DALLAS — I’ve discovered a contemporary rendition of the New Testament’s “five loaves and two fishes” story taking place at Cornerstone Baptist Church as it works daily miracles in one of Dallas’ poorest communities.
This church, long a beacon of light to South Dallas, knows how to multiply modest resources into colossal gains. As COVID-19 has challenged it in ways as unprecedented as the pandemic itself, Cornerstone has doubled down on its work.
The megachurches tend to make the news, but all over the city, modest places of worship like Cornerstone provide thousands of lifelines — especially to those who lack those basics that most of us take for granted.
Cornerstone doesn’t ask if you’re a church member as a condition for lending a hand; it doesn’t even care if you are from a surrounding neighborhood.
The church listens to what you need and tries to help.
“In a neighborhood with limited resources, we try to be the clearinghouse for everything,” Pastor Chris Simmons said as we sat in his sanctuary on Martin Luther King Boulevard. “People knock on the door to say, ‘I’m going through a hard time. I really want to work. Can you help?’”
Simmons and his right-hand man, Donald Wesson, ticked off the church’s ministries: community kitchen, clothing closet and showers, health clinic, transitional housing, afterschool and summer learning, laundromat, job assistance, even a bike shop.
The list is even longer than that. And not even a pandemic has halted the services — although it has reshaped many of them.
How big a staff does Cornerstone employ to do all that? “You’re looking at it,” Simmons laughed, gesturing to himself and Wesson, who oversees the church’s nonprofit ministries arm, Cornerstone Community Development Corporation.
Simmons and Wesson do the Lord’s work by mining and multiplying every possible resource: AmeriCorps and AARP work programs, church and neighborhood volunteers, and perhaps most important, the partnerships Simmons has built with churches across North Texas.
Since March, Simmons estimates, more than one-third of the people among the church’s regular 600 worshippers have contracted the coronavirus and about 75% have had a relative come down with it.
One of the church’s deacons recently lost his sister and brother-in-law to the virus; Simmons presided over the funeral of one of Cornerstone’s members just a few days ago.
The virus has swept through both the church’s transitional housing for formerly incarcerated men and its home for pregnant teens. All have recovered, but several were in the hospital for weeks.
With more than 50% of the adults in the neighborhoods around Cornerstone raising grandchildren, Simmons said, his greatest fear is that kids returning to school will then infect these older caregivers.
“We are going to see a lot of death, and I think it’s going to be really devastating” because “now who will raise these kids?” he asked.
The church’s helping hands have been needed more than ever since March — not just because of illness but due to the financial strain COVID has created.
Simmons said that many of his congregation members have jobs that don’t allow for sheltering in place. “You can’t quarantine when you are living on the margins.” People, many of them already facing health problems, simply press on — and that contributes to the continued spread of the pandemic, Simmons said.
When I arrived for our first interviews Monday, Simmons was pushing a huge cart loaded with food items up an incline and into the church. “Better get a running start,” he joked in the blistering heat.
Before the pandemic hit, the church’s kitchen operation served 175 to 200 meals, mostly to the homeless, five days a week. Now volunteers are handing out 450 “grab and go” food kits, many to people whom Simmons describes as first-timers “who never dreamed of being in a soup line.”
The same is true for the church’s low-cost laundromat. Simmons said many of the neighbors are flat broke, so at present the services are free.
He sees the same scene at Cornerstone’s medical clinic, whose services include allowing people to stay current with their medication. “We are seeing more people than before,” Simmons said. “People are now worried about going to the hospital and getting sick.”
Even as COVID has curtailed some of the church’s ministries, its leaders have found workarounds. For instance, the fear of contagion has shut down the community laptops made available at its community kitchen.
Now people gather outside that facility to use the church Wi-Fi and charge their phones.
Simmons and Wesson returned repeatedly during our conversations to South Dallas’ poor — or nonexistent — internet service. Despite multiple reports on the digital divide, areas south of Interstate 30 still lack reliable and affordable high-speed internet.
These inequities even affect worship because so many members can’t access the church’s virtual services.
After Ivan Tucker and his fellow praise singers ran through their part for Sunday’s taping, he told me that he’s one of the many in the congregation who is temporarily out of work due to COVID-19. Furloughed from his city of Dallas job, Tucker said he is able to keep the faith partly because of Simmons’ influence.
He described the pastor as a mentor and hero — but also a down-to-earth guy. “He's can-do. He always has an answer and a solution, no matter the problem,” Tucker said.
Simmons, raised in Washington, D.C., came to Cornerstone as he was wrapping up his studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He planned only a brief layover there, but God had a different timeline.
Once Simmons realized that Cornerstone had seen too many preachers quickly come and go, he told his wife, “It must be difficult to attend a church where people feel that no one wants to pastor them.”
They made a commitment to stay — and 32 years later, they are still here.
Wesson’s Cornerstone journey is uncannily similar to the pastor’s.
After graduating from Trinity University in San Antonio, he worked in Austin on behalf of the homeless. But the job didn’t feel like the right fit, so his mother, who was aware of Simmons’ work, suggested the two meet.
“He served me Kool-Aid,” Wesson laughed. “That was so real to me … not cute or proper but authentic.” Eight years later, Wesson is as passionate about South Dallas as are the church’s long-timers.
“This is the opposite of what the world paints places like South Dallas to be,” Wesson said. “There are people here who care, who want to do better — people here who just need opportunity.”
As program director of the church’s nonprofit arm, Wesson writes grant proposals, raises funds and problem-solves. His goal is to figure out every possible way to “save a dollar here to do something else with it there.”
In addition to the church’s many ministries, Wesson watches over its part in the Dallas Catalyst Project, a three-year commitment by the Real Estate Council Foundation to help with neighborhood revitalization efforts around Cornerstone.
Wesson attributes Cornerstone’s daily miracles — making so much out of so little — to Simmons’ skill at partnering with other pastors, including those whose congregations don’t resemble the South Dallas church. Places such as Grace Bible Church, Park Cities Baptist, Watermark Community Church, Valley Ranch Baptist and Stonebriar Community Church.
“Pastor Chris has a gift for finding men and women of good heart and putting them to work,” Wesson said. “We recognize the need is great, and we can’t do all these things ourselves.”
Not just Simmons but everyone I met at Cornerstone — the young dancers and their families, the adult singers, the behind-the-scenes volunteers — leans into their church work with the same optimism and joy.
We might all take a moment to give thanks to Cornerstone and the many other places of worship that are working miracles in these hard times.
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