Ecumenical Partnerships: "Jesus Powerfully Present"
On a June day that reached 100 degrees, members of St. Matthew’s Cathedral and True Lee Missionary Baptist Church marched together for the Juneteenth “Unify the Streets” 3-mile walk in Dallas.
A month earlier, at a community meeting on the city’s diversity strategy being hosted by True Lee, their associate pastor, the Rev. Don Parish, Jr., extended an invitation to The Very Rev. Rob Price to walk side-by-side in observance of the Juneteenth holiday. Price welcomed the opportunity and extended it to his congregation: “as hot as it was that day, we wanted to stand in solidarity with those who have borne the heat of the day in the struggle for justice in our city.” Furthermore, Price reports that working side-by-side with African American pastors and their congregations has energized the cathedral’s ministries. And they are not alone. Such partnerships are becoming increasingly common between diocesan parishes and other denomination churches throughout North Texas.
Since the early days of Bishop George Sumner’s episcopacy, he has encouraged parishes to develop relationships with other denominations through prayer groups, visits to each other’s church, Bible studies and pulpit swaps. Sumner prays with clergy from various churches and has engaged in pulpit swaps and other events. Out of these relationships, he became friends with the Rev. Donald Parish, Sr., senior pastor at True Lee, and inducted him into the Order of Garrett, making him a Canon of the Cathedral. The relationship between the diocese and True Lee carried over to the Cathedral where Price and both Pastors Parish (Sr. and Jr.) have on occasion brought their congregations together in mission, ministry and community.
Evangelism Canon Carrie Headington said the work between the diocese and its churches toward racial reconciliation is important but rewarding work. “I can remember meeting with Bishop Sumner for the first time just after his election as Bishop. I began to share with him about the racial injustices, the poverty, and the de-facto segregation between north and south Dallas. He listened attentively,” Headington said. “At our second meeting, he said that he could not stop thinking about what I shared with him and how he desired to make ecumenism, unity in the body of Christ throughout our region, and the work of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation a key part of his work as a Bishop. Having our Bishop focused on this work has been a game changer for our diocese and our city.”
Ecumenism was present in abundance during the Juneteenth march. Folks from the Cathedral and True Lee had a chance to get to know each other while walking side by side in celebration of the effective end to slavery in Texas, said the Rev. Mark Hall, a deacon at St. Matthew’s. “I enjoyed it very much,” he said. “The walk was great. “None of us are really free until we all are free.”
Channel 5, the local NBC affiliate, broadcast a video of the march including interviews with Price and Parish Jr. “We are going to be hot and we are going to be tired,” Parish told the marchers before the walk. “… use this as a call to unite the community, to address issues we still face.” Price agreed and said, “The difficulty of the walk, in many ways is a symbolic participation with our brothers and sisters in their struggle. We are all called to be one people and one community and to be looking out for each other. And it takes all of us to do that.” The march ended with music and several speeches from leaders in South Dallas, providing notes both of joy and solemnity in noting hard-won triumphs and the challenges that still lay ahead.
The Cathedral is also building a partnership with Impact Church, led by the Rev. Dr. Kwesi R. Kamau. The ecumenical relationship between priests has been life-giving, affirming and one of generosity. “A primary way in which I’ve been blessed in my friendship with Pastor Kwesi, in addition to his encouragement and prayers for me as a colleague in ministry and co-laborer in the vineyard, is the opportunity to learn from him about what being faithful to Jesus means. He combines a passion for discipleship and forming people in Jesus’ image – ‘loving people into life,’ as he calls it – with an absolute commitment to justice in a way that is transparent to the work of the Holy Spirit and a living exegesis of the Gospel. By leaning into our friendship and this opportunity to work together, I feel like I’m leaning in to the priest and leader that Jesus is calling me to be.”
Last March, Impact Church joined the Cathedral for a worship service where Price and Kamau each gave a sermon and served communion. “I preached 20 minutes, he preached 20 minutes, and we did communion together. We said the Words of Institution simultaneously and he consecrated his congregation’s communion kits while I consecrated my hosts and chalice. Our congregations received in parallel lines from us in a witness to our unity in the Body of Christ,” Price said. “It was very powerful.” St. John speaks in one of his letters about seeing each other face to face so that our joy may be complete. “And that was the first fruit of this time of worship together: joy in one another’s presence and in Christ’s. Sheer joy. In singing one another’s songs, hearing the Word in each other’s voice, and offering Eucharist side-by-side in parallel as a witness to the already-but-not-yet of our communion in Jesus’ love, Jesus was so powerfully present,” Price said.
The potluck agape feast afterwards, in which the two congregations “mixed it up” at the tables, was a beautiful culmination of our worship together as we broke bread together in more personal fellowship. Kamau challenged everyone to sit with someone they didn’t know, which he wryly noted was truly a shared ecumenical challenge. One would have to be insensate not to feel at least a glimmer of the apostolic church shining out in St. Matthew’s Great Hall, Price noted.
This worship service is not a one-off, but is the beginning of a sustained work. Members of Impact Church will be leading members of the Cathedral and a racially diverse group of congregations in a discipleship, evangelism, and community organizing training course. Several churches will come together, including True Lee, Impact, Victory Center, Christ Church in Dallas (a joint Anglo and Hispanic congregation) to learn together, talk about discipleship and develop evangelism strategies. The effort slowed during the pandemic but has recently ramped up with the ability to meet more frequently.
The goal is not only for the initial trainees to then take the program into their congregations for wider formation of the congregations, but also to identify a community project that they can work on together. This ambitious one-year project has been funded by grants from the Episcopal Foundation of Dallas, the Mustard Seed Foundation, and contribution from St. Matthew’s.
This July, Impact Church and the Cathedral are holding a joint Vacation Bible School, hosted by St. Matthew’s. Dean Price said, “Jesus put a little child into the midst of the disciples, and sharing God’s love with the children of our congregations is perhaps the firmest ground upon which to build a shared witness.”
In another partnership, Our Saviour Church in Pleasant Grove neighborhood has partnered with Victory Outreach Church and Pastor Darrell Smith. Victory Outreach offers a midweek service once a week at Our Saviour, and the two congregations work together for community events such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and a Harvest Festival that is Christ oriented, with food, live entertainment and activities for children. The last festival had more than 300 people in attendance. Thanksgiving led the two churches to feed about 75 homeless in the area, and the Christmas outreach brought food and gifts to 75 families. “We want to be of service to the neighborhood and to be a bridge from the community to the church,” Smith said.
The outreach also includes Tuesday Nights Chicken Soup for the Soul Evangelism at the Shop and Go Liquor store where church members serve roast beef sandwiches, pray with folks and minister to them.
Smith also partners with the diocese for Dallas Champions Academy summer camp and year-round academy in the poverty-stricken Southern sector of Dallas for 200 boys and girls, ages 8-18. The students are mentored by 16 university coaches, four award-winning teachers, ministers, and volunteers from a variety of churches. The mentoring program has two components, one that is for older kids, to build character and community; and another to provide reading buddies for elementary children. Volunteers from Episcopal churches in Dallas, St. Thomas and St. Luke’s, offer their services to these programs. St. Luke’s is also exploring ways to be of continued service to the youth, by praying for them specifically throughout the year.
Parishes in the diocese have come together to help our South Dallas youth live into their God-given potential, which is tremendous” Headington said. “The future is bright as we come together for the youth in our city. Let us keep coming together for our children. They need us and we most certainly need them.”
The Dallas Champions Academy has a 21-point curriculum using sport to teach the life skills of discipline, respect, trust and hard work. Also emphasized are Christian character formation, nutrition, anti-bullying and tools to succeed in the classroom including goal setting, time management, study skills and college preparation. The primary work of the Champions Academy occurs throughout the year after the summer camp, which includes year-round mentoring, college visits, and assistance for all high school seniors in the college application process. It also includes a college retention specialist once the young adult attends college. Thus far 138 young adults have received scholarships to college- all first in their family to attend and all young people of color.
Our Saviour shares its office space Dallas Champions Academy for administrative and programming work, which provides Smith with an office. The collaborations at Our Saviour, the Cathedral and other diocesan churches is building relationships and allowing everyone to learn from each other, Headington said. “This intentionality and focus as a diocese has moved the work of reconciliation considerably,” she said. “The key is intentionality.”