Many congregations today find themselves questioning their purpose. With Christianity on the decline in the global north, the obvious question of most churches is, “How will we survive?” A deeper question that surfaces is, “What is our mission?” Congregations that ask this deep question faithfully, with scripture study, prayer, conversation and engagement with their community context often receive surprising insights.
First Presbyterian Church of Dallas (FPCD) is no exception. It’s a downtown congregation with a rich history of responding to needs in the community. These responses, from humble beginnings, contributed to the development of Presbyterian Children Homes and Services, Children’s Medical Center, a Developmental Day School, and the Stewpot, a Ministry to the homeless and at-risk community.
The Stewpot, with which First is closely identified, began in the 1970s. Economic downturns combined with the closing of mental health facilities contributed to the rise in numbers of homeless individuals. The Stewpot began as a soup kitchen in the church basement, offering one free meal each weekday to anyone in need. Over the next 40 years it evolved into a more comprehensive agency with both professional and volunteer staff. It now occupies a 2-story building across the street from the church.
FPCD has not considered itself a neighborhood church for decades. City growth took place in the suburbs and most members for the last 40 years drove past many other churches to participate in worship and ministry. But downtown Dallas has seen an explosion of growth over the last 10 years. The Farmers Market two blocks from the church has new vitality and has become a community center. New loft apartments and townhouses are bringing thousands of residents to the church’s neighborhood. For the first time in many members’ memory, FPCD has become a neighborhood church. This new reality has led us to reimagine what it means to love God and neighbor.
In 2011, FPCD purchased commercial property adjoining the Stewpot, now known as Encore Park. We realized the need to get out into the community rather than waiting for the community to come through our doors. The new vision was born to engage the community through an amphitheater venue, a community garden, and other spaces where neighbors can gather. And in 2015–2016 the FPC Session and staff engaged in a process to discern what God might be calling us to next. The goals of the resulting Strategic Plan clearly recognized the desire for stronger connections with our neighborhood.
- Creation of a community garden where neighbors grow produce, and Stewpot clients benefit from horticulture therapy
- Palm Sunday parades through downtown and Farmers Market
- Offering hospitality to the spectators gathered for the Christmas parade that passes by our building: hot chocolate, balloons, children’s activities, restrooms, and a warm place to wait until the parade begins
- Concerts, movie nights, and Blessing of the Animals in Encore Park’s outdoor amphitheater
- Opening up classroom space for Mi Escuelita, a preschool for Hispanic children
- Participation in the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade
- Opening the front doors before and after worship, as a visible witness to the community that we are a living church, and all are welcome
While the explosion of residents and businesses in downtown is exciting, it also brings challenges. As the neighborhood gentrifies, not all our neighbors are thrilled about the proximity of homeless persons who are Stewpot clients. The church and the Stewpot continually try to build bridges to form relationships between these groups.
Also, opening our front doors onto the streets on Sundays during worship invites EVERYONE, including those who may be seeking food, shelter, transportation or a handout. Some may have mental health issues that cause them to be disruptive or intimidating. In collaboration with the Stewpot staff and Dallas Police Department, we offer training to our deacons, elders, ushers, greeters, staff and other point persons on how to appropriately welcome and assist ALL our guests on Sunday mornings.
Opening the church doors can be scary. Do we have the courage to go out into the neighborhood to encounter Christ in all we meet? Do we have the grace to welcome Christ, however he may appear, when he steps into our church? May God grant us wisdom and courage!