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Welcome to the Neighborhood

This weekend, its first in its new Fair Park-area home, a church for the homeless and needy endured a death and a break-in attempt.
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On Saturday, a man named Rodney Burris died in the back of a Fair Park-area church while protecting a gas-powered generator; two other men who were with Burris fell ill from the carbon monoxide, but they will recover. You will learn this much, and one or two other things, from this Dallas Morning News brief, which was not nearly as complete or as accurate as this story from last night's KDFW-Channel 4 broadcast. The News refers to the building as the Praise International Church, for instance, when, since the end of last month, it's been the home of the Dallas International Street Church, which Jared Binder wrote about here in the paper version of Unfair Park a couple weeks ago, just before the church moved locations. The News also doesn't mention Saturday night's break-in attempt. Welcome to the neighborhood.

In the interest of full disclosure, my family has owned this building for more than half a century; my grandfather built it in August 1961, and it sits next to our family's auto parts store, which has been in the Fair Park area since moving from Deep Ellum in the 1950s. Purely by coincidence, my father leased it to founder and pastor Karen Dudley and the church after the story appeared in the Dallas Observer; as the landlord, he got a call from a neighboring business owner on Saturday when Dallas police, Fire-Rescue and someone from the medical examiner's office showed up to retrieve Burris' body after it had been discovered by members of the church. He got another call yesterday about those fresh holes in the brick wall.

I spent yesterday afternoon sitting outside the church with Dudley and my dad. Dudley was serving a lunch of fried chicken to more than dozen people who suffered in the stifling, dark storefront, which had been a pawn shop when I was a kid. My dad was waiting for a crew to come patch the wall, which someone had pounded on Saturday night -- either to reach the roof, so they could steal the air-conditioning unit, or to get inside the building.

Dudley and Dad talked for a little while in the parking lot, beneath a darkening sky. She spoke of her people being "warriors" who were going to reclaim the neighborhood -- one that remains filled with by-the-hour motels and street-corner whores and burned-out crack houses and curbside sewage -- in the name of Jesus Christ. She spoke with such passion my dad said, "You're gonna have me reading Scripture before too long."

Dudley told me later how Oncor, formerly TXU, had come to turn off the power on Friday. Turns out, earlier in the week a man who works for Fred Baker -- president of Parking Company of America and a member of the church's board of directors -- had gone to the city to get Dallas International Street Church's certificate of occupancy. But when Baker's man had gone to the Building Inspection Division on Jefferson Boulevard, the city claimed it couldn't find the previous CO for Praise International, the former tenant, even though Cleo Davis, that church's pastor, said yesterday he had filed one when he moved in about five years ago. That held up Dudley's getting her CO, but she says Baker told her on Friday he and his colleague would get it straightened out this morning. And as of Friday morning, the power was still on.

But Davis had also filed with Reliant Energy a disconnection order before he moved out of the building. And Friday afternoon, a service man from Oncor showed up with an order to kill the power. Dudley was there, and she says she asked him could he please, for the love of God, show a little compassion. The church had just received a large donation of food it had put into the refrigerator, and they needed the lights on as well for Sunday's services. "I asked for mercy, and he left the electricity on," Dudley says. "Then -- after he talked to his supervisors, I guess -- he came back an hour later and turned it off."

Which is how the church wound up getting a generator -- to keep cold the food Dudley was to dispense to the homeless this weekend. The problem was, they kept the generator inside -- so it wouldn't get stolen in a neighborhood where even the bolted-down and chained-up winds up getting hauled off. Burris and two other men attempted to vent the generator through a back door, but they didn't keep out the carbon monoxide that wound up killing Burris -- who Dudley says was an addict who had been in and out of the church's doors for the past decade. She says he has a 10-year-old daughter in East Texas with whom he'd lost contact because of his drug problem.

Carol Peters, a spokesperson for Oncor Energy Delivery, says Oncor was only acting on Reliant's orders. She confirms that there is indeed "a pending order" from Dallas International Street Church for power to be restored, but that it can't be done till the city inspects the property.

"We bring power to the location, and we connect and disconnect on the instructions of [Reliant]," Peters says. "We're sorry [a man died there], and that's not anything anyone wants to happen, but the situation is we were told by Reliant to disconnect. Reliant had the option to extend another few days, but they did not choose to do that."

Pat Hammond, communications director for Houston-based Reliant Energy, says her company got a disconnection request from Davis on June 26. And she says Reliant told Oncor the power was to be disconnected on June 28 -- before Dallas International Street Church moved into the building on July 1. Oncor waited eight days to disconnect the power. Hammond says Reliant had no further communication with Oncor after that.

Hammond says that because the electricity wasn't disconnected due to non-payment, Oncor's "person on the scene has the right to make the call" to keep the lights on.

Oncor's Peters says that's not true: "Who is paying for the power? We have an option if it's a life-threatening situation, but we don't have the option to arbitrarily ignore an order."

And then, only a few hours after Burris' body was taken away, someone took a sledgehammer to the church's walls, putting a big hole about three feet off the ground and a few smaller ones above it -- as though they were trying to scale the wall to reach the rooftop air-conditioning unit, though the two Dallas police officers who showed up yesterday afternoon think they might have been trying to get in, hard to say. Because, see, AC units are stripped for copper and stolen seemingly every day in the Fair Park area; my dad had his swiped a few weeks ago, for the second time in a year.

Dudley, amazingly, is not ready to bolt from the neighborhood, where she's surrounded by drug houses and no-tell motels and pushers and prostitutes on every other corner (and who says Leo Chaney doesn't deserve his statue?). She says this is where God wants her -- in a neighborhood abandoned by the city, a place in dire need of some salvation and quick. --Robert Wilonsky

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