Editorial Columnist Rod Dreher wrote this column which appeared in the Dallas Morning News this morning. I think it's a phenomenal read but, since it features the father of my children and the man who stole my heart, I may be a little biased...
Rod Dreher: Making the journey
The divide got personal when pastor Trey Hill left the comforts of northern Dallas for the poverty south of the Trinity River
09:26 AM CST on Sunday, February 10, 2008
The thing about race relations, especially in a place like Dallas, is that honesty is an orphan.
The subject itself is so fraught with anxiety on all sides that people – white people, black people, brown people – retreat to familiar ways of thinking and behaving. And blaming. This retreat drives the problem underground, where it festers for generation after generation, subverting even the most reasonable attempts at reconciliation.
Trey Hill, who grew up in Highland Park, left the business world for life south of the Trinity. He says he started Mercy Street Ministries to help lift up Jamantae Hunt and other West Dallas children from a poverty culture that promotes a self-defeating worldview.
Some whites see it like this: Yes, racism was once a terrible problem, and it's still here to some degree, but minorities blame whites too much for their own problems. How do minorities expect to get ahead if they won't work hard in school, stay out of trouble, quit having children out of wedlock and keep their families together? And if they won't do that, how, exactly, is that my problem?
Most whites don't wish minority communities ill. They'd like to see them succeed. But many North Dallas whites don't feel there's much they could or should do to make that happen, beyond eliminating barriers to a level playing field. And they're tired of being scapegoated for all the problems holding back a substantial portion of the minority community.
At this point, more than a few whites would be satisfied if what happened south of the Trinity River stayed south of the Trinity River, and that was that.
But what happens when a Republican white guy who grew up north of the river – and not just northern Dallas, but Highland Park, the richest, whitest part – hears a call from God, gathers up his family and crosses the river to settle in one of the blackest, brownest and poorest parts of the city?
For Mr. Hill and others at Mercy Street, the goal is to motivate youths such as Sharae Chalmers (center) and Chanittie Searcy (right) to stay on track academically and make wise choices. The mission provides counseling, athletics and mentors.
What is it like to see how the Other Dallas lives – and not just see that life, but to share it?
If you still care, drive over to West Dallas and sit down with Trey Hill.
Trey, 39, has been living in Greenleaf Village with his wife and children for five years.
On nearby Holystone Street, he runs Mercy Street Ministries (www.mercystreetdallas.org), a privately funded outreach to poor kids in the inner city, which he founded in 2002.
The ministry's Holystone Street headquarters is where neighborhood kids come for mentoring, educational counseling, Bible clubs and sports teams.
"Growing up, it was a place you didn't go," he says of the part of town he now calls home. "South of the Trinity, it was dangerous. You could go north, but you couldn't go south."
Trey leans back in his office chair, weighing his words carefully. We talk about what it means to be white and privileged in Dallas. Mr. Hill's father is Bill Hill, a prominent Dallas lawyer who most recently served as Dallas County's district attorney; today, the elder Mr. Hill works on staff at Mercy Street. His son, Trey, went to Highland Park High School and then Baylor University.
Unlike the Other Dallas, Trey Hill grew up in a Park Cities culture that expects its young people to go to college, succeed there and beyond.
"But there's a negative side to that, too," he says. "Pressure to conform. This whole success mentality, where success is gauged in financial terms."
Trey says his parents taught him to have compassion for the poor and took him into impoverished parts of Dallas as part of charitable initiatives. But for the most part, southern Dallas was no-man's land for white kids.
"The community I grew up in taught us to isolate, cloister and ignore," he muses. "When you don't know something, you feel somehow absolved from dealing with it. Besides, people looked different, had a different culture, and too often, we view different as bad and scary. I didn't see any active racism growing up, but I didn't see anybody actively engaging with other communities or races either."
But running track at Highland Park High changed the trajectory of Trey's life. At track meets, he spent a great deal of time with black kids from Wilmer-Hutchins, Lancaster and other southern Dallas communities.
"I just liked them," he says. "I got to spend time with them in their communities, and I saw the disparity. I could see that I was given opportunity that some of these guys just didn't have or see that they had."
After graduating from Baylor in 1991 with a journalism degree, Trey spent 12 years in the business world. He married and started a family. In 2001, when he lost his job in the dot-com bust, he and his wife, Melissa, prayed for God to guide their next step.
A year earlier, Trey had heard a Baptist pastor preach about foreign missions. That day, Trey felt strongly that his calling was not to the business world, and he never forgot it. He came to believe that God was calling him to the mission field in his own hometown.
After much prayer with his wife, Trey joined the staff of Park Cities Presbyterian Church and worked on his seminary degree while heading up the congregation's mission efforts in West Dallas. Within two years, he turned his labors into Mercy Street Ministries, which he started with a staff of two.
Bleakest of bleak
These West Dallas flatlands, once home to massive public housing projects and a lead smelter that poisoned the air, have historically been the grimmest part of the grimmest end of town. The smelter closed in 1984, with 90 percent of the neighborhood children suffering from dangerously high lead levels in their blood. Eight years later, conditions were still so bad that this newspaper wrote, "If Dallas has a netherworld, it is the bleak area west of the Trinity."
This is where Mercy Street made its stand. Now employing 14 – and overseeing a budget of close to $1 million, all privately raised – its director spends his days and nights living in a hardscrabble world that he used to believe existed only in the movies.
And this is what Trey Hill says he has learned: When black and brown kids in his part of town look across the Trinity, they see things they want. And they believe people north of the river got those things by keeping the people on the south side down and working to keep such things out of black and brown hands.
"I don't think there's any doubt that over the years there's been systemic injustice and racism," Trey says. "I think we're in a place now where those are far more subtle. I'm sure they still exist, but not to the extent that they would prevent access to those that pursue it with diligence.
"That's the challenge now, to persuade these kids that they really do have access."
I tell him about a guy I know, a white teacher in a predominantly minority Dallas area public school, who is about to give up on his school. He's tired of trying to change a culture. The black and Latino kids he deals with despise authority and don't want to do their schoolwork. When my teacher friend challenges them to stick to their studies, they tell him he can't possibly understand their lives, because he's a "rich white man."
"This is why so many whites have so little patience with poor minorities," I say to Trey. "There's such a culture of excuse-making and victimization going on there. My teacher friend says that the values of hip-hop music have colonized his students' minds."
Comes down to culture
This, I tell him, is the heart of the matter: culture.
We all pretend that if only we spend more money or implement new programs or in some other way manipulate material conditions for the urban poor, their problems will be solved. It seems we never talk about culture, especially the broken-family culture, because we don't want to come across as judgmental.
Many of the housing projects in West Dallas have been razed and replaced with townhouse-style housing developments.
The despairing public school teacher contends that school authorities constantly lean on him and his colleagues to be culturally sensitive, but nobody has the courage to tell these kids that the hip-hop culture they've embraced – one that idealizes sex, drugs and gangsters and looks down on hard work, study and self-restraint – all but dooms them to failure.
"Yeah, I see that," Trey says resignedly. He prefers the term "poverty culture" but agrees that hip-hop artists are evangelists for a toxic, self-defeating worldview and that their youthful converts are legion. We concede that the same hedonistic materialist values many north Dallas whites disdain in hip-hop music are embraced north of the Trinity too, in a more socially acceptable guise.
Still, Trey insists, public school teachers and other adults of all races who know right from wrong, and who have daily contact with urban minority kids, can't abandon the fight. If they won't tell these lost kids the truth in love, and let them know there's more to life than what he calls "ghetto nihilism," who will?
"The culture you grow up in is stronger than a lot of people realize," Trey says. "If I had been raised in this community in a single-parent home, with few examples of success around me, I probably would have dropped out of high school, like 65 percent of our [West Dallas] kids will do. Culture is captivating. It's powerful. There's a force behind it that seems to capture all of our kids."
In the end, he emphasizes, it's difficult for people north of the river or in the suburbs to understand the degree of dysfunction in inner-city lives. Eighty-five percent of the kids Mercy Street ministers to have no father in the home. How do you tell people to bootstrap their way out of the ghetto when they don't even know what a bootstrap is?
"The only way [for these youths] to succeed is to say, 'OK, there is injustice in the world, but now we have a chance, and the only way we can take advantage of that chance is by studying hard and working hard and making wise choices,'" he says. "But I don't see a lot of people saying that."
Not up to government
Trey no longer identifies exclusively with the GOP, and, unlike some Republicans, he has come to believe that government has a role to play in the inner city. But he also says that what the poor need most, the state cannot provide.
"The government cannot change a heart and a mind," he says. "You look around here, you see a lot of nice new rooftops. They razed a lot of the old projects. They've replaced those with nice, townhouse-style housing developments. I'm grateful for that, but the statistics in our community haven't changed a bit. You have to ask why."
This is where the church – and only the church – can help, he says, because the government cannot speak in the language of right and wrong, of forgiveness, of redemption, of brotherhood and of love. And the church has not been doing so.
"It's not that the church doesn't care about the poor," Trey says. "Our churches are so segregated racially and economically that we just don't know the poor. It's hard to love someone you don't know."
Love – not just the emotional state, but real, active love – is the only thing that will save Dallas from its racism, poverty and self-destruction. Trey says he's starting to see among younger Christians a greater concern for the inner city, "a definite willingness to engage and to engage beyond their checkbooks."
"Being a white guy living in a predominantly black and Hispanic community, my own presence is important here as well," he says. "The suburban churches' typical involvement with the inner city is to drive in and drive out ... not living among the people and sharing their lives and experiences. Our example is Christ, who vacated the perfection of heaven to live in the slums of our world, so that he might redeem a people for himself."
When Trey preaches to northern Dallas congregations, he tells them the poor are not simply the black and brown people who live across the river, but our neighbors, to whom we have obligations. And when he talks to people on the other side of the river, he tells them they have a responsibility to do better for themselves.
Starting a dialogue
Because he walks the walk, Trey has the authority to talk that talk. But how can white Dallas, Latino Dallas and black Dallas learn to talk to one another without engaging in familiar gestures, empty rhetoric and eggshell-walking pantomimes?
"It's so incendiary, it's difficult to talk about at all," he says. "But either we do it, or there will be no progress. Both sides of the river have to look at their own sin in this deal and repent of it. And then we can have real dialogue. Because rather than come to the table in judgment, we'll come in humility."
Humility in Big D? Well, that would be something. Driving back to work downtown, I see the towers in the distance. Trey Hill could have been there, I thought, if he'd accepted the place the world prepared for him. If, in this God-soaked city, he had chosen to be satisfied with being merely good, instead of taking the risk of being holy. He's a dreamer, that one.
Still, I couldn't help wondering what kind of city we would live in if all of us – white, black and brown – did what he says we should do and put aside our pride and our fear, our indifference and our resentments. What if we could admit that when it comes to the racial brokenness and chronic poverty in Dallas, we may not be equally guilty, but we are equally responsible? What if we could speak honestly, hear sympathetically and act humbly?
Wouldn't we see the beginning of real reconciliation?
I drove away sorrowful. A North Carolina friend, a white Catholic woman who works with poor black children in inner-city Durham, e-mailed a few days later to say that so much discussion about race, poverty and community ultimately results "in a big pile of nothing."
"When reality strikes and it becomes clear what is actually required from us to serve God and others, most people, if nearly all, will turn away," she says. "It's too high a price – especially when, the excuses and righteous-sounding justifications are readily available to us in such abundance."
Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.