FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–While tourists flock to Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards every year, most churches have for a long time abandoned the area and its Old West style buildings and wooden sidewalks.
For more than a decade, Carl and Joann Hinton and E. C. Burnett, merchants in the Stockyards, have prayed for a church in the area, which is also well-known for its bars and rabble-rousing.
Those prayers were answered in 2000, when Dan Haby, a graduate of Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, came to the mall along North Main Street where the Hintons’ and Burnett’s shops are located and announced that he was going to start a church. On Easter Sunday, 65 people met inside the mall for the church’s inaugural worship service.
“We’ve been here for years praying for something like this to come,” Burnett said as he stood in front of his gift shop in the mall. “I’d ask, ‘Lord, why?’ And he’d say, ‘Shut up and keep working.’ On Easter Sunday, when we sat in there, it was just such a blessing.”
The church has faced opposition. On its first Sunday, Pastor Haby hung a large banner outside the mall to promote the church. After services, they found the banner had been cut down and sliced into little pieces. Empty beer bottles littered the ground.
At first glance, the Fort Worth Stockyards seems a terrible place to open a church. Bars abound, including the world-famous Billy Bob’s Texas, literally a stone’s throw from the church’s meeting space. Down-and-outs are all over the area, which is among the poorest economically in Fort Worth, with average household incomes below $15,000 annually. The average age of residents is 28.
For Haby, though, those were all good reasons to start the church.
“We’re not a typical church,” Haby said, standing in the mall, wearing a white cowboy hat, starched blue shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots as he does most Sundays. “We’re dealing with people who need to know Jesus.”
Sometimes called a cowboy church, the church reaches more than cowboys, Haby stressed. The neighborhood that surrounds the Stockyards is populated mostly by Hispanic people. The Stockyards is also one of the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s largest tourist spots, drawing people from throughout the nation and around the world. To demonstrate that the church was for more than cowboys, the church changed its name in November from Western Worship Center to Stockyards Community Church.
“We are now a multi-ethnic church,” Haby said. “We have Hispanics, Blacks, Vietnamese, Chinese, Sudanese, the very poor, homeless, down-and-outs, along with people who own businesses, walking arm and arm to worship God.”
Some of the poor and homeless are people who find themselves in the mall Sunday mornings, sobering up from Saturday nights. They come into the mall to use the restrooms and are greeted by the church’s members, who stand inside the mall, offering coffee, breakfast burritos and doughnuts. For some of the people, Haby said, it is clear that the food offered by the church might be the only food they have eaten in days.
The 10-member church staff, all either current or former Southwestern students, agreed to go unpaid for the first year. That includes Haby, who moves furniture when he’s not ministering. As he talks with church members on a weekday morning, he greets many of the merchants and visitors who walk through the mall. Most are friendly.
But, that’s not a feeling shared by all. In addition to the banner that was torn to shreds, the church’s sign outside the mall has been knocked down, spit on, driven over and kicked numerous times. Some merchants have been openly hostile to the church, but that has not discouraged the church’s members or its pastor.
“We were rejoicing,” Burnett said. “We’re getting close to do something good, or else Satan wouldn’t be trying so hard to stop us.”
Haby said some on the staff did not know exactly how to minister to such a diverse community, with its hostilities and problems.
“Some of the staff had been pretty sheltered,” Haby said. He then grins and adds, “Now, they aren’t.”
The church’s focus goes beyond the Stockyards. The young congregation is planning mission trips overseas, as well as a prison ministry in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. According to Haby, jails in Tarrant and Dallas counties are releasing inmates daily and he wants to see that those newly released prisoners, many who are new Christians, have a place to serve Christ.
But the needs in the Stockyards community are the first priority, Haby said. He points to a vacant building that sits in the shadow of Billy Bob’s and said he would like to have that building for the church. Christian concerts, health fairs, counseling, food and clothing distribution are among the things Haby sees as important to the church’s ministry.
“Once we meet a physical need, like clothing for kids or food, it’s a whole lot easier to meet the spiritual needs of people,” he said.
The church’s Sunday morning routine is anything but routine, Haby said. Though the mall is supposed to open between 8:15 and 8:30 a.m., it sometimes does not open until 8:50 a.m. The church advertises Bible study starting at 9 a.m., so it is at times a mad dash to set up equipment, screens and food before people start arriving for services. The worship service starts at 10 a.m., and when it is over, the crew tears down the equipment as fast as they can. It costs $100 an hour to rent the space in the mall.
Members do not mind the inconvenience.
“If we weren’t supposed to be here, we would not have been blessed like we have,” Joann Hinton said.
And all the members say the credit goes to God for the vision and to their cowboy pastor.
“It’s been a long-time coming,” said Carl Hinton as he stood next to Haby. “This man right here is an inspiration.”
(BP) photos posted in BP Photo library at www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: DAN HABY, HABY PREACHES, WESTERN WORSHIP CENTER.