On a quiet corner in northeast Dallas, the elderly members of Gaston Oaks Baptist Church make their way inside and find seats in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, clutching programs handed out by a 99-year-old usher.

Mostly white, with an average age of 83, these church members can only hope to fill about a third of the room -- which holds around 300 people -- on a good Sunday. Their congregation was once that size, but time and death have taken their toll. Alone, they would watch their numbers continue to dwindle and, eventually, see Gaston Oaks close its doors.

But they are not alone.

As the hour draws nearer for services to begin, the sanctuary fills to overflowing with families -- babies in arms, teenagers darting to find seats, toddlers led by the hand. Five congregations have gathered for this service: Gaston Oaks’ original congregants, a group of Karen refugees from Myanmar, a Spanish-speaking congregation composed mostly of immigrants from Central America, a Central African congregation, and a fellowship from Bhutan.

Some worshippers are wearing multicolored African-print dresses and headscarves; others sport striped tunics; still others are in suits and flowered dresses. As they start to line the pews, people converse in Swahili, French, Karen and Bhutanese. Older, white church members smile widely and get up to greet their fellow worshippers.

For years, the congregation has been sharing its space with fledging congregations, nonprofits and even businesses as a way of bringing in income. But recently, something bigger has begun to unfold.

Church leaders are re-imagining Gaston Oaks as a different kind of ministry, one that will use this 22,000-square-foot space for something different -- and more lasting -- than its original congregation. Eventually, they hope, they will leave a legacy by transforming their church into a kind of incubator for immigrant congregations as well as a home for nonprofit ministries, including a major low-income health center.

They intend to create the Gaston Christian Center, with a board that includes all the partners housed in it, and to deed the building to this new entity to ensure that the space continues to be used for Christ’s work in this neighborhood. One of the first big steps in that direction takes place this spring, when an established Dallas health clinic will move into a wing of the building.

“The day may come when the original congregation will decide they are no longer able to be a viable congregation. What we’re hoping to do is to have a plan in place that will preserve the use of the building for Christian purposes in perpetuity,” said the Rev. Dr. Gary Cook, who came to Gaston Oaks in 2008 and helped envision a future for it.

Transforming Gaston Oaks Baptist Church

The congregation known as Gaston Avenue Baptist Church was located in a historic building in downtown Dallas and at one time was one of the largest in the city. It relocated in 1990 to its current location -- a former office building in a mixed-income neighborhood in northeast Dallas just inside the LBJ Expressway -- but the move failed to halt a decline in membership and attendance.

In 2004 the Rev. Bruce Troy, then the pastor, discerned that the church might help fill a practical and spiritual need for its neighbors, Karen (pronounced ka-REN) refugees who had begun moving into apartment complexes nearby. The Karen people began worshipping in the Gaston Oaks building, and eight years later the group of 200 forms the largest congregation housed there.

The Karen fled a regime in Myanmar considered one of the most brutal in the world. Most Karen who come to the United States have lived much of their lives in refugee camps in Thailand, with no money, no electricity and little food and clothing.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider:

  • A church is not a building, but a building can be the site of ministry that expands beyond a single congregation. What does it mean for a congregation to give up primary claim to the use of its building?
  • Gaston Oaks is in the process of reimagining the way it does ministry. How do congregations begin the creative work of planning for a future that looks significantly different from the past or the present?
  • What does fruitful ministry look like in your context, when the past is past and the future is unclear? How do you do ministry between what you know and what might be?

The Rev. Hsa Twel, pastor of the Karen Baptist Fellowship at Gaston Oaks, lived in a camp for more than 10 of his approximately 40 years (he does not know his exact birth date). His parents were Baptist, and he says he knew early on that evangelism was his calling, and studied Bible in the camp. Like him, all the members of the Karen congregation came here from the camps; many speak little or no English and need help learning the basics of American culture.

He calls the shared building and combined services “good fellowship” and clearly enjoys worshipping with the other pastors.

Over time, the original Gaston Oaks congregation began providing services to its neighbors and fellow Christians: transportation to church, English as a second language classes and sermon translation. They also began helping the refugees with practical matters, such as getting a driver’s license and avoiding loan sharks, Cook said.

When the Spanish-speaking Baptists also joined the fold, the sermons were translated into Spanish; today the 40-member La Promesa congregation is made up largely of Central Americans and is led by the Rev. Ricarte Espinal, who is from Honduras.

The other two congregations are composed primarily of refugees. The Rev. Seth Simisi, pastor of the Afrika Community Fellowship, came to Dallas from the Congo after spending years moving through and out of Africa to flee a war that has killed more than 5 million people since 1998.

His congregation at Gaston Oaks has about 75 members, as does the fourth immigrant congregation, the First Bhutanese Baptist Church. The two Bhutanese leaders, Tula Biswa and Hanok Rasaily (a pastor has not yet been ordained), like most of their congregants, spent time in refugee camps before resettling in Dallas.

As the congregations grew, the groups were given spaces to use for worship, paying whatever they could. Today, the four ethnic congregations, all Baptist, hold their own services on Sundays. The pastors come together for a monthly meeting, and once every few months the congregations gather for a joint service in the main sanctuary.

A joint service in July focused on immigration, and many of the refugees told moving stories of their lives. At a shared service on Oct. 21, baptisms were woven in between the strains of traditional Baptist hymns, such as “Trust and Obey” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” the disparate voices rising together on the same notes in a multitude of languages.

Hanok Rasaily played his guitar and sang a traditional Bhutanese worship song, and worship leader Royce Dowell conducted a choir who had learned the old songs in different tongues, and the congregants celebrated communion.

The elderly church members seem overjoyed to welcome their companions. “They’re like proud grandparents,” Cook said. Charlie Alford, 91, who has attended Gaston Oaks at this location and the previous one since 1957, says he is particularly pleased to see so many families with children filling the sanctuary. “It’s fantastic,” he said.

Missions ‘turned around’

It was both the big hearts of the original group and the presence of the international congregations that drew Cook out of retirement to lead Gaston Oaks. He had worked as a pastor for 30 years and moved to Dallas in 2007. He was doing supply preaching at the church before he was asked to be their part-time pastor.

“I’ve been a pastor for a long, long time working with traditional white American churches,” he said. “What we’ve found is we’re right in the heart of a whole lot of people from all over the world, and we have a chance to reach out to them -- and they can reach out to one another, in their own way.”

The original congregation, he said, has grown “older and older and fewer and fewer, and we have a good-sized building we can use to provide a place for these various congregations. It seems that the whole way of doing missions is kind of turned around in a sense. … Now we find ourselves in a situation that the people from the places where we used to send missionaries have [now] come to us.”

Sociologist Gerardo Marti, an expert on multiethnic churches, said he’d call Gaston Oaks multicongregational rather than multiethnic at this point, because the leaders are still the original core group.

“Those are the people who still have the most power,” said Marti, a professor at Davidson College near Charlotte, N.C., and the author of “A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church.” Churches in this situation can face significant challenges, particularly as they navigate questions of growth and sharing control, he said.

Cook says the decision to not pull the congregations together, at least for now, was intentional. “I kind of struggled with this whole idea of whether or not all the congregations ought to just come together and be one church,” he said.

They’ve decided to continue with separate weekly services augmented by regular combined services. Cook envisions multiple congregations continuing to use the space into the future; some likely will leave when they grow large enough to have their own space, he said.

“We give them their opportunity to have their own worship service for their own people in the style and tradition that they’re used to,” Cook said. “And we can have all the congregations come together and experience that sense of being one in Christ.”

Healing Hands

The biggest piece of the plan to re-envision Gaston Oaks is coming in April, when Healing Hands Ministries will lease part of the property and open its health clinic there.

Leasing is not new to the church; Gaston Oaks has housed a dentist’s office, a travel agency and other businesses. But Healing Hands, a nonprofit ministry, will form the heart of what will become the new Gaston Christian Center.

Church leaders, stewards of the space, wanted to find a way to use the space and support it. The clinic is part of the wish “to keep a ministry going on this corner,” Cook said.

Healing Hands, which serves about 3,000 people per year, will increase its capacity by two-thirds when it moves to Gaston Oaks, said Janna Gardner, the clinic’s executive director.

Five years old this year, the clinic offers medical and dental help for poor clients without insurance. The staff includes one paid physician and dozens more volunteer physicians, dentists, nurses and others.

The church is only about three miles from the current clinic, so the same clients -- some of them members of the congregations at Gaston Oaks -- will be served, although Gardner is looking to expand the clinic’s reach after the move.

An ad hoc board working on the business plan now includes members from Gaston Oaks and neighboring Wilshire Baptist Church, which has provided support from the start, both financially and from members who are lawyers and experts in missions work.

Cook said eventually the board will reorganize to include members of the various congregations and of other nonprofits he hopes to bring in -- including perhaps an organization that teaches English as a second language and a Habitat for Humanity office. “All of this is a work in progress,” he said.

And then the key portion of the plan to continue ministries in the building can take place: Cook and the original congregation want to deed the church property to what will be the Gaston Christian Center board once enough support comes in from the various partners to ensure maintenance of the facility.

Gardner, of Healing Hands, says she has known members of Gaston Oaks for years, and several have been clinic board members. She saw what was happening.

“The thing that’s most attractive to me about this, being a believer, is that you’ve got an aging population, and the Lord’s been trusting me to help these seniors realize their dreams of continuing their legacy,” she said. “What a privilege to allow us to continue the Lord’s work.”