One of the oldest African-American congregations in Dallas is still breaking new ground.
This time, the 141-year-old St. Paul United Methodist Church is turning doubters within its own denomination into born-again believers in its future.
On Sunday, St. Paul formally installed its 52nd leader, the Rev. Richie Butler, a dynamic young pastor whose appointment marks a pivotal new beginning.
Butler, you see, isn’t just bringing his energy and vision to St. Paul.
He’s bringing his own flock — most of the 300-plus members of the interdenominational Union Cathedral church he founded several years ago.
The unusual merger is aimed at reinvigorating St. Paul. You may recall that Highland Park United Methodist Church funded a $3 million restoration of St. Paul’s three-story brown brick building at 1816 Routh St. a few years ago.
Despite that boost, St. Paul still saw its membership fall from a few hundred to a few dozen. The “soul” of the downtown Dallas Arts District was in dire straits.
Part of the problem, members say, was the steady disintegration of the vibrant black community that once surrounded St. Paul.
Over the decades, as new businesses and cultural institutions bloomed in the northeast corner of downtown, St. Paul faltered. Folks who once formed the base of the church moved to the suburbs.
Throw in a steady mix of disruptive construction projects nearby, which produced more driving and parking hassles, and it’s easy to see why St. Paul was left in the dust.
Luckily, the United Methodist Church found a creative way — and a wise, visionary pastor — to resurrect it to its former glory.
“In a day when churches split and divide, St. Paul and Union Cathedral model a new way of being the church Christ called us to be,” said Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Annual Conference.
McKee called the marriage of an up-and-coming pastor with a tradition-laden church “a bold act of faith” for both Butler and St. Paul. It also reflects an ongoing effort to revive struggling congregations, he said.
Given its storied past, St. Paul warrants the attention.
“We believe it’s important for the future of Dallas that St. Paul continues to be a voice in the midst of the city we all love,” McKee told me last week.
On that score, he and Butler are on the same page.
Butler, 43, is someone we’re likely to hear a lot more about in Dallas. He’s already made quite a name for himself as a successful real estate developer focusing on revitalizing urban areas.
He’s got degrees from Harvard and Southern Methodist University. His wife, Neisha Strambler-Butler, is a partner in his ministry and an executive with Texas Instruments. They live in Richardson with their two kids.
But here’s the key to all of that: Butler desperately wanted a ministry in downtown Dallas, the pulse of the city.
“My vision has always been for a central city church,” he said. “We want to be a spiritual community center in the core of the city.”
The Rev. Zan W. Holmes, pastor emeritus of St. Luke Community UMC, called Butler a good fit for St. Paul, where he delivered his first sermon decades ago.
“That’s the exciting part of it, to be at the center of the city,” he said. “It’s important for the city to have a place like St. Paul; it’s the gateway to the Arts District.”
The church rocked with enthusiasm Sunday.
“I think this [merger] is a God-send,” said Elmer Cole, 68, who said he’s been coming to St. Paul for 40 years. “It was meant to be and something we were looking for a long time.”
LaSaundria Lackings, 32, trailed Butler from his old church in north Oak Cliff to St. Paul. She and her husband, Terry, 38, were worried at first.
“We were concerned because we weren’t familiar with the Methodist way or practices,” she said. “We’re still learning … but it’s working out for us.”
Holmes, who delivered the sermon Sunday, urged St. Paul’s members to not get “hung up” on its “past hang-ups.”
“My message to you, St. Paul: God is offering us a gift of a brand-new future,” he said.
James Ragland writes on race and culture, education, social services and public health. Follow him at facebook.com/jamesragland61.