Digging Up Some Irony at the Mayor's Last Groundbreaking Ceremony

Mayor Laura Miller -- and her pal Councilman Leo Chaney, standing to her immediate right -- attended her last groundbreaking today. Pastor Fredrick Eddington is third from the left.

Mayor Laura Miller, Councilman Leo Chaney, my pastor -- Elder Fredrick Eddington, Sr. -- and several other city and neighborhood dignitaries broke ground this morning for the city's Bexar Street Redevelopment Project in South Dallas. Miller had a hard time pushing her shovel into the ground, scooping up just the tiniest handful of dirt. What a girl. This was her last groundbreaking as mayor, and, as she told the audience, "We saved the best for last."

Miller hugged her "good friend, Leo Chaney" -- yeah, umm-hmm -- and everyone made nice on what surely was a hopeful day for South Dallas. The city, in partnership with developers, nonprofits, churches and neighborhood organizations, is devoting $14 million to the task of rebuilding one of the city's most blighted areas, the so-called Bexar Street Corridor, once a mecca for home-grown black businesses. Their plans include town homes, retail and parks.

Today's event -- I'd never seen so many white people in one place in South Dallas in 17 years -- took place at my church on Crozier Street, The Body of Christ Assembly, and that's a story in itself. Let's just say my pastor and fellow church members had lots of sweet, sweet irony to savor this morning.

My pastor started BOCA, as we call it, in 1986 as a mission church. He launched his ministry by preaching under a tree in the neighborhood where he grew up. The initial congregation was sprinkled with former crack addicts and alcoholics who'd been saved and "delivered" through his street preaching and healing prayer. Pastor Eddington and his wife committed themselves to ministering to the casualties of South Dallas' crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s and have worked in the neighborhood ever since, never seeking to call attention to their efforts.

The ministry slowly grew, and throughout the 1990s, we -- I say we, because my husband and I have been members of the church since 1990 -- gradually acquired vacant lots in the neighborhood to one day build a new and bigger facility than the converted homes we'd been housed in (complete with hot and cold running rats).

Now, along the way, we ran smack into the folks at the T.R. Hoover Community Development Corp., who ran a community center a block away from us and were instrumental in getting the Bexar Street project up and running in the first place. For some reason, the T.R. Hoover folks didn't take a liking to us, and we never quite figured out why. I can only guess they perceived us as a threat -- intruders on the "turf" they'd staked out for themselves in South Dallas. They had powerful backers, too, like Councilman Leo Chaney.

As for the church, we'd never involved ourselves in city politics; ours was primarily a mission to South Dallas' broken hearts. (We'd once sought Chaney's help on a rezoning necessary for our new church, and he told us he'd do whatever the "community" wanted. "Now let me define community," he told my pastor in a private meeting. "By community, I mean the T.R. Hoover Community Center.")

Imagine my pastor's surprise when he strolled into a planning meeting at the T.R. Hoover center a few years ago and saw artists' designs of the Bexar Street project -- beautiful town homes and more -- with a park planted on the site where we were planning to build our new church, on land we had owned in the church's name for several years.

And imagine our shock when we received a mysterious letter from a developer in "public-private partnership" with the city expressing its plan to seize our church property via eminent domain for the Bexar Street project. We called city agencies, who oddly denied any knowledge of the letter. We were baffled; we didn't know what to do. We'd already invested nearly $100,000 in our new building project, big money for a small church in South Dallas. Not surprisingly, we later found out that the developer was working with the T.R. Hoover folks, who were building new single-family homes on some of the vacant lots in the area.

So what did we do? Well, we prayed. A lot. And I made a call to Sharon Boyd, bless her heart. Boyd listened sympathetically, then pointed us in the direction of attorney James Murphy, who was happy to help us fight back. Together we drafted letters to every pertinent city agency we could think of, as well as T.R. Hoover and Chaney, threatening to take legal action if they tried to seize our land. We also papered the neighborhood with colorful flyers titled "It Could Happen to You!" -- noting the attempt to grab our property, and Chaney's and T.R. Hoover's involvement. Chaney, to his credit, swiftly backed off when he knew a legitimate, longstanding church project was at stake -- the first big investment in that part of South Dallas in many years.

So how did our church end up hosting this morning's event? T.R. Hoover, it turns out, got crosswise with the city and feds concerning its alleged misuse of public funds. When T.R. Hoover refused to cooperate with a city audit, the city severed its ties with the organization. (The Dallas Morning News did a good job covering T.R. Hoover's problems with the city and HUD.) My church had nothing to do with any of these actions, but afterward, the city contacted my pastor and asked the church to get involved in the Bexar Street project. They were looking for an honest neighborhood partner, and we were only delighted to help.

Chaney, who will step down from the council at the end of this month, made a sort-of-joking reference to our threat letter in his remarks this morning, but he was all smiles afterward. "It's a church? I'm not fooling around with a church," he told some BOCA members. Hey, all is forgiven, Mr. Chaney. May you ride off into the sunset in perfect bliss. --Julie Lyons

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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