For decades Deep Ellum, a community in southeast Dallas, has been known as a hotbed of commerce, art, and music. But in recent years the area has developed a reputation for violence and crime.
Seven years ago Tony Fundaro (MA/CM, 2006) started a church called Resurrection Center. “I imported all the methods and models I had grown up with, and it was an utter failure,” he says. After three years Tony reassessed what church should mean in Deep Ellum and in the process he discovered less about “church” and more about “mission.”
Deep Ellum as a Mission Field
Like any missionary, Tony observed the context to which God called him. His group of Christ-followers knew that to function effectively in their mission field required more than an understanding of the people, language, and customs of those they desired to reach. They also had to be willing to immerse themselves completely in the culture. And Tony’s commitment to such immersion is leading a resurrection movement known as Life in Deep Ellum.
“Life in Deep Ellum is a missionary enterprise,” Tony contends. As a result, he found himself wrestling with missionary questions like, “What does this community need? What would the gospel look like in Deep Ellum and how could we best present it?” What resulted from that adventure in contextualization is a multifaceted approach to transforming the entire Deep Ellum community that ministers in the areas that Tony calls the DNA of Deep Ellum: commerce, music, and art.
Life in Deep Ellum features Ellum Onstage—a venue to showcase Dallas-area musicians; Ellum Art—a gallery dedicated to supporting the arts in Deep Ellum; Kid Care America-—a pilot after-school program of the Dallas Independent School District for at-risk preteens in south Dallas; Mokah—a coffee bar that sells only fresh, free-trade coffee; and Deep Ellum Church.
Awaiting a Resurrection
Tony finds motivation and vision for Life in Deep Ellum in the story of Lazarus. “Christ let him die,” he says, “so that He could bring him back to life. We feel like God’s plan for Deep Ellum included letting the area die.” Now Life in Deep Ellum wants to lead the resurrection. “We want to lead Deep Ellum to the place where it’s supposed to be,” Tony says.
“We’re doing gospel work. We don’t want to be relevant, fundamentalist, emergent, or traditional. We want to be transformational,” he says. “We’re passionate about seeing Deep Ellum change.” Again, Jesus’ life provides the example. Tony sees Jesus’ act of sitting at the table with sinners at Matthew’s house (Matt. 9:9–13) as similar to the goal of Life in Deep Ellum.
“In New Testament culture, to eat a meal with sinners was considered an unholy act,” Tony says. “But Jesus shared a meal with them at a common place. That’s essentially what we want to do—to share life with the hurting in a common place. The road might be narrow, but the invitation is wide.”
Planting a New Kind of Church
The biggest challenge to the vision of Life in Deep Ellum has been overcoming the common perception of what church is. “We want Christ to be the only stumbling block. That means we have to redefine what church is,” Tony says. Instead of simply a building where people gather each week, Life in Deep Ellum desires to be “a community cultural center built for the artistic, social, economic, and spiritual benefit of Deep Ellum and the residents who live there.” Although Deep Ellum Church is just one facet of being a long-term presence for transformation, Tony says that the greatest encouragement in his mission work has involved Deep Ellum Church.
“It’s actually illegal to have a church in Deep Ellum,” Fundaro says, citing laws that prevent churches and bars from coexisting in close proximity. The prevalence of bars in Deep Ellum means that no church can exist within the community. “When we applied for a permit to renovate, we knew about the law and were ready to apply strictly as a community center,” Tony says. “The community took up a petition and got it signed by the Deep Ellum Residents Council, saying that they wanted us, as a church, in the community.”
Such support showed just how far God had moved in reaching the citizens of Deep Ellum. The most encouraging part for Tony was going “from the community wanting Resurrection Center removed to inviting Deep Ellum Church into the community in spite of the law.”
Life in Deep Ellum looks different than most other churches and mission endeavors. It has to be different. “Deep Ellum is an attitude, a way of life, a personality,” Tony says. Life in Deep Ellum is observing that attitude, participating in that way of life, and getting to know that personality. And through the power of the Holy Spirit a resurrection is taking place because of it.
For more information about Life in Deep Ellum go to www.lifeindeepellum.com.
Benji Bruneel (ThM, 2007) is a media intern with Kindred Spirit.