Dallas center experiences a resurrection

“Comeback” would be one term for what's happened with Dallas Bethlehem Center. But there's an Easter way of describing things too.

“I do really feel Dallas Bethlehem Center has been resurrected,” said George Battle III, a staff member of the center.

A national mission institution of United Methodist Women, the center closed for financial reasons in late 2011 after decades of service, mainly to low-income African-American children and families.

Following the closure, a Dallas Morning News story noted the heartbreak of neighbors who had depended on the ministry, particularly for child care.

But stirrings of new life came soon. Last year, after a thorough reorganization, Dallas Bethlehem Center re-opened in the same South Dallas location.

Gwen Bell lives just down the street, and is among the neighbors involved in the re-launch. She’s literally getting her hands dirty, helping to establish the center’s community garden. 

“A lot of people are coming around,” she said.

Women in action

Around the beginning of the 20th century, Methodist women embraced the settlement house movement, an effort begun in England and aimed at serving immigrants and others in need, with an emphasis on living in community with them, not just providing charity.

Methodist women created Wesley Centers and Bethlehem Centers, the latter focused on assisting African-Americans. The first Bethlehem Center was established in 1912, in Augusta, Ga.

Among the handful of Bethlehem Centers that continue is one in Fort Worth, Texas; that center recently broke ground for a new building.

Dallas Bethlehem Center got its start in 1946, under the leadership of Alice McLarty, a Methodist deaconess. “Negro Center Site Sought” read a Dallas Morning News headline.

Battle, a Perkins School of Theology graduate seeking ordination as a United Methodist elder, is convinced from his study of McLarty that she had an interracial vision but had to settle, given the segregationist reality of that time and place, with establishing a kindergarten for black children.

Following the movement of much of the city’s African-American population, the Dallas Bethlehem Center moved to its current South Dallas location in the 1950s. There, it provided decades of service, and gradually expanded to its current, 16,000 square-foot facility, complete with gymnasium.

Closing up and bouncing back

But the recession of 2008 put a squeeze on Dallas Bethlehem Center’s donors. By December, 2011, with debt mounting and no turnaround in sight, the center’s board voted to close the doors.

More trouble loomed.

“In the middle of January (2012), thieves took all the air-conditioning out of the back,” said Fran Lobpries, current director. “When they ripped those compressors for the copper, they pulled all of our electricity. It was difficult to see what was here.”

But that too was a kind of resurrection story, Lobpries said. When police officers came to investigate the crime, they discovered that the gym still did have electricity.

And they asked if the Dallas Police Athletic League could use it for youth sports programs.

“It was really only about a month that nothing was going on here,” Lobpries said. “They began to do their PAL program in the gym while we reorganized and restructured and refunded.”

Lobpries, a professional fundraiser as well as lay leader at Preston Hollow United Methodist Church in Dallas, had been recruited by United Methodist Women to try to get the center back up and running.

She led the process of reorganizing the board and coming up with a new strategic plan. Ultimately, she agreed to be executive director.

Dallas Bethlehem Center officially reemerged last fall with a small staff and an annual budget of $300,000, down from about $500,000 in 2010. Rather than try to run most programs itself, the center has formed partnerships with Dallas-based ChildCareGroup for early childhood education, Crossroads Community Services , a ministry of First United Methodist Church of Dallas, for food distribution, and the Dallas Police Athletic League for youth athletics.

Local United Methodist churches have provided financial support and services, as have corporations. A surprise expense of $100,000 for a sprinkler system (required by the city for the building to reopen) was taken care of after Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow made an appeal, noting the center’s long service to the community.

Responsible grace’

Going forward, the center’s emphasis is on early childhood education, nutrition (through food distribution and the community garden) and empowering people in the neighborhood.

Toward that end, Lobpries and Battle came up with an acronym STAR, for Spiritually Transforming Acts of Renewal. The center’s Saturday STAR programs, such as a community breakfast followed by tutoring, and tending of the community garden, are led by people in the neighborhood.

United Methodist volunteers from more prosperous parts of the city find themselves working under the direction of these community leaders.

That, Lobpries said, is consistent with the denomination’s commitment to “ministry with” the poor, rather than to the poor.  

To Battle, the sight of people from different backgrounds collaborating in service at Dallas Bethlehem Center constitutes “responsible grace” and to some degree fulfills McLarty’s vision of interracial cooperation.

Stepping up

Dallas Bethlehem Center is in an area where the median household income is just over $23,000. Education, employment and home ownership levels are low, while the crime rate is high.

But if “location, location, location” is a truism in real estate, then maybe it’s true in ministry as well.

Under Bishop Michael McKee, the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference has undertaken what it’s calling The Zip Code Connection, a project aimed at eliminating poverty in one urban and one rural zip code. 

The urban zip code is 75215, and Dallas Bethlehem Center is in the heart of the troubled community. The center’s profile as a is likely to rise as The Zip Code Project intensifies.

Already, Battle sees local United Methodist churches stepping up.

“Dallas Bethlehem Center has become this act of renewal for the North Texas Conference in general,” he said. “We have mission work that still needs to be done, here in our own backyard.”

*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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