded to North Texas churches since 12 congregations completed the required and rigorous New Dollars/New Partners for Your Sacred Place Training in 2008, said Texas Region director and program manager Suzanne Yowell.
Ms. Yowell said both churches were surprised to receive word of the grants, which will provide a significant boost for two congregations renowned for their vital community outreach as well as for their beautiful, but aging, structures.
Change upon change
Grace UMC’s striking French Gothic Revival style building, with its soaring steeple, has been a landmark since it was built in 1903. At the turn of the 20th century the community was one of the most affluent in the city. Parishioners lived nearby in large, stately homes. As decades passed the neighborhood saw dramatic change. By century’s close, waves of immigrants of different ethnicities moved in and then out as their fortunes improved.
Being on the city, state and national historic building registries did not stem Grace’s precipitous membership decline. The faithful dwindled to some 30 worshippers. Then, something remarkable happened. A pastor challenged the remnant to turn their attention to the neighborhood and embrace mission. Some 30 years later Grace is a vibrant, vital and diverse congregation of almost 300 members and worship attendance is on the rise.
The building bustles with activity seven days a week. The Open Door Preschool offers academic preparation including instruction in English to children, many of whom are immigrants. This year’s lively group includes 3- and 4-year-olds from homes where Spanish, Korean, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Kirundi and Swahili are the primary languages.
Walk down a level and you’ll see dozens of adults and children lined up to see medical professionals volunteering at the Agape Clinic. Alley’s House is an education and empowerment program to help teen mothers achieve independence, and it’s housed next door to Grace UMC in an old home that was once the pastor’s residence. Allison Whitehead, executive director, was excited to find ample space in the building, allowing more room for education and programming for the young women and their children.
Grace UMC also hosts a pro bono legal clinic staffed by volunteers from Legal Aid of Northwest Texas; and Perkins School of Theology uses a church-owned property for a program in which students live a monastic lifestyle while reaching out to the community.
On Sundays a diverse array of worshippers comes from across the city. The associate pastor, native Kenyan the Rev. Mary Miriti, leads an African outreach. One volunteer-led class is held in Kirundi, the language of the east African nation of Burundi.
To date Grace UMC has raised $1.7 million for three phases of repairs that included infrastructure upgrades, replacing wiring, plumbing and air conditioning, and restoration of woodwork and stained glass windows.
The fourth phase, which will benefit from the grant, targets needs including updating the kitchen and fire sprinkler system, expanding the Agape Clinic space (including adding a new entrance for clients), and restoring the historic steeple, which once housed Sunday school classes and is now in serious need of repairs. Ms. Reedy is especially excited about the kitchen renovations, which will enable food service for the preschool and allow for expanding its hours of service. Plans call for increasing its enrollment.
Three miles west, Oak Lawn UMC is located in one of Dallas’ trendiest areas, one which has also experienced dramatic population shifts. In the 1960s the area was a haven for the countercultural movement. Numerous members of the gay and lesbian community joined hippies already living there as many church families moved to the suburbs.
Today, upscale high rise apartments, townhomes and condos draw urban professionals. Stately old Oak Lawn UMC, built in 1916 with its brick Gothic style sanctuary and art glass windows, stands out among the hip restaurants and bars. Oak Lawn, which was once one of the city’s larger congregations, also suffered a decline in membership and its financial base as the neighborhood changed.
Oak Lawn endured some rocky times, but throughout it all, the congregation which remained considered the church to be an anchor in the neighborhood and center for community activity. At the end of 2010 Oak Lawn reported 260 members with a worship attendance of 180. Mr. Drenner, who was appointed senior pastor in June of 2011, reports significant gains in attendance, which most Sundays averages well over 200.
In addition to the crumbling flat roof, Mr. Drenner said the church building has numerous other needs, including a new elevator and stairwell. He looks across the back parking lot that borders Welborn Street and envisions a new building, perhaps with underground parking.
Before Mr. Drenner’s arrival the church had completed renovations including new offices, church parlor and an open, welcoming hospitality center. “The hospitality center has breathed new life into the space. It’s a sort of magnet,” Mr. Drenner said. He added that the next project, renovation of the existing fellowship hall, including the addition of audio-visual capabilities, will offer the potential for starting a new worship service.
The affluence of the Oak Lawn area does not mean that there are not persons in need nearby. Through its Community Outreach Center, directed by local pastor the Rev. Gregg Alan Smith, the church offers information and referrals, financial assistance, food, clothing and financial literacy classes on a weekly basis. One of its best-known missions is “Gayle’s Kitchen Angels,” named for former associate pastor, the Rev. Gayle Landis, who started a Sunday night service of home-cooked meals for the homeless. The meals, which are prepared and served by volunteers, continue in the Outreach Center every Sunday at 5 p.m.
One innovative new program about to launch is a horticultural center in green space on the south end of the property. The Dallas City Council has given approval to what will be a teaching center able to host school groups and other education efforts geared toward sustainability.
All week long
All of this is right in line with Partners for Sacred Places’ priorities. “It is very important for churches to use space creatively, to seek new outreach,” said national president Bob Jaeger. He noted that in its 23-year history the organization has raised more than $3 million from donors who have placed trust in the process. “Donors really trust us to train leaders in the churches and spend their money well, and we are very honored by the trust,” he said.
Though many participating churches are on various historic registers, this is not a requirement. What is important is that a building has cultural importance in the neighborhood and that it is architecturally important and significant in its own setting.
The required training for churches—along with site visits from Sacred Places staff and volunteers— ensures that the projects are sound and that the structures are worth saving, Mr. Jaeger explained. Such care also helps ensure successful outcomes, he added.
At the end of a year of training, congregations have learned strategies for building support from not only members, but also the community at large. The four-person teams from each church are trained to write a case statement for funding support, assess building needs, organize a capital campaign and, finally, develop a plan to pull the elements together and make it work in their setting, Ms. Yowell explained.
Ms. Yowell also reinforced Mr. Jaeger’s point about seeking new outreach, which is as important in the grant process as is preservation of a historic building.
“Most know what takes place in a sacred meeting place one or two days a week. It is what takes place the remainder of the week that is nothing short of astonishing, and the impact goes far beyond Sunday.
“Congregations open up their buildings to serve children and seniors, neighborhoods and arts groups, the hungry, the grief-stricken, and anyone else in need. They open their doors for community-wide celebrations, and can just as quickly become centralized command centers and safe havens when disaster or tragedy strikes. All of this becomes dangerous when an aging building reaches a dangerous state of decline due to years of deferred maintenance,” she said.
More information about Partners for Sacred Places is available at www.sacredplaces.org, or by phone at (215) 567-3234.
The Rev. La Barr is the former director of communications for the North Texas Conference.