DALLAS (AP) — A Dallas family has rescued a tiny chapel in Addison — the only church in the entire town — in hopes the revival of this historic site will provide a healing space for racial reconciliation.
The Dallas Morning News reports Don and Wanda Wesson, along with their son Donald, took a huge leap of faith when they purchased the troubled White Rock Chapel site. But they are steadfast about saving the church's history, which stretches back to a time when slaves, and later freedman and their descendants, gathered there for worship.
The Wessons believe their work will lead to a brighter future. A redemption for a shameful past. A physical restoration of a church forged out of tragedy, generosity and reconciliation. A rebuilding of the lives of its re-builders.
"We want this to be a place God can live in and help us out — because we and the world need a lot of help," Donald Wesson told me last week as we walked the 1-acre property.
The chapel is a contradiction within a contradiction: The modest structure sits amid an enclave of stately mansions adjacent to White Rock Creek, in the southeastern-most corner of Addison. In turn, the wealthy neighborhood feels a world away from its intersection with Belt Line Road, the town's main drag of tightly packed retail and restaurants.
The Wessons felt called to this mission when they first visited the church late last year. "There's a feel, a level of calm, peace that's on this land that's hard to describe," Donald said.
"And hope," his mother, Wanda, interjected. "The ancestors are crying out for us to be here."
About 135 years ago, the chapel's site was the Upper White Rock freedmen's town, settled by former slaves from the nearby Coit, Caruth, and Obier plantations who recognized the cash-crop potential of the cheap but rich blackland prairie.
In 1884, a former slave owner agreed to sell the freedmen a little land along the creek, where under an arbor of trees their enslaved parents and grandparents had gathered years earlier to sing and pray.
The freedmen's town leaders built a primitive log church on the bank of White Rock Creek and worshipped there until 1918, when a deadly flash flood swept away two congregants and their young children.
Soon after the tragedy, S.S. Noel, who owned much of the surrounding land, gave the church leaders a plot of higher ground at what is now the intersection of Celestial and Winnwood roads. Noel's stipulation was that the site would forever remain a place of worship.
There, the black community built a church and small parsonage.
In the 1950s, a fire — suspected arson — destroyed the sanctuary. Many church members moved on to a new location. The few who remained worshipped in the badly dilapidated parsonage until the current church was built in 1981, with funds from the sale of a portion of their land.
Although the remaining buildings weren't historic, the property certainly was. The town of Addison took the lead in getting the one-acre plot dedicated in 2000 as a state historical spot. But the tiny congregation continued to dwindle, and by last August, with fewer than 10 members, the church property wound up in receivership due to debt.
That's when Donald Wesson, who works in real estate and construction with partner Blake Cobb, heard about White Rock Chapel.
Don and Wanda Wesson already had more than they could say grace over. Don oversees the Baylor Scott and White Health and Wellness Center at the Juanita J. Craft Recreation Center near Fair Park. Wanda is officially retired but regularly puts her community health training to work at their own South Dallas church, Cornerstone Baptist.
The Wessons needed only one visit to the property and a reading of its history to know, in Don's words, "this is a legacy that needs to be continued" — not property to be divided and sold for more mansions.
They won't say how much they paid for the property, but Don told me it was comparable to the price of a lot in this million-dollar community.
Donald Wesson's Mountaintop Contracting began the church's exterior renovation in January. Construction leaders Adam Etlicher and James Grover say that refurbishing the church is a big step in rebuilding their own lives.
Etlicher, a craftsman who has created the church's new doors from Western red cedar and shutters from pieces of old clapboard houses, told me he was homeless and a drug addict until a year ago. A member of Cornerstone, he refers to himself as "one of the second chances" that the church supports.
Grover, a graduate of a local re-entry program for former inmates, has attended Cornerstone since 2010 and spent a year helping rebuild homes in Port Arthur after Hurricane Harvey.
"If you come from a troubled background and have made mistakes, it's hard to get a legitimate chance," Grover said. He sees his Mountaintop work as a way to pass that opportunity to other men.
Etlicher and Grover plan to restore the refurbished steeple and install a handcrafted copper cupola. Then the work will move to the newly whitewashed church's interior, currently an odd mix of deep purple carpeting, two 1950s-era pews and a Bible opened to First Peter atop a modest lectern.
The Wessons hope to return the sanctuary to its wooden floors, expose some of the rafters and open a wall for more light.
The chapel's band of believers will host a community event Aug. 20, as people across the U.S. commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the English colonies.
Rather than long sermons and shaming speeches, Don Wesson wants people from the surrounding neighborhood, Dallas and all over North Texas to "put their shoulders to the wheel" for a work day at White Rock Chapel.
The church renovation will be finished as fundraising allows. "But the real work is ongoing," Don Wesson said. "Rebuilding the lives of men and women is ongoing work. The physical building is just a means by which that occurs."
They want to use the lesson of 135 years ago — "the descendants of those who were enslaved and those who enslaved them coming together" to allow the land's sale, Don said — to encourage present-day racial reconciliation.
With the help of Cornerstone pastor Chris Simmons, the Wessons' aim is that White Rock Chapel will someday soon host nondenominational worship services and other spiritual-based activities.
Simmons is equally hopeful about using the chapel to help diverse people get to know one another better. "There's no better site than a site like this that has history like this."
For Wanda Wesson, the history of White Rock Chapel is bound to her own. She is a descendant of Denton's Quakertown freedman's town, where residents were displaced in 1922 because of concerns about their proximity to what was then the College of Industrial Arts. That school eventually became Texas Woman's University.
Quakertown's memory is bittersweet for Wanda. Although she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from TWU, she's never forgotten her forefathers' loss of their beloved community.
She says that when her son burst in one day to say, "Mom, I found Quakertown," White Rock Chapel's story of reconciliation between the former slaves and former plantation owner resonated deeply.
"It's a joy as well as a privilege to not just own it, but keep the history," she said.
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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com