Today was the second day of my journey with the ACU Honors College as we investigate questions of food distribution and justice. Today was packed full of exciting things.
We went to church this morning at a predominately African American church in south Dallas called St. Paul Baptist Church. This is one of the churches that actively partners with CitySquare. We were enthusiastically welcomed and were announced from the pulpit. Dr. Harbour was even asked to share a few words. It was definitely an experience. The primary focus of the service was on joy and trusting the Lord, even in difficult circumstances as well as on sacrificing what one has for the good of others. That message, in this neighborhood, took on an entirely different character from a similar message in, say, chapel at ACU.
After our time at St. Paul, we went to lunch at a downtown locale called Serious Pizza. It was, indeed, serious. You may not be able to understand the size of that slice of pizza from just the picture I have provided, but consider this: the metal plate it sits on is the size of a pizza tray upon which one would ordinarily cook, say, an entire pizza. I made the mistake of ordering two slices thinking, like any reasonable person, that two slices ought to do the trick. No. The one slice was actually more than I needed.
After lunch we went to the headquarters of CitySquare. That’s where we met with Larry James, the CEO of CitySquare. CitySquare owns the building in which its offices are housed. It is a sixteen story building smack in the middle of downtown Dallas. The basement through the second floor is primarily for storage and rented space. The third floor houses CitySquare’s offices. The fourth through the fifteenth floor houses two-hundred apartments which CitySquare uses primarily to provide permanent housing to the homeless. The sixteenth floor has six condos which CitySquare is working on selling.
Mr. James and some of his staff instructed us about food deserts in general and in South Dallas particularly. There was far more information than I can repeat here, but let’s suffice it to say that the problem goes well beyond lack of nutritious food—it goes into health concerns, financial concerns, business concerns, and political concerns. Ultimately, of course, as Dr. Johnson pointed out later in the day, it delves into the way we understand who people are. If people do not have adequate food, then they are sicker. If they are sick, then they cannot work. If they cannot work, they cannot earn money to buy food. If a neighborhood starts to go under, then those who can do so, move. Those who can’t are forced to stay, and the neighborhood gets poorer. As businesses leave, people are left with little means of employment. The problems snow-ball. Our main focus is, of course, access to food, but all of these other things are questions as well.
We then went on a tour of Dallas with Mr. James. He drove us around for two hours as he displayed a masterful knowledge of Dallas and the problems facing its citizens. He would point to various locations or groups of houses and discuss what work was ongoing to restore things. What became readily apparent is that CitySquare is engaged in a Resurrection work. They are heavily invested in the restoration of the broken places. There are a thousand ways they are involved. They do development, health clinics, homeless housing, food distribution, financial training, health education, and so much more. It was actually sort of dizzying to keep up with Mr. James’ easy explanation of what all CitySquare is up to in the city. Something Mr. James stressed, however, is that there is so much more to be done.
He showed us the TWO grocery stores that service a vast swath of south Dallas. Most people get there food from convenience stores which primarily traffic is high fat, high sugar, high salt foods. Some of the darker side of the way those outside of south Dallas perceive those within came from our observation of these grocery stores. They look like little concrete fortresses. There are no windows and there is razor wire present on their roofs. One sign we saw stated clearly that there were no public restrooms or water fountains. It’s the same reason there are very few exits off of the highways into South Dallas: if we can just drive over you, then we don’t have to interact with you.
In spite of this, however, much good is being done. The city of Dallas is doing a lot of good as are other development projects and non-profits, like Habitat for Humanity. Mr. James insisted that it makes good business sense for grocery stores to invest in stores in these neighborhoods. People have to spend money on food. It might as well be in their grocery store. One example he pointed us to was the working-class neighborhood near Paul Quinn College. Paul Quinn is an example of how restoration can happen. The school was in danger of closing a few years ago when Michael Sorrell became president. One of the things he has done is he has taken the football field and plowed it and planted a community garden. The produce is open for all of the students to use and is also distributed in the surrounding neighborhood. He is currently looking at establishing a grocery store on campus in which students could work and in which the neighborhood could shop. This is resurrection business. It is Kingdom business.
After our tour around Dallas with Larry James, we returned to the offices briefly and then headed out. We got dinner at the grocery store—each of us purchased whatever we wanted—and then returned to the hotel. We then celebrated communion with each other. Dr. Harbour emphasized that we are all of one loaf of bread. He suggested that in the same way that Paul challenged the Corinthians (if the rich can’t wait for the poor to arrive at the table before you start eating, then you aren’t doing communion) we ought to be challenged. If we who have much sit at the table and pig out while those in the world who have little are left to starve—or be malnourished—then we aren’t really having communion either. This is about justice, and in the Kingdom of Jesus, justice reigns. Let us work toward the realization of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
I’ll write again tomorrow.