Cover Story

Changed hearts

From humble beginnings, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship has grown into a force for community renewal in South Dallas

Issue: "Showing the alternative," April 21, 2001

in Dallas-
Editor's note: The Washington debate (see p. 7) on the Bush faith-based initiative has recently focused on whether groups that attempt to be thoroughly biblical in their teaching and counseling should be second-class citizens. WORLD reporter Candi Cushman over the course of a week visited many programs of one church touted by President Bush as a national model for faith-based reform. Some 20 years ago, a little-known preacher invited 10 people to his apartment den to discuss how they could start a church based on biblical teaching and Christ-based social reform. Pastor Tony Evans was launching his Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in economically stagnant, drug-infested South Dallas. The Dallas Morning News acknowledged the event with blatant skepticism: "From a modest beginning of 10 people, no church building, two pastors and obviously limited resources, one wonders if there will be an Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church in 20 years." Today, the 6,000-member congregation, one of the nation's fastest growing Bible churches, is known both for fervent worship of God and for effective social programs. "Government programs are solutions from above, but we offer solutions from alongside," says Pastor Evans, who fondly calls the church his "laboratory" for testing theological ideas about community renewal. So far, the laboratory has produced stunning results. Last year, the church found jobs for 167 people and provided aid to 359 families through its community service programs. Like a bridge between two lands, Oak Cliff's sprawling 137-acre church campus connects two sharply divided parts of town. To the west, high wooden fences shelter rows of two-story, red-brick homes. A few blocks east, landscaped neighborhoods quickly give way to dilapidated, wooden shacks with peeling paint. The church seems a composite of both worlds, with a medley of new brick buildings, humble clapboard outreach centers, and metal trailers for welfare-to-work classes. Here's one week in the life of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship: Saturday
Some 200 people gather in the church gymnasium for an African-American history festival. On the stage, brightly costumed high-school students perform a traditional African tribal dance to the sound of bongo drums. In the foyer, church volunteers hand out red-and-white programs titled "God's Faithfulness to Our Church, Community and Culture." Amid hundreds of brightly colored balloons and displays of African folk art, a motionless man holds a sign that says "George W. Carver-Push Me." Push the sign and "Mr. Carver" hands out a roasted peanut as he explains how a black peanut farmer became a famous scientist with God's help. "Whenever you start to doubt yourself, say Philippians 4:13 over and over," he says, pointing his finger at me. "I can do all things through Him, who strengthens me." Sunday
Pastor Evans preaches at a 7:50 service and then eats a hasty breakfast in an office furnished with crimson damask sofas and cherry-wood tables. He wears a beige suit with monogrammed cuffs and talks about growing up in inner-city Baltimore and then becoming only the third black student to enroll in Dallas Theological Seminary (see sidebar). But the idea of starting a Bible church in South Dallas attracted him, he says, because it was so "nontraditional." "I'm not into doing things because they've always been done a certain way," he says. "I'm into what works. What's effective." What's effective isn't always popular, and Oak Cliff's church discipline policy is a case in point. Based on chapter 18 of the Gospel according to Matthew, the policy requires church members involved in divisive sin (such as an extramarital affair) to confess it to one another and if necessary the entire church. Nine years ago, when Pastor Evans's oldest daughter, Chrystal, was pregnant and unmarried, the whole Evans family went before the congregation to reveal that. "It was important for people to see our family being honest and not hiding anything," says Pastor Evans. Now 28 years old, Chrystal has a healthy 9-year-old and a successful accounting career; she will be married this month. Honest acknowledgment of sin also gives church social programs an edge over their government counterparts, says Pastor Evans: "To change their behavior, people have got to be able to distinguish between right and wrong. So through discipline we say, 'this lifestyle is wrong, this lifestyle is going to hinder your progress.'" He notes that both church programs and those designed for outreach are firm in their Christian worldview. "To ask faith-based organizations totally to dichotomize their faith from their social service-that is an impossibility. The clear question ought to be, 'Are we achieving the social goals effectively for which the program has been established?'" At 10:50 a.m., Pastor Evans excuses himself and heads downstairs for the second service as thousands of people stream into an elegantly decorated church foyer with gold-framed mirrors and faux marble floors. In the sanctuary, huge screens on either side of the stage flash the church mission statement: "Making Disciples to Impact the World." To the tune of "Amazing Grace," the choir sways beneath a stained-glass mural depicting a gold cross imposed over a city landscape. Pastor Evans gives a rousing sermon on Christ-based racial reconciliation, emphasizing in his gravelly pulpit voice that sin is a colorless condition. Monday
The school week begins: 320 students attend the church-run Fellowship Christian Academy (FCA), housed in three church buildings. The elementary school base is a yellow clapboard home. Inside, a glass case displays the Ten Commandments and a Bible opened to Ezekiel. Perfect attendance certificates and construction-paper "fruit of the spirit awards" decorate the walls. FCA students begin the day with prayer and a pledge to both the American flag and the Bible. "I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's Holy Word. I will make it a lamp unto my path. I will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God," chant some 20 second-graders in teacher Bobbie Lintz's room. In addition to phonics and math, Mrs. Lintz says she incorporates biblical teaching throughout her curriculum: "We use Bible truths to go with every subject we teach. For example, in math we talk about how we use a logical process to solve problems because there is a God-given order to everything." The church subsidizes the private school so parents can have lower tuition rates and make payments in monthly installments. More than 100 children remain on the school's waiting list for lack of space. To accommodate more students, the church is building a 170,000-square-foot education center across the street. Throughout the week, church outreach ministers visit 26 public schools "adopted" by the church. Each adopted school receives roughly $1,500 in church funding to use at its discretion, but the church's most important contribution is church mentors who visit with troubled students. Once a month, area principals attend church breakfasts where they share their concerns with Pastor Evans, who then prays for them. Tuesday
Village Oaks, a dreary gray apartment complex surrounded by dilapidated wooden frame homes, forms the epicenter of a poverty-stricken neighborhood. Hidden behind the Couple 19 Motel and Highway 35, the complex houses over 400 families (including 1,000 children) and two Oak Cliff ministers. In 1992, the church "adopted" the complex as part of a community effort to drive out drug lords who controlled area. In return for two apartments, the church turned the clubhouse into a recreation center for the entire neighborhood. The center includes a thrift store (a coat for $5, pants for $2), tutoring center, youth game room, and spacious basketball court. To use the facilities, neighborhood residents must abide by the church rules posted on the wall: no profanity, no smoking, and no weapons. By maintaining a visible presence through door-to-door visitations and community Bible studies, the on-site church ministers have driven out much of the crime, says Annie Bartee, a 57-year-old grandmother who has lived here for 10 years: "When I first moved here I heard bullets almost every night. Now it's quiet and you don't see people standing in the street selling drugs anymore." In the tutoring center, tiny heads decorated with colorful barrettes and bubble-gum ponytail holders peer above 11 church-donated computers, each with spelling and reading software. In an adjoining classroom decorated with bright red-and-yellow bookshelves, other children learn multiplication tables. Beneath a flowery "God Answers Prayer" poster, a 9-year-old beams as she receives $60 worth of "Bible Bucks" for correctly multiplying 5 x12. The play money is redeemable for toys at the thrift store. Eagerly shouting out answers and politely asking for more math problems, these students defy the stereotypes usually associated with low-income apartment residents. "Their behavior is not because of us; it's the Word of God," says Rissa Haynes, a grandmotherly looking tutor in a blue knit sweater. One of the center's full-time church employees, Mrs. Haynes also runs Saturday Bible clubs and Christian summer camps, and listens to daily Bible recitations: "You can't change a person without changing their heart. And the only way you can do that is through Jesus Christ." Wednesday morning The church Outreach Center, an inviting yellow cottage with brown paint trim, neat landscaping, and a red chimney, sits atop a small hill across from the neighborhood Family Dollar Store and EZ Pawn Shop. It's a no-nonsense office with blank walls and 19 gray cubicles, each outfitted with a computer. A tiny bathroom doubles as a stockroom, with boxes of toys filling the bathtub and clothes hanging from a sagging shower rod. In these humble headquarters, 16 full-time church employees operate "Project Turnaround"-a community outreach project that includes over 100 ministries including emergency housing, juvenile programs, and a prison ministry. Despite their sparse surroundings, all employees wear suits to work-and everybody except the secretary goes by "Reverend." One staff member, the Rev. Diarra Williams, is having a free "budgeting consultation" with a 27-year-old mother of three. A slender man neatly dressed in gray slacks and a blue starched shirt, Rev. Williams begins the counseling session with prayer and a review of the teaching in Proverbs 24 about planning ahead before building a house. "Most of the time we want to build our house first before planning," he says. "That's why we are in debt up to our ears and do not have peace." Wearing gold hoop earrings and a flowing red dress, the young mother gives a sheepish confession that she bought extra clothes instead of opening a savings account as previously instructed. "All of us need clothes," Rev. Williams responds patiently. "What I'm suggesting is that you pray before you make these purchases." He then gives the woman some specific guidelines: Before purchasing a nonessential item, she must compare prices in at least three different shops and then wait 30 days before buying it. During future consultations, she must also bring receipts for every purchase. "This was a mistake," concludes Rev. Williams. "We deviated from what we wanted to do, but now we are going to get back on track and go forward." Afterwards, Rev. Williams explains that "We use scriptures to help people set goals and to understand the difference between their needs, desires, and wants." All financial aid recipients must commit to one month of budget-counseling sessions and attend a "money management" seminar that teaches biblically based investment principles. Wednesday afternoon
In three white trailers tucked behind the church gymnasium, church volunteers offer weekly computer, GED, and literacy classes for individuals about to be bounced off government welfare rolls. Interwoven into each class are lessons from a "Keys to Personal Success" Bible study that teaches good work habits and financial stewardship. Today's four-hour computer training class consists of five women in jeans and sweatshirts and one man wearing a business suit and a bandanna around his head. Another late arrival plops down with a handful of honeybuns and a Reese's candy bar. Above the hum of duct-taped air conditioning units, a sharp-looking woman in a black dress suit explains simple computer tasks such as how to open the hard drive and find folders. By the time students leave the class they will be able to operate frequently used office software and be ready for placement in jobs with some of the 200 companies-such as American Airlines and Anderson Consulting-with which Oak Cliff has formed partnerships. "Many of these people have been physically abused or drug-addicted. They face obstacles that would turn a normal person away," says the class instructor, Jocelyn Pinkard, adding that several students take three-hour bus trips to class each day. "That's why you have to be able to provide them with God. If they know God and understand where they come from, then they know who to work for." Mrs. Pinkard begins today's class with a Bible lesson about how Joseph's faith in prison helped him obtain a top-ranking Egyptian position. The lesson encourages Joyce Brown, a shy middle-aged woman with three children who is holding onto a tapestry-covered Bible. "The lesson helped me with my attitude … because I feel frustrated," she says. "It's like I see this world that everyone else is in and I am on the outside." She says this twice-a-week class gives her a shred of hope: "This gives me something to look forward to. These are two days of the week that I feel I am working toward something positive in my life." Sunday
Another good day for Joyce Brown is Sunday, and on this day volunteers have converted a Sunday school room into a medical center. Between services, church members are receiving free screenings for diabetes and having their blood pressure taken. As the medical ministry leader, family practitioner LeeRoy McCurley stands in the middle of the room giving advice and reminding people that their bodies are "God's temple." Later, he helps church volunteers take a woman suffering from a severe migraine to the emergency room. In today's sermon, Pastor Evans speaks of a woman who suffered from medical problems-the woman who touched Jesus' hem after enduring 12 years of internal bleeding. He notes that this woman was so desperate for God's help that she stooped low enough to touch Jesus' hem: "If you're serious about Christ-you've got to get low with humility and dependency." Tony Evans also proclaims that after Jesus healed the woman he called her his daughter, because "When God touches you, you're not a nobody anymore."

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