A Car Wash Congregation Chants the Bible and Sings ‘Lay my Burden Down’

Hallelujahs and Amens at the funeral of Sheila Davenport Sanders, but no answers for the suffering on MLKEXPAND
Hallelujahs and Amens at the funeral of Sheila Davenport Sanders, but no answers for the suffering on MLK
Jim Schutze
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On a clear day last week, about 100 people gathered in the chapel of Lott’s Mortuary on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas to mourn the death of Sheila Davenport Sanders. Sanders, 56, was shot in the back June 2 in a crossfire at Jim’s Car Wash two blocks down MLK from the funeral home.

This is a congregation that knows the hymns by heart and recites Bible verses in unison with the preacher. Pastor Edmund L. Robinson of Sunlight Missionary Baptist Church, who is related to Sanders, thunders: “If you are not doing it out of love, God said, you are nothing. He said, ‘Faith, hope, love, these three! Faith, hope, love, these three!’”

The words already forming on their lips, the audience joins him in chorus: “But the greatest of these,” the entire room chants together, “is love.”

The Dallas Morning News, a state district judge and city officials including the recently un-elected City Council member from this district have talked about these people as if they were cockroaches. The newspaper calls them a “stain on Dallas” that needs “cleaning up.”

The people I see in these pews, some of them sobbing, are mainly old, many of them very poor, some of them homeless, a few probably addicted to drugs or alcohol. An old man in khaki pants and shirt staggers in at the very back raving to himself. There is no telling how he found his way here, but he is here in grief.

Some of these people I know by name, more by sight. I think I recognize this guy from my years visiting the car wash as a reporter. He is not a regular, but he shows up there every once in a while. That’s how it is. Jim’s Car Wash, a focus of controversy for more than a decade, is the last rock in an archipelago of defeat, a place where people with criminal records and other handicaps find honest work washing cars for fees and tips. The crowd here at the mortuary are the regulars, with a few occasional visitors like the man in khaki scattered through the pews. They have all come to grieve.

The outburst of raving in the back does not throw Pastor Robinson off his rhythm by a single beat. He thunders louder, until the khaki man’s loud mumblings blend in evenly with the amens and the praise-the-lords. Each worships in his own way.

“He came seeking for somebody,” Robinson says, speaking of Jesus, not the man in back. “He didn’t come for all you perfect folk, all you folk that got all the answers. He came through 42 generations looking for a certain kind of people. He wasn’t looking for no righteous folk.”

Some people laugh.

“He was looking for the gambler. He was looking for the whoremonger. He was looking for the busybody. He was looking for the gossip.”

More people laugh and exchange soft knowing smiles. I’m not sure, but the busybody and gossip references may be fondly aimed at the dear departed, who, I am told, was a talker. She and her partner of 26 years, Marshall Cornelius, 61, worked for Dale Davenport (no relation), the owner of the car wash, sweeping up and keeping an eye on things. Cornelius told me, “She was real positive.

“She’d see things, and she could almost imagine how we would be in that situation. We would discuss it, and we would laugh, and we would say, ‘You know, one day we gonna do that.’

“Each and every thing that popped up in her head or she’d see driving down the highway, she’d talk about it. She had a vivid imagination. She could go on and on talking. Whatever she said, I would kind of log it in.

“One day she said, ‘We never took a vacation.’ I said maybe we could fly. She said, ‘Well, I never did fly.’ She said, ‘If you go, I’ll go.’ I said, ‘Well, we gonna plan on that.’ This particular year was our 26th anniversary. I was in the process of planning for us to go to Florida.”

Not everyone here is poor. The relatives of the deceased look better off. In the sermon, veiled references are made to drug use at some point as a factor in Sheila Sanders’ struggles. When it’s time for the remembrances, Jackie Davenport, the wife of Sanders’ uncle, comes forward first in a handsome tan suit.

“My heart is truly broke,” she says. “I mean it is broke. I have been barely able to get myself together.” She recites from memory a poem of grief by Langston Hughes, then returns to her pew.

Greg Hill, 56, who lives in DeSoto, comes forward and recites from memory verses from the book of Ephesians in the New Testament. As he speaks, some in the audience recite the words with him: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”

Former Dallas City Council member Sandra Crenshaw goes to the front of the chapel and talks about a recent decision by 14th Civil District Judge Eric Moye to severely curtail operations of the car wash following the shooting. In his order, Moye called it “a place to which persons habitually go to commit crimes” and said Davenport had “failed to take reasonable steps to abate the habitual criminal activity on the property that continues to this day.”

Crenshaw, who knows how to breathe fire, is in full fire-breathing form today: “It wasn’t the car wash they wanted down,” she shouts. “It’s that our city does not want to face the reality that they need to address, that this is a place where the homeless came for safety, where the unemployed came for their hustle to make money, to eat. And yes, it was a place where drug addicts came. They think they can take this man’s job and this woman’s life, and everything is going to be OK. They don’t even know her name.”

Moye’s contention that Davenport didn’t do enough to abate crime seems wrong. That may be what city officials told him, but for years Davenport has done every single thing the city has asked of him to abate crime, often at considerable expense.

Davenport went door-to-door to businesses up and down MLK campaigning for creation of a special taxing district to pay for security patrols. The city collected hundreds of thousands of dollars; no patrols ever materialized; when the special district collapsed in a stench of corruption and missing funds, the city simply suspended its operations rather than look for the missing money.

The scene at the car wash morphs depending on the hour of day and what’s going on nearby. These regulars, the people in the chapel today, go there to wash cars and make a few honest dollars, but prostitution, drug sales and gun violence are rife in the blocks all around the car wash.

Jim's Car Wash last week, after the owner reluctantly closed it to avoid violating a court orderEXPAND
Jim's Car Wash last week, after the owner reluctantly closed it to avoid violating a court order
Jim Schutze

Davenport has pleaded repeatedly with the city to provide police patrols to protect his business from disruption. But the Dallas Police Department is acutely understaffed. On the night Sanders died, several police patrol units were circling the car wash just before shooting happened. Sources including one inside the police department have told me that all the patrol units at the car wash were called away suddenly because of shortages elsewhere in the city.

An eyewitness to the shooting told me members of rival gangs who were not at the car wash confronted each other on a side street soon after the police departed. One young man pulled a shortened AK-47 tactical rifle from a backpack. When he started shooting, his target ran into the crowd at the car wash. The assailant kept shooting, killing Sanders and wounding four others in the crowd.

Davenport and I are among the only three white people present at the funeral. We are all sitting in the same row. A group of elderly women just in front of us turn and begin begging Davenport to speak.

“Dale,” they say. “You got to speak. Come on, Dale. You got to.”

Finally he goes forward. “The kind of person that Sheila was,” he begins, faltering. “Sheila was one of the most kind persons. The only person I ever saw her get mad was at Marshall.”

Everyone laughs.

“She was just a wonderful person and such innocence and such senselessness that a stray bullet from across the street could do this. It could have been any one of us.”

“Yes it could,” people in the audience chant. “Praise Father God.”

“You know,” Davenport says, “Maybe she was more prepared than many of us.”

“Yes she was.”

“Sheila and I have talked a lot the last few days before this about faith and priorities and stuff. She had her priorities. She knew her Lord. It has been a privilege to know her.”

The impromptu congregation at Lott's Mortuary Chapel sings an old spiritual hymn.

All around this small funeral home, people are battling to survive in a sea of poverty and crime. The reflex of the city has always been to try to make the problems go away by erasing the people. It’s not a black/white thing. Black leaders have led the way in calling for the car wash to be closed.

This congregation needs no hymnals. Sitting at a small electric organ, the hymn leader lines out the first words of each verse and the congregation falls in behind:

Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I laid my burden down.

Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I laid my burden down.

I’m going home to be with Jesus, since I laid my burden down.

I’m going home to be with Jesus, since I laid my burden down.

I’m staring at the shiny black tips of my funeral shoes. I was in the choir as a boy. I don’t sing now. I only go to church for funerals and weddings. I just keep thinking. Is there not some way to lift that burden that doesn’t involve Jesus and an AK-47?

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