Monday, September 25, 2023 Sep 25, 2023
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While other mainstream churches decline, one of Dallas’s oldest congregations thrives by blending racial and cultural groups. Its motto: "Out of many, God makes us one."
By Richard West |

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”

Revelation 21:1

AS THIS SUNDAY MORNING GROWS, the sun climbs in a cloudless sky blue as the Virgin’s cloak, illuminating the figures in the large stained-glass windows at Grace United Methodist Church. An overflowing radiance, actual and dazzling, pours over the sanctuary and the worshipers now filling the pews, as worshipers have done since Grace Church opened its doors in 1903 at the corner of Junius and Haskell. A few blocks away, Henri Etta Eidt pauses in the living room of her prairie-style home on Swiss Avenue where she was born in the back bedroom seventy-six years ago. Then she leaves for Grace Church where she has been a member since her infant baptism, when all the land that is now Munger Place and Junius Heights and Lakewood was dairy farms. She has known no other creed; her faith is to her like everyday bread, something she often takes ft granted, and yet that is essential to her, without which she could not imagine her existence.

Sitting in the Sabbatarian calm and listening to Elizabeth Walsh play the prelude, “Tallis’ Canon,” Henri Etta Eidt glances around her and marvels at her loved, familiar things: the baptismal font given in 1876 by the Ladies Aid Society of First Methodist Church to one of the two churches that united to form Grace; the fourteen smaller stained-glass windows; her lifelong friends… Fleta Williams, forty-four years a member.. .Lennis Welch, forty-eight years a member… Helen Knight, fifty-two years a member. “Durable saints,” the Rev. Bill Bryan calls them, those who have stayed with the church through thick and thin, the reason above all others that Grace Church has survived.

But the changes! Also around her sit Cambodians, West Africans, Hispanics, young folk with new babies, American blacks, a few who live on the street, unmarried mothers, divorcées, and singles, and if you lifted a sleeve or two, probably some pocked forearms and scarred wrists, all pulled to Grace like iron filings to a magnet. Here inside one of the oldest suburban churches in Dallas, the oldest continuous congregation in East Dallas, are people from everywhere, a living mosaic, the city of the future. At first the worshipers seem to have nothing in common beyond being carbon-based life forms, but they are 120 variations of the same song: to come together on the Sabbath to wash away the reek of the week, to have it out, to honor their common God. How true the Grace Church motto hanging under the “Agony at Gethsemane” stained-glass window fecing Haskell: “Out Of Many, God Makes Us One.”

Grace Church has changed enormously since the late Twenties when the all-white, silk stocking congregation of Grace Methodist Episcopal Church South (as it was known then) peaked at 1,924 and many of the city’s leading business and cultural leaders called Grace their spiritual home. The gradual decline in Grace Church’s fortunes paralleled that of Protestantism in general.

Nationally, membership of the Methodist church has declined from a peak of 11 million in 1967 to 9.2 million in 1985 and continues to lose a thousand members a week; that’s the equivalent of closing three average-size United Methodist churches fifty-two times a year. Six years ago Grace Church almost became one of those closed sanctuaries. Today, however, there is new life in the old church body.

On a shelf near his desk, the Rev. Bill Bryan keeps a dusty, mortar-crusted brick that helps explain the turnaround at Grace Church. He picked it up from the rubble of what once was Trinity United Methodist Church on McKinney Street near the Crescent after it was bulldozed in 1983. It reminds him each day that the life of a church can be arrested in mid-stride if it fails to react strongly to demographic and economic changes in its own backyard. Like Methodism in general, Trinity remained a predominately white, middle-class private club long after a new mix of people moved in. A church that doesn’t know its neighbors isn’t worth a carton of crushed eggs.

When Henri Etta Eidt was rolling bandages with the Ladies Missionary Society at Grace Church during the last years of World War I, the city was moving eastward toward her house on land owned by men like Captain W.H. Gaston and Colonel C,C. Slaughter. The area surrounding Grace was called Mill Creek, and it was the first East Dallas neighborhood to experience development: Victorian homes followed by two-story prairie houses, brick mansions, and finally cottages and bungalows. Today it is still the most diverse older neighborhood in Dallas in terms of architecture and age of homes.

Henri Etta Eidt was at Grace when it was remodeled in 1925 and when “South” was dropped from the name in 1939. On summer evenings through the years she sat on her handsome wraparound porch and saw the changes in Mill Creek. Silk stockings left and worn overalls moved in. Pickup trucks replaced Packards. In the Sixties it wasn’t clothes or cars that changed but colors and countries: blacks, then browns, then Vietnamese boat people, Cambodians, Laotians, West Africans, and, most recently, Afghans and East Europeans.

The changes were disturbing to many longtime residents. Place, like a mild, habitual pain, reminds one that one is; its familiar details and faces-even the parked cars that you recognize as having been there in that spot for months-assure us of a life of repetition, of things that will endure and survive us. Mill Creek, once grand with beveled-glass transoms and Victorian turrets, became more derelict-Gothic and began to look as if it had been put together by a shady and squabbling trio of speculative builders, or worse. The streets were crowded with evident isolates: the homeless old men collecting cans, prostitutes, and the brain-bewildered who wandered past gas stations, auto lot paradises, beer joints, shopping centers, the whole gaudy, ghastly, gasoline-powered consumerish smear, bubbling like hot tar in the heart of high summer, gray and dismal in the winter.

By the Seventies, Grace Church had become a quiet place, almost mute with resignation. The nursery had closed, as had Vacation Bible School. The durable saints never missed a Sunday, but too many others only came twice a year, once if it rained on Easter. In 1981, a new minister arrived, the Rev. L.E. Philbrook Sr. The Grace faithful hoped a new infusion of spiritual energy would change things.

It did. Philbrook was a man in his late fifties who had been part of the Ecumenical Institute, a monastic, inner-city mission group in Chicago that ministered to the poor, minorities, and the underprivileged. His sole mission had been to recruit and save those who, in effect, had fallen out of the world and dropped through the wide and raggy mesh of the collective social and spiritual safety net. For Philbrook the church was not primarily an institution. It was above all a “people of God.” Its identity arose in an “I-and-Thou” interaction with the world outside.

L.E. Philbrook was the pendulum swinging too far the other way. He didn’t attack the ancien régime of Grace Church; worse, he ignored them as he went about aggressively seeking new members from the lean, hard-glutted streets. For Philbrook, the living present had obliterated the past in the manner of a windshield wiper. The long, honorable history and traditions of Grace mattered little compared to working the streets.

“His task was to get rid of the establishment in the church,” says Carl McCleskey, who has been a leading lay church officer since the Sixties. “He brought in blacks and other minorities too fast and without working with us who had been here for a long time.” By the end of 1982, monthly collections had dropped from $8,000 to $2,500; almost all the church officers had resigned; church attendance had dropped from the usual 120 to 40 or 50 people. By December, Grace barely had enough money to pay the bills. Worst of all, some members refused to let Philbrook conduct the funerals of loved ones. When he announced in mid-December that he would be out a few weeks because of a gall bladder operation, Grace Church paid his remaining salary and told him not to return. They would survive using visiting ministers until the district superintendent assigned a new pastor. Five years later the memory of L.E. Philbrook still is like a splinter under the nails of many Grace members.

“Ask, and you will receive; seek and youwill find; knock, and the door will beopened.” Matthew 7:7

FROM HIS EARLIEST DAYS AT KESSLER Park United Methodist Church in Oak Cliff, Bill Bryan knew that he wanted to serve God and not barbecue and Bud-weiser, as his grandfather Red Bryan and his father Sonny Bryan had done since a Bryan barbecue restaurant first opened in Dallas seventy-eight years ago. After graduating with a degree in history (“What else is William Jennings Bryan III going to study?” Bill says) from Rice University and a divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology (where he had several classes with a bright man named Walker Railey), Bryan was appointed to the First United Methodist Church in Rockwall as an associate pastor. There he fell in love with the idea of the “storefront,” or the small local church. For two years he saw how such a church could make a vital difference in people’s lives and in the community.

Bryan believed that too often, large churches promoted apathy, making people feel herded. Religion was something that flowed through mealtime graces, holiday usages, wedding and funeral services, and aphorisms; even for devout churchgoers, attending a large church was a ritual more than anything else, part of a larger whole. At a small church like Rockwall’s First United Methodist, a minister and his congregation were down in the arena’s dust and blood together. And Bill Bryan was close to his members; his home was fifteen steps from the church. Then he was transferred to the antithesis of his Rockwall church: Arapaho United Methodist Church at Coit Road and Arapaho in North Dallas.

“It’s a fine church where I stayed five years,” says Bryan one afternoon in his office. “While I was there we built a new sanctuary and I helped recruit the first black, a Xerox executive from Washington, D.C., whose middle name was Wesley. That’s a good omen for Methodists. But you needed personalized license plates to find your BMW.” Bryan concedes that Arapaho accurately reflected its neighborhood of well-to-do, middle-class whites. “But if the gospel of Luke is correct, that the kingdom of Christ begins with the poor, then I wasn’t near the kingdom. Poor people didn’t exist in my church.”

Bill and Corinne Bryan also grew increasingly uncomfortable with the lavish consumer lifestyle of North Dallas and knew they were as vulnerable as anyone else to the consumer-shopper’s credo: I want, therefore I am. “I was always very influenced by peoples and groups like the Mennonites and ideas presented in books like Diet for a Small Planet, advocating a simple, moderate way of life,” Bryan says. “At Arapaho, I was minister of evangelism, the recruiter, and I didn’t see much simple living knocking on doors in Preston Bend. Also, the place was a pressure cooker. We went through three senior pastors during my five years.” In January 1983, Bill Bryan knew he had to make a change.

The turmoil at Grace United Methodist Church presented the Rev. Bill Stephenson, the district superintendent of Methodism’s Northeast district, with a real problem. He was working with the other superintendents to find a new minister for this venerable old inner-city church, but what he needed-a smart, vigorous, committed young man who was both a diplomat and street activist-was rare enough in the most prestigious churches, much less in an “undesirable” part of town.

But Stephenson had faith. “If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall remove mountains; nothing shall be impossible unto you.”

And through Bill Stephenson’s door one day walked Bill Bryan, who knew nothing of the troubles at Grace United Methodist Church, not asking for a transfer to Highland Park United Methodist, but. . . an inner-city parish. A church where he no longer felt that his ministering was a good trade put to poor use. Both men were surprised: Stephenson because Bryan was there at all, Bryan because he assumed his request would not be acted upon for months. Instead, two weeks later he found himself preaching his first sermon in deep East Dallas-in a church he loved instantly.

Having served two very different Methodist churches, Bill Bryan had some ideas regarding the state of his chosen denomination. Perhaps one of the reasons Methodist churches continued to lose members at a great rate, he believed, was that too many of them went spiritual scalp-hunting in the same neighborhoods, looking for members of the same mindset and income. They ignored the best sources of membership, the people who passed by the church every day but perhaps weren’t “our kind.” The image had to be dispelled that the corner church was just for the nuclear family of mom, dad, and the two kids-white, of course. The church virtually ignored the 40 percent of Americans who were single, widowed, divorced, or single parents, as it did the millions who lived near or below the poverty line. Ironic. Hadn’t the Wesley brothers founded the Methodist church because of me indifference of the Church of England toward the growing proletariat and outcasts created by the incipient Industrial Revolution?

Bill Bryan saw his predecessor, L.E. Philbrook, as a prophet who had the right ideas but didn’t use them. Heeding Philbrook’s mistakes, Bryan walked a middle course. He tirelessly held the hands and visited the sick and started a midweek Bible class and joined the choir and plunged into countless other activities to ensure the durable saints that Grace would always be their spiritual home. But at the same time, he began opening its doors to the neighborhood. Overnight his presence seemed to have an encouraging effect on the church, like a silent flame under a singing tea kettle. Two months after that first sermon, Sunday attendance and donations had climbed back to pre-Philbrook levels.

In every great love affair, it helps things immensely if fortuities immediately start fluttering down like birds to Francis of Assisi’s shoulder. Joining Bill Bryan on his first day at Grace was a slight, smiling Cambodian refugee named Pa Nous Pan. Since immigrating in 1978, Pan had worked as a factory worker, baker, insurance salesman, and janitor. A former Buddhist monk. Pan had converted to Christianity in a Thai refugee camp, and now his life’s mission was to become the nation’s first Cambodian Methodist minister. Bryan and a fellow minister, the Rev. George Holcombe, agreed to help raise money to pay for Pan’s schooling. The Grace congregation also paid fora tutor to improve Pan’s English.

While studying and working out of Grace Church, Pa Nous Pan quietly worked the Asian neighborhoods, helping people get jobs and encouraging them to attend his Cambodian Sunday school class, conducted in the Khmer language. He began publishing a monthly Khmer newspaper and arranged festival activities at Grace to celebrate the Cambodian New Year in April. In May of this year, Pa Nous Pan reached his goal and was ordained as the country’s first Cambodian Methodist minister.

Another fortuity: Grace church provided space for the first office of the East Dallas Cooperative Parish (EDCP), a collection of six inner-city churches working together to offer social services for the needy in their parishes: a food, job, and clothing bank at Munger Place; an immigration assistance center at Memorial; a day care center at Lakewood.

And at Grace:

●The Agape Clinic, a free clinic on Saturday mornings that opened eight months after Bryan’s arrival. Last year doctors at Agape treated more than 1,000 patients.

●The nation’s only free legal clinic and court of law held in a church. Each Thursday night Judge Merrill Hartman or one of three other judges presides and works with volunteer paralegals and lawyers to settle un-contested cases for people who can’t afford legal counsel.

●The Open Door Preschool. In the basement at Grace, twenty-three Hispanic, Cambodian, and Vietnamese three- to five-year-olds learn basic skills, with an emphasis on English, so they will be able to enter first grade on an equal footing with their American classmates. If Bill Bryan and Grace Church can obtain a second small school bus, they plan to double enrollment next September.

HERE WAS NO BLINDING LIGHT ON the road to Damascus, no sudden epiphany that brought about all these good things and changed Grace from a blocked-up colander, its spirituality strained through a few holes, to the neighborhood “power station,” as the Rev. Jesse Jackson refers to those churches that preach a seven-day gospel.

And it is working. They raised $35,000 for the new roof and painting, and after three failed pledge drives, collected $78,000 to repair and refurbish the magnificent 1925 Kimball pipe organ. After ten years, the nursery was reopened and not just for Bill Bryan’s two small children, Catherine and Christopher. Last year nine babies and eight adults were baptized. Grace gained sixteen new members and paid $14,000 in apportionments and more than $8,000 for missionary work. None of the six EDCP Methodist churches lost members or failed to pay their way.

After five years, Grace Church was beginning to emulate the synagogue of Biblical times and offer precisely the same soul-nourishing, small focus, the village-scaled, your-face-to-my-face warmth that ancient worshipers had given each other around their altars. Grace would be a school, meeting house, library, and community hub where God’s great word was localized into chapters to be absorbed by the congregation piece by piece. Each person was a participant in, not a gawker at, the divine process.

On this beautiful sunny Sunday marking his fifth anniversary at Grace United Methodist Church, Bill Bryan joins the choir and gazes out on what he now considers his family. They are a lively mixture of the sumptuous and the somewhat soiled. There is Paul Clark, who two years ago lived on the streets but now has a room a block away and works nights at First Repub-licBank. Not long ago Clark saved his pocket change for six months and presented Bill Bryan with $29, which he asked to be used to feed the city’s homeless, He rarely misses a Sunday.

The Cambodians, as always, sit together with Pa Pan on the west side under the large stained-glass window; Joseph Mossima, a minister from Sierra Leone, and the other West Africans sit across the room mixed in with the durable saints, some younger families, and Dorothy Strong and her Ethiopian husband. When other Dallas ministers had hemmed and hawed, reluctant to marry the tall Irish lass and her short, handsome fiancé, Bryan said it would be an honor. Their son was born on Easter morning a year ago.

The five streetwise teenage girls who have faithfully attended Sunday school and church services since grade school sit near the back. Kelly, Lola, Stacy, Jeanette, and Clara. Grace Church is very special to Clara. When Clara’s family fell apart last year and she ended up living with a cousin she feared in a squalid Pleasant Grove apartment, Cheryl Wofford-Hill, a seminary student at Grace at the time, came out and rescued her. She stayed with Cheryl until a durable saint stepped in. Carl McCleskey and his wife, Frances (who had been Clara’s Sunday school teacher for years), offered to become her legal parents. Clara joined the McCleskey family in March of 1987.

There are so many others: wonderful Jack Hendricks, a mildly retarded man in his fifties who has been at Grace since he was a boy, who after church would do his little shuffle and come out with one of his four or five phrases: “Got a lot of girl friends” or “You got plenty of money”; Dale McEowen, the son of a Kansas City Methodist minister, a young man who had taken over the lay leadership from Carl McCleskey; Jack Fryer, an ex-rock ’n’ roll singer from Arkansas, now a businessman and member of the choir. Bryan recruited him while knocking on doors at Bryan Place one hot summer afternoon. Bless them all.

With the final bass organ note from the choral call to worship still echoing back in the farthest not-even-at-Easter-inhabited part of the room, the Rev. William Jennings Bryan III leads the call to worship:

From East Dallas and West Africa

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;

From North America and Southeast Asia

Praise him, all creatures here below;

To the cushy condos, to the pallets on porches

Praise him above, ye heavenly host;

To the Old Guard and the New Age

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.