Loving thy neighbor: What drove Dale Mullennix through 25 years of helping the homeless

When Dale Mullennix was 10 years old, his 12-year-old brother died from heart disease.

The funeral was on a Friday morning in 1963, and the church was full. At the end of the service, Mullennix watched as parents and friends walked by the open casket to say their goodbyes. The procession continued, and Mullennix had what he calls today his “most profound theological thought” ever.

“I thought, ‘All these people are here because they love me,’” he said. “What was so remarkable was this feeling of being loved was more powerful than this feeling of grief and loss.”

This realization became one of the guiding principles in Mullennix’s life, and later his work in Charlotte. He retired last month after 25 years of leading Urban Ministry Center, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness. He has been Charlotte’s most public face in attacking homelessness, and over the years has fed millions and housed hundreds.

“We dealt with people all the time who needed certain things that we didn’t have at the moment,” said Mullennix, former executive director of the organization. “But how we treated that person in that moment would endure. Whether I had the referral to (a) job or not was important, but even if I didn’t have it, I still had the ability to share my love and compassion.”

Mullennix relied on love and compassion when the center opened in 1994. Today, the organization — which has merged with the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte — has more than 30 employees, regular volunteers and a board of trustees. But in the beginning, Mullennix had two employees and hot soup.

A place to call home

Shortly after Urban Ministry Center started, a man in his early 20s walked in looking for assistance. He had been living in a group home somewhere else in the state. Although he was young, he qualified for disability income because of health issues. He asked staff at the center for help because he hadn’t received a check since moving to Charlotte.

The staff contacted the Social Security Administration and used the Urban Ministry Center address for the man’s mailing information.

The center grew as Mullennix recognized the need for not only mail, but other services like showers and laundry. Staff and volunteers began to lead art and athletic programs. But the most significant addition came in 2012 when Moore Place opened.

Moore Place, an apartment complex that provides permanent housing to the homeless, offers a variety of support services to tenants. The complex has an on-site nurse, benefits specialist and several mental health clinicians. The complex placed Charlotte among the few cities nationwide to use the Housing First model, which prioritizes permanent residence before other resources homeless people might need, like addiction or job counseling. Today, Moore Place houses 120 formerly homeless.

“One of my greatest sources of satisfaction is we’ve really changed the conversation from, ‘homelessness is unsolvable, so let’s try not to think about it,’ to ‘There’s a solution. Yes it’s complicated, but let’s tackle it,’” Mullennix said.

A couple of weeks after staff contacted Social Security for the young homeless man, Mullennix saw him at the front desk of Urban Ministry Center with a stack of bills in his hands.

“Can you help me figure out what 10% of this is?” he asked the desk attendant. “I’d like to give a tithe to Urban Ministry Center.”

Immediately, Mullennix wanted to jump in and tell him no. He needed the money more than the center did. Then he had another realization. The young man was showing his gratitude and generosity, and it was important to let him do that.

Mullennix learned a lesson that would show up countless times throughout his service — as much as the center changed the lives of the homeless, it would change his life and the lives of staffers and volunteers, too.

A welcoming neighborhood

Before helping found Urban Ministry Center, Mullennix was a minister at Myers Park Baptist Church, which has a “fairly affluent, well-educated” congregation, in the words of his wife, Jane Summey Mullennix. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, he was working with people who were none of those things. But they were all his neighbors.

“We’ve all been taught that you should love your neighbor as you love yourself,” Dale Mullennix said. “Everybody assumes that neighbor is the person who lives next door or across the street, and everybody’s got some boundary where you’re no longer a neighbor. You’re some other. I wanted to get rid of that distinction and say, ‘No, we’re all neighbors.’”

Mullennix wanted Urban Ministry Center to be a caring place from the beginning. One way he ensured that was trying to learn all the neighbors’ names. He opened the doors every morning to greet each person who walked in. Every Friday, when he wiped tables before lunch, he could name almost every person in the cafeteria.

For some, Mullennix was more than a neighbor. He was family.

“I couldn’t get in contact with my dad,” said Jackson Sanchez Rodriquez, who met Mullennix in 1996 and now lives at Moore Place. “(Mullennix and I) had a connection. I could go to him for fatherly advice or whatever kind of advice I needed at the moment.”

Liz Clasen-Kelly, CEO of newly merged Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, started out as an intern at the organization in 1997. She’s talked to Mullennix about some of the hardest moments in her life.

“He just let me cry in his office with him,” Clasen-Kelly said. “He was that type of leader for me, and I think he was for many other people, too.”

A strong foundation

After 25 years in one position, Mullennix is starting his retirement by reflecting on his identity.

“I’ve been known by and large as the leader of the Urban Ministry Center, and I’m not that anymore,” he said. “So, who am I now?”

However, in his time of discernment, he doesn’t want to lose the relationships he’s built over the years. He’s still concerned about the community, but he isn’t concerned about the future of the organization. Mullennix said that from the start, he had values that were important to leading the center, and they have been the foundation for the expansion since then.

“If the framework is clear, you can be as creative and free and spontaneous as you wanna be,” Mullennix said. “As long as you can draw a line between an idea and the mission.”

Urban Ministry Center’s website has a list of values that includes never giving up on people, inspiring positive change and engaging the community in work.

“I’m excited to honor all that (Mullennix) created and carry on the mission of ending homelessness,” Clasen-Kelly said.