I pause before I push open the door so my mind can catch up to my feet. A disbelieving smile crosses my face as I pull my hand away from the knob and take two steps backward. The distance I have covered on this sunny Saturday morning disorients me. Thirty-five minutes ago, I sat at my desk at our church campus located in an affluent North Dallas suburb. Now, I stand a hundred miles beyond the border of my comfort zone. In front of me I see a simple structure.
Once the main sanctuary of Cornerstone Baptist Church (CBC) in South Dallas, the building now serves as a community center for CBC. The building’s brick facade and white steeple look like the face of a two-term US president with its grooves worn from years of work and worry. Decades of service in a neighborhood once called “The War Zone” can do that to a church.
Even before my eyes adjust to the interior, my ears tell me I have found the right place. Karen Hawkins’s contagious laugh reverberates around the old sanctuary. She wears a neon green T-shirt and her curly red hair bounces as she chats with a volunteer. Another volunteer hands me a name tag and sweeps me inside.
Karen serves as the pastoral leader of Community Care at Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas. Every Saturday, Karen brings a multiethnic team from Stonebriar to this old sanctuary at CBC to lead a ministry called “Cornerstone Kids” where they love the children of this neighborhood. They play games, mentor, teach the Bible, and they provide a nutritious lunch. The simple, effective ministry draws dozens of children from the streets each week.
Around the room, Karen’s trademark style makes the children feel special. A bright tablecloth with coordinating plates and napkins color the room. With the generous number of hugs given out, Cornerstone Kids seems more like a birthday party than a Bible study.
“A few years ago, there was no one to assist in leading the Cornerstone Kids program on Saturdays. Karen without hesitation volunteered to lead the effort.” Chris Simmons (ThM, 1989), the pastor of CBC, recalls the day Karen stepped forward. “She wanted these precious souls to come on Saturdays and learn about Christ. Her love for the Lord, his work, and his people is so contagious. Others see it and want to serve with her same level of passion and commitment.”
Karen’s love for the community fits her gifts and abilities so well. It seems difficult to imagine her doing anything else. Most who train for ministry dream and pray to one day reach her level of influence. Karen, who on this Saturday morning sits surrounded by a sea of small faces, desired anonymity. Her work transpired as the result of God giving her a firm and loving, “No.”
Her Goal, God’s Plan
Before her work in advocacy for the needy, lonely, and forgotten, Karen grew up feeling exactly the same way—lost, alone, and desiring someone to love her. Born in a small town in Louisiana, she grew up marked with emotional abuse from someone close to her. “I grew up hearing quite often that once people really got to know me they would not like what they saw and would leave me. People would tolerate me for a time, but not truly love me.” These abusive words precipitated a desire to disappear. Her solution to avoid rejection generated a need to fade into the background at home and school. “My number one goal was to never draw attention to myself. I wanted to blend in.”
God remained with her. Her church persisted as the lone bright spot in her childhood. Sunday after Sunday, a friendly couple in the children’s ministry greeted her with a hug and a smile. Her pastor knew her name when they passed in the halls. Year upon year of kindness laid a foundation of trust.
When Karen went on a church music missions trip as a teen, something clicked. There she heard her pastor give an engaging presentation of the gospel and grace and truth met in her heart and mind. “When I realized God knows me better than anyone ever could and loves me more than anyone ever will—Wow! I jumped at the chance to make Jesus my Savior and friend,” Karen explains.
Her new life in Christ helped her find emotional and spiritual footing. She grew up and went to college where she pursued a career in elementary education. The cutting voices of her past, however, continued to make her shy away from the spotlight. She longed to help and care for others, but most of all she wanted to fade away at work and church. God had other plans.
A Fish Out of Water
After seven years as an elementary teacher, Karen found herself in Temple, Texas. Her church recognized her giftedness for ministry and encouraged her to move and attend DTS. She took a leap of faith.
For a person who wanted to disappear, her first days on Swiss Avenue proved unnerving. Karen, a single woman, sat in a world of men. She had taught elementary school and now sat under the top biblical scholars in the nation. Her shy and timid personality contrasted with the bright, opinionated minds. “My first week here at DTS,” Karen recalls, “I felt foolish. I was out of my league. I remember feeling so overwhelmed. Like a fish out of water. I did not blend in with the folks who sat around me.”
Karen’s first days on campus challenged her deepest insecurities. They also offered her encouragement. Two moments formed the bridge: The first moment came in her first Bible Study Methods class with Dr. Howard Hendricks. Karen remembers sitting wide-eyed near the front of the room. “It was one of those moments where I felt like Prof was looking right at me. He said, ‘Don’t feel like you have to be like everybody else. You be who God made you to be.’ That stuck with me. It gave me the confidence I needed to exist.”
The second encouraging word came from Dr. Ramesh Richard’s course on spiritual life. “He was giving us the assignment of doing our life maps,” Karen recalls. “He had us map out our ‘scars’ and our ‘stars’—our high points and low points. He said, ‘Your stars, those are things that motivate you—keep you going. The scars, that’s going to be your pulpit—the platform for your ministry.’”
In those pivotal moments, Karen realized her significance. She could now cross the deep valley of her fears to courageous and fruitful ministry. What God had allowed her to experience did not need to remain obstacles to overcome. Instead, Christ could use it as a launchpad for effective ministry.
This revelation changed everything for Karen.
Karen’s reflex to blend in, avoid the spotlight, and cut the risk of conflict and rejection meant she had to keep a low profile. God’s redemptive plan, to use her past to influence the eternal future of others meant she needed to stand front and center. Karen understood her depravity. But she also embraced God’s grace and mandate for her to minister and love others despite her brokenness.
Karen’s time at DTS helped her learn what many faithful servants of God discover. Christ’s love shines the brightest in the places where we appear most cracked. Paul explains this ministry principle to the Corinthians. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7).
The hard-earned, burden-lifting, life-giving lesson freed Karen. She could now take more risks in allowing her weaknesses to show. It sent her down a path to experience the joy of living as an imperfect vessel. “God lets flowers grow from some damaged, cracked pots,” she remarks and giggles with enthusiasm. “My scars are my pulpit!”
A Message That Builds
Karen has found joy in her role as Stonebriar’s Pastoral Leader of Community Care. Her work takes her to many far-flung corners of Dallas and its suburbs. She visits rural pockets of non-English- speaking immigrants. She walks into senior care centers to hang out with the lonely.
She works hard—with small neighborhood churches—to keep food pantries stocked. She listens to tech industry veterans who need work and have questions. Her joyful energy carries her to the oppressed, needy, and abandoned. The message she sends and the one she craved to hear for many years remains the same: “There is hope. There is grace. God loves you. You are not alone.”
Her hang-ups, fears, and misgivings make Karen present with those in need. Her role as leader of the compassion ministry of her church requires her to straddle two worlds. Pastor Chris explains, “Karen offices in Frisco [Texas], known as the ‘five-billion-dollar mile,’ yet her heart continues to remain among ‘the least of these.’”
Charlton Hiott (MABC, 1999), senior associate pastor of Stonebriar Community Church, agrees. “Karen has a joyful heart. It comes out through her effervescent personality to everyone she meets. She is thoughtful, wise, and intentional in all she does. Karen encourages our entire staff and congregation. She makes ministry meaningful and fun.” Pastor Hiott adds, “Karen is so authentic and gentle. She makes you at ease around her. When others serve with her, she appreciates them. It helps them understand that what they do matters.”
The Right Kind of Pulpit
Karen’s passion for community outreach is contagious. Her motivations are theological and personal. She understands the power of proclaiming the gospel through acts of compassion, and she focuses activities on giving a clear teaching of Scripture.
“I love what I do,” she admits. “It’s bringing all ages—children, men, women—different generations, and different ethnicities together. For me, church means family. We are the family of God. I love bringing the family together and inviting more folks in to be part of it.”
Visible all over the old church sanctuary, the signs of Karen’s scars at Cornerstone Kids display God’s glory. The warm hugs. The planned meal. The colorful decor. The name tags. They seem like extras until you understand that all of them act as the beautiful byproduct of Karen’s redeemed scars.
“God took me—a person who felt like she could never fit in—and he used my experiences. The need for recognition and the fear of slipping through the cracks come together in this package of community care,” she said. “That’s the platform. That’s the pulpit. That’s the motivation. I know what it’s like to feel forgotten, and to fear that you’re not going to fit in.”
Karen, in her neon green T-shirt and curly red hair, sits surrounded by a sea of smiling faces. Even though she prefers to remain less visible, less “out there,” she finds cause for perseverance. She holds on to the idea that while she may stand out in this opportunity to serve, God gets the glory. He remains in the spotlight. It is what she hopes others and the children at CBC see.