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The Walnut Hill neighborhood of Dallas looks less like a cluster of 1960s ranch homes and more like a war zone. Downed power lines drape across brush-strewn roads, and treetops are lopped clean off—where trees are left standing at all.
Shea Sumlin, pastor of Northway Church, recalled the aftermath of the violent tornadoes that struck the Dallas metro area on Oct. 20. “All the power’s out. It’s dark. All you could hear is chainsaws and tears. You could smell the gas leaking as firefighters tried to turn off the gas lines,” Sumlin said.
Sunday Night Football was well underway when residents heard sirens, began receiving texts alerts, and took cover in hallways and closets. The storms left a 15-mile swath of bricks and timber, with damage estimates reaching the $2 billion mark. Remarkably, there were no fatalities in Texas.
But Sumlin’s 1,500-member church—and the schools and homes surrounding it—took a direct hit. Insurance adjusters deemed the sanctuary a total loss. The church classrooms are salvageable, but barely. The Sunday night service concluded just an hour and a half before the tornado struck.
“We had people standing right here where I’m in the chapel where it's obviously demolished, and you can see the glass missing and the large wood pieces missing from the top. I can’t imagine what was going on inside there when it hit, but what a blessing that no people were inside there to receive the brunt of that,” Josh Womack, a longtime Northway worshipper, said as he surveyed the damage.
In the light of day, neighbors and congregants began to clean up. Some took to social media to reunite homeowners with mementos, like 1970s wedding photographs and baby pictures. Electric utilities, insurance companies, and tree removal specialists lined whatever streets they could maneuver in the area. Sumlin made an action plan.
“No. 1 was how can we minister to the brokenness around us?” Sumlin said. “No. 2 was how can we secure our building in the meantime to all the danger spots that were part of it? And No. 3 was we need to send some folks out and start figuring out what our future is.”
Northway’s insurance will cover the bulk of necessary repairs, as well as funds to lease church space during the 18 months it will take to rebuild. Right away, nearby Watermark Church offered its facilities at no cost for Northway to host its Sunday night service through the end of the year. Park Cities Presbyterian Church offered its facilities for Northway to hold a prayer and lament service, and Grace Bible Church will house the congregation for its once-monthly prayer and worship night. Children's volunteers from half a dozen churches across North Texas are stepping in to man classrooms over the next month so Northway's adults can worship corporately at Watermark.
Northway is in an economically diverse area, and it will be hard for some neighbors to rebuild. Sumlin noted that out the east door of the church are “some of the wealthiest homes in Dallas.” Out the west doors, though, are “some of the most impoverished people in all of Dallas,” many without insurance.
With Northway’s insurance covering the cleanup and repairs, and a temporary meeting space in hand, the church started raising money to help its neighbors recover. In seven days, it collected over $150,000, all of which will go to the surrounding community. Plus, nearly 1,100 church members went door to door after the tornado with tools, supplies, and food, ready to help.
“There was even one point when we ran out of supplies that we needed and we put a social media post out, and within 19 minutes we had everything that we needed for hundreds and hundreds of families in the neighborhood,” Sumlin said.
But the church staff is tired. They had expected to spend the week at a staff retreat in the Texas Hill Country. Instead, they faced the aftermath of a natural disaster, working in shifts around the clock for days straight, after the tornado struck.
“It’s just like a funeral,” Sumlin said. “You’re grieving the death while at the same time having to exert so much energy to plan a funeral. We’re trying to exert the physical energy to serve needs, but at the same time lamenting our own loss.”
A week after disaster struck, Northway’s worshippers filled an unfamiliar building. The choir lined up on a new stage. Volunteers got their bearings in children’s classrooms they hadn’t set foot in before. It will be a long time before they’re back home. But Sumlin said that emphasizes a spiritual reality.
“The church is not a building, it’s a people,” he said. “We know that cognitively, but effectively, it becomes a very visceral reality. And there’s beauty in getting to rest in that.”
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Evenings find Paul Leclair cleaning the university campus in his custodian job in Bloomington, Minn. But Leclair, age 55, has another vocation: reaching the Hmong for Jesus.
He’d never heard of the Hmong until 1996, when he spoke to a co-worker from a group of foreigners whose home country he couldn’t place. He’d noticed how diligently and quietly they worked, but how lively they acted together at lunch. Leclair bluntly asked, “Who are you? Where are you from? Why are you here?”
The man replied, “My name is Shua. We are Hmong. We are from Laos. And we are here because of the war.”
When Leclair queried, “What war?” the man just stared at him with hurt and anger, turned, and walked away. Stunned by his response, Leclair determined to research all he could about these people.
Historians trace the Hmong to ancient China. After centuries of conflict with Chinese imperialism, many migrated into mountainous, rugged regions of nearby countries, including Laos.
Fast-forward to the 20th century: In the early 1960s, the Central Intelligence Agency began covertly recruiting Laotian Hmong to fight the spread of Vietnamese communism in Laos.
By 1973 communists had killed nearly 40,000 Hmong soldiers—an estimated quarter of Hmong males, including boys as young as 9. Tens of thousands of Hmong civilians also perished. The CIA didn’t acknowledge this 11-year “Secret War” until 1994. Even today, few Americans know of it.
After the United States pulled out of Laos, it airlifted top Hmong military officials to safety in Thailand. The remaining Hmong fled on foot as Laotian communists tried to exterminate them.
Many starved, died from diseases in jungles, or drowned crossing the Mekong River. Survivors escaped to refugee camps in Thailand where nongovernmental organizations cared for and helped relocate thousands. In 1975, churches in Minnesota started sponsoring Hmong refugees.
When Leclair learned all this, he was devastated: “I was working with these people who seemed happy, but many … had experienced horrific things.” He says God developed in him great affection for the Hmong.
Over time he befriended his Hmong co-workers, helping them navigate paperwork and problems. He joined them for lunch, learning about their culture and the shamanistic animism practiced mainly by the older generation. He observed weddings and funerals. He discerned that though many attended mainline churches that sponsored them, few knew Christ.
Leclair taught himself to read and write Hmong, a language whose written component began in the 1950s by missionaries in Laos.
He struggled to speak this tonal language, and demonstrated for me one syllable that has eight meanings depending on inflection. Providentially, he met a young Hmong student who agreed to teach him to speak Hmong if Leclair would teach him to read and write it.
A Hmong professor at the University of Minnesota also volunteered to tutor him. During the two-year process Leclair taught her about Christianity.
Students at work asked him to be their Hmong language club adviser. He continues to help this new generation read and write their grandparents’ mother tongue. After one student graduated recently, she went through the Gospel of John with Leclair, confessed Christ, and now attends a Hmong Bible church.
Today Leclair teaches Bible classes at this same church, Redeeming Grace, that meets afternoons in the building his former church worships in on Sunday mornings. Redeeming Grace strives to unite three generations of Hmong by preaching and teaching sound doctrine in both English and Hmong.
Leclair cites Leviticus 19:34: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and … love him.” More than 250,000 Hmong live in the United States. With the greatest Hmong metro population—about 80,000—living in the Twin Cities, Leclair sees many to love.
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When flames engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral last April, people around the world mourned the destruction of France’s national symbol. The greater tragedy, wrote Pastor René Breuel for The Washington Post, is that a church was on fire. “More than a national icon or a touristic spot, cathedrals such as Notre Dame reveal their soul when they house singing and baptisms, confession and pardon, preaching and prayer,” he said. In America, the most iconic landmark is the Statue of Liberty, not a church. But church buildings have long served as sacred spaces in the country. And America is losing them, one by one.
Real estate developers are snatching up the properties and converting them into luxury condos. The developers often incorporate the church’s features, like the stained glass windows or the bell tower, into the hip new home designs rather than demolishing the structure in favor of cookie-cutter housing. But while the exterior may look the same, the interior differs in form and purpose. Buildings once intended for religious and social benefits (whether a wedding, the Lord’s Supper, or a 12-step meeting) are now limited to private use. It’s happening in cities such as Boston, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco, as well as in smaller towns.
The word church in the Bible refers to a body of believers, not a building, so the church-to-condo movement raises the question: Does it matter when a neighborhood loses the physical space where worshippers gather? Pastor John Slye of Grace Community Church in Arlington, Va., thinks it does: “These are sacred spaces that were prayed over, labored over, and dedicated to the work of Christ in that particular community.”
Although each property has its unique story, churches sometimes decide to sell because of the pressure from the denomination’s governing body that wants the financial benefit. Matthew 21 tells the story of how Jesus cleansed the Temple area in Jerusalem because merchants turned a house of prayer into a robbers’ den (making money the priority). In some parts of the country, megachurches are flourishing, and streaming technology allows people to watch services without even getting out of bed.
Attendance at mainline denominations is on the decline: The 2018 General Social Survey says the trend has been going on for 20 years. A 2015 study by LifeWay Research estimated that 3,700 Protestant churches closed in 2014. But that study also found that new church plants, often Biblically oriented, outpaced the closures: 4,000 opened their doors that same year. New church plants often forgo owning a building and meet in places like schools, movie theaters, and coffee shops.