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An exciting new life for this historic Oak Cliff church leaves a small congregation in a tough place

Jacob Wells
Reverend James Whitaker says although it was necessary, it's still difficult to let go of the church.

A church building in Oak Cliff has been repurposed into a space that hosts community arts events. Many have high hopes for the new plans. But they come as a result of some difficult decisions made by the congregation that has called the building home.

Explore more stories from Arts Access.

The church on Morrell Avenue looks like a lighthouse. And it’s been a beacon in this east Oak Cliff neighborhood since 1941. Other parts of the church originally date back to 1921.

It’s had different names and was originally called the Oak Cliff Assembly of God, though the current owners are just calling it the Oak Cliff Assembly. And the church has served different groups, as the neighborhood changed from mostly white to mostly Black residents through the '60s and '70s. This was a time of "white flight" in Oak Cliff, when white residents, who were in the majority, fled areas after Black people moved in and became their neighbors. The Oak Cliff Assembly has survived these changes.

Rosalía Salazar is an elementary school teacher and artist. She said the building itself is special.

"I love this building," Salazar said. "I mean since the moment when I walked in, I just saw the history, and just you kinda feel the energy when you're walking through here."

Jacob Wells
The church at 919 Morrell Ave. has been purchased by Proxy Properties and is being renovated into a space for businesses and community arts events.

Now, the church is changing hands again.

A company called Proxy Properties bought the building. They’ve been throwing community events like the art walk Salazar participated in on a recent Saturday. Around 50 area artists showed off paintings and other works and gave visitors an opportunity to work on craft projects.

Proxy Properties is renovating the dilapidated church. They hope to convert it to a community center

AJ Ramler is with the company. He said they plan to lease the space.

"We have tenants already interested in a dance studio, a coffee shop, a person who wants to teach kids arts classes, all interested in leasing this space," he said.

Many neighbors are excited about the change. Lester Houston is president of the Zoo Creek Park Neighborhood Association.

"Yeah we're kinda looking forward to the church being repurposed. I mean I think it's a great concept," he said.

Galilee Abdullah
Lester Houston (left) is president of the Zoo Creek Park Neighborhood Association and David Cervantes (right) is a contractor for the building. They were both at the Oak Cliff Assembly Art Walk on Oct. 8.

But when change comes to a neighborhood, its impact can be complex.

What does this all mean for the congregation who has called the church home?

Reverend James Whitaker leads the Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church, which bought the building in 1966. Whitaker joined the church in 1991 and became pastor in 1993. At its height, the church had upward of 600 members. Today, the congregation has dwindled to 10, said Whitaker. Most of them are elderly.

"We just buried sister Matthews, she's 85," he said. "I'm now 82. I said, I'm next in line with the age, but like I tell the members, I don't plan to die, I plan to live forever." 

Jacob Wells
Reverend Whitaker holding a vinyl pressing of a gospel recording that was done live in the church in 1969.
The Lord Is Blessing Me
Track 1 from the vinyl "Keeping The Church Alive In These Times"

Back in the day, the church choir was even making albums, like "Keeping The Church Alive In These Times," which was was recorded live from Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church in 1969 when Reverend A. F. Thomas was pastor.

These are memories that the remaining church members hold dearly. And Reverend Whitaker says, selling the church was a tough decision. But the congregation had no choice because of the leaky, crumbling roof.

"I said to the church, I don't want to sell, I'd prefer to see us stay here as long as we can," he said. "But we knew if we stayed there and didn't get some money for that roof, we might have to lock up all the doors."  
If the roof did eventually cave in, they'd have to pay even more for the clean up.

So, they had to take offers seriously, and the best one came from Proxy Properties.

Jacob Wells
Reverend Whitaker says the roof of the church could cave at any moment.

The management company is allowing the congregation to continue worshipping in the building for the next 12 years.

But, Reverend Whitaker says, the current arrangement isn't ideal. And they're still looking for a permanent home of their own.

If the church successfully transitions into a community center, Rosalía Salazar says it will still provide much needed services.

"I think communities need spaces like this just for families, for people, and I think the best way to kinda build community is through the arts," she said. "I feel like this is where art should be, it's not just specific to expensive galleries or all of these places, art is just the people." 

Galilee Abdullah
Rosalía Salazar working on a group woodcut project at the Oak Cliff Assembly Art Walk on Oct. 8.

Reverend Whitaker says he knows change is sometimes necessary. But letting go is still difficult.

"So right now we are still looking for a sanctuary where we can move in, and I would hope that all of us can pick up the pieces and move forward," he said. "We have to take what we have and make what we want." 

Whatever happens, the congregation will continue worshipping.

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism

Galilee Abdullah is a producer for KERA's "All Things Considered" and evening newscasts.