my friends in the 'Hood
(This is a story I wrote for the Watermark News, for Watermark Community Church. I hope you will read and be encouraged by the stories of the people of South Dallas, our 'Hood.)
As a writer, I meet a lot of people and hear their stories of brokenness, strength and redemption. I’ve talked to orphans in Romania, single mothers in Juarez, Mexico, and homeless men and women in San Diego. Hearing their stories has, at times, left me reeling, struggling to even comprehend a life so different from my own. But these stories are lived out in faraway places. I don’t often get the chance to see the faces of my interviewees after our first meeting.
In the past weeks and months, I have heard stories every bit as challenging, heartbreaking and hopeful – just 12.5 miles from the doors of Watermark. Just beyond the boundaries of North Dallas, widely known for its affluence, are neighborhoods full of people fighting to survive. They aren’t far away. They are here. And I can see their faces and hear their fears, worries and victories.
South Dallas is what many might lovingly, or at times fearfully, call “The ‘Hood.” But for a group of men and women all over Dallas, it’s their ‘Hood.
At the hub of the urban ministry is Cornerstone Baptist Church, pastored by Chris Simmons for 22 years on I-45 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. On top of regular church services, Cornerstone is serving their community in a big way, offering a kitchen, shower and a clothing closet to meet physical needs, plus Bible studies, kids programs, mentoring programs and an academy for at-risk teens.
While Cornerstone is home base for many of the ministries offered in South Dallas, there are men and women from churches all over Dallas who seem to have dropped their church names and denominations at the door and are simply serving God’s people as the Church. Everyone is there for the same reason.
My first experience pretty well sums up my reception in the ‘Hood. I was meeting a group of ladies at the Mercedes Café on MLK and Ervay before they left for a weekend retreat. I flagged down Jennifer, a Watermark member who has made it her personal mission to love the people of South Dallas. Jennifer immediately said she had someone she wanted me to meet. When Diane walked over, Jennifer introduced me as her friend, but she was very quickly corrected.
“No, she’s our friend,” Diane said. And she hugged me like we were sisters.
Jennifer was shuffled off to work out car seating arrangements for the ladies going on the retreat. Every few minutes, she shouted the names of four or five women over the boisterous, chatty room. As she said their names and found their faces in the crowd, she smiled at each one, and then let out a loud, “C’mon!” with the twang of a southern mama.
Diane and I snuck out the door to talk. She told me her story, which, a few years ago, nearly ended, when she says she was beaten with a brick and left for dead in the streets – the streets just 12.5 miles from Watermark’s doors. She survived, and later met Jennifer and Billy, another Watermark member, on the steps outside the kitchen, where meals are served almost daily to the community. Diane was invited to the Thursday morning women’s Bible study, where she says her life began to change.
Diane says she is grateful for the people who have invested in her life. She remembers well that, even when she was struggling and landed herself in jail, the women leading the Bible study came to visit her.
“I’m humble,” she said. “They’re out here to help people to get to know God. And they’re getting through.”
Jennifer and her husband, Scott, serve together in South Dallas. They were dating when they started, and when they recently got married, their friends from the ‘Hood were all invited. Many had never been to a wedding.
Jennifer and Scott have served alongside people from Watermark and churches all over Dallas. They call Billy and his wife, Marty, their “fearless leaders.” They all felt the call to serve in South Dallas in different ways, but the purpose has been the same since the beginning: To meet people where they are, pick a person, and love them well.
“We don’t want to be a meal ticket, and they don’t want to be a project,” Jennifer says. “So we’ve agreed to just all be friends. It has to be a mutually beneficial, mutually respectful relationship.”
Jennifer says that spending time in the ‘Hood has opened her eyes to the realities of life in our city, right under our nose.
“It’s been hard because their life issues are not ours,” she says. “No one in our Bible studies or community groups at Watermark has ever come in crying and needing a shelter to escape domestic abuse. No one has come in, changed clothes and had a crack pipe fall out.”
While she sees the differences, Jennifer says that she has learned a lot about where these people are coming from. She is compassionate; seeing that the struggles they deal with are often the results of generational poverty.
“We’ve had so many opportunities in our lives, and families who loved us and so many educational opportunities,” she said. “It’s not a difference in the person, but in their opportunities and choices.”
Scott has been reminded again and again that what is needed most in South Dallas, right after the Gospel, is friendship. Even beyond relief efforts, he says that relationship is a more lasting and life-changing experience for people there; many who have experienced abandonment more than any of us would care to imagine.
“We’ve learned down there that you can’t just throw money at the problem. It’s relational,” he says. “It’s about finding that one person to build into. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the need down there and in the world in general, but I think change only happens down there life-on-life.”
And he is seeing that change in his friends.
Billy agrees and says that while spending time in South Dallas has been taxing at times, it has also been a life-changing process for him and his family as well.
Billy, his wife Marty, and their son are all investing in the people of South Dallas. And they believe in the hope of Christ for them, even when things are hard.
“You’re dealing with generational issues,” he said. “It’s tough and messy. But that one-on-one relationship is where you’re going to have a lasting impact.”
Ultimately, Billy is trying to stay focused on the most important needs of the people he wants to help.
“When you first look at South Dallas, you think of economic poverty,” he said. “That’s obvious. But you really have to bear down and see the poverty of the spirit, the poverty of the soul. I don’t care if it’s South Dallas or West Dallas or Highland Park or Fair Park, we all have poverty of the spirit and that’s where we really want to get to with our friends down there. We want to show them the love of Christ and give them hope. There is so much hopelessness as you look in their eyes. You just want to bring them hope that’s eternal.”
Diane says that, above all, these people are her friends.
“I met Billy at my weakest point,” she said. “I know I can count on him for anything. I’m just blessed to have friends. They don’t look at me for my flaws.”
I asked what people in the neighborhood think about people like Billy, Scott and Jennifer. They’re white. They don’t blend in.
Diane laughs, as if it that were a silly question. Maybe it was.
“Everybody loves them,” she says matter-of-factly. “They definitely stick out, but it doesn’t matter. We’re all friends.”
Just then, Jennifer bounds out of the restaurant letting me know there’s someone else I have to meet. Her friend – no, my friend – Bonita. As she walks toward me, I can already tell that she is a leader and a woman with a deep faith. And her smile puts me at ease.
I ask her to tell me her story, and I learn that Bonita is someone that her friends rely on and trust completely. Her life has been hard and sprinkled with times of addiction and poverty. But she is strong. She says the emotional and spiritual support she has been given has allowed her the strength to be an encouragement and help to other women.
Bonita has also been going to the women’s Bible study from the start. She says, like Diane, that the people who come into her neighborhood are welcome there.
“Everybody is everybody,” she said. “We don’t treat them differently and they don’t treat us differently. They’re family when they come down here.”
Scott says he feels more and more like family with every new friend and every new experience. He says the real story is not about what he and the others serving in South Dallas are doing.
“This is as much a story about God changing us as it is about South Dallas,” Scott says.
Jennifer agrees and says, “It’s not about us changing them. It’s not like we rode in on our white horse and brought revival. No. The Lord is changing us as we love them.”
Scott says that, at the core, people are not really different.
“I look at my friends down there, and we both battle fear and anxiety and struggle to be the men God calls us to be. I just had a few more advantages. Deep in our souls, it’s the same stuff,” he said.
Since the beginning of my research for this story, I’ve come to this neighborhood three times. My heart is stirred for the people that Christ came to save, and I can’t wait to go back.
Over and over in the Bible, Christ shared his heart for the poor and hurting. As I walk the streets of Dallas, His presence is there. He is not far from these people. And He is faithful to meet us in our flawed but faithful attempts to reach and care for them.