Church building houses and hope

It was a hot afternoon and senior preacher Austin Rammell wore short pants and a T-shirt.

Informality rules at Hardin Baptist Church outside Dallas.

On Sunday mornings, Rammell, 34, dresses up – in blue jeans and a T-shirt.

Services at Hardin Baptist are more like rock concerts than traditional worship.

Young people and folks who don't normally go to church – Rammell wants to connect with this segment of the population.

He's looking for ways to put the church's resources to work in the community.

One of those efforts recently caught my attention: a long-term partnership with Habitat for Humanity. Hardin Baptist has bought three lots in a high-crime neighborhood in southeastern Dallas and plans to build a house on each property.

I wondered why this country church didn't stick close to home instead of reaching out to a low-income area miles away in town.

But Rammell doesn't see the church as something static. For him, the church should be out doing things.

Like building houses in challenging places. A key part of the Habitat partnership in Dallas is selecting homeowners from within the neighborhood.

And there's more. Hardin Baptist plans to eventually offer GED training in the neighborhood, along with job placement assistance, after-school tutoring, job and financial training.

This is not your ordinary Habitat effort.

Mary Harris, executive director for Habitat for Humanity of Gaston County, said Habitat usually supplies the lots for projects.

“They (Hardin Baptist) have definitely stepped out of the box,” she said.

Open-air drug market

In 1922, the year Hardin Baptist was chartered with 19 members, it served a small community with a cotton mill, grocery store, barbershop and school.

When the mill closed in the 1970s, people started moving away. Old mill homes were burned down and the school closed. The few businesses also left.

Everything changed, including Hardin Baptist, which became nontraditional and regionally focused.

Meanwhile, the fabric of the Dallas neighborhood also evolved.

When Gaston County Commissioner Pearl Burris Floyd was growing up in Dallas, the neighborhood where Hardin Baptist is building Habitat homes was the heart of the local African American business and professional community.

As older residents died or moved away, problems began to crop up on the fringes of Rhyne Street.

Capt. Allen Scott with the Dallas Police Department told me how, years ago, the neighborhood had the reputation of being an open air drug market.

Police cracked down, but much of the drug activity moved into drug houses. Now, Scott said, the neighborhood is also troubled by occasional violence and gang activity.

Good people still live there, Scott said. They're trying to do the best they can. But the bad guys make it hard sometimes.

Transforming neighborhood

A native of Hampton, Va., Rammell was working with the Florida Baptist Convention when he got the job at Hardin Baptist in 2002.

He shook things up. So much that many longtime members moved on.

Rammell kept the 8 a.m. Sunday service. But his main focus was elsewhere. The nontraditional service is so popular, another will be added to the schedule at 9:30 a.m. Sundays.

Hardin has about 500 members. “Yuppies and rednecks and everything in between,” Rammell said. “We've got a peppering of Hispanics and African Americans.”

Rammell had read about a church in Texas buying property to provide people in a community an opportunity to start their own businesses. It was a step that actually helped revitalize the neighborhood.

He saw the same possibility for Dallas.

Can Hardin Baptist's Habitat project transform a troubled neighborhood?

I hope so. I agree with Scott and Floyd: At least they're doing something, instead of just talking or giving up. Maybe this country church can inspire others to try and change things for the better.