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Poverty fighter Larry James quits Dallas CitySquare

The child had taken great care in his writing assignment, each letter meticulously printed on the primary lined paper and the words illustrated by a drawing of his family’s house.

When I saw it, hanging inside the office door of longtime CitySquare poverty fighter Larry James, I guessed it was a sweet keepsake from one of his grandchildren. .

James suggested I take a closer look.

The writer was a South Dallas student at an elementary school a few blocks away. He had used his calligraphy exercise to express a fear that should stop us all in our tracks:

I’m scared when I’m alone at home because the filming is noisy and I risk being shot.

The fears of this vulnerable child speak to why James has spent the past 28 years trying to get North Texans to take a closer look at poverty, homelessness and pernicious inadequacies – in housing. , health care, education and wages – which contribute to both.

That’s why he wants us to move – not to waste time fussing over his retirement.

But whether he likes it or not, James and his remarkable work will be celebrated Tuesday at CitySquare’s Opportunity Center on Malcolm X Boulevard. Like the good agitator that James is, he uses what we journalists call “an information point” to offer one more challenge to our city.

The unprecedented federal pandemic funding and the voices of new leaders in Dallas give us a real chance to do more than ever to reduce and even eliminate the effects of poverty, James told me.

Among dozens of framed photographs in Larry James’ CitySquare office is this one with former President George W. Bush, left, the Dalai Lama and former First Lady Laura Bush.(Elias Valverde II / Personal photographer)

“We need to commit, especially as people who look like me, to transforming the community under the leadership of people of color,” he said.

If you’ve spent much time with James, you know him as a preacher-turned-nonprofit provider who had the courage to put his faith into action.

We met in 1994, just after he left the pulpit of the Richardson East Church of Christ to lead the fledgling Central Dallas Ministries, as CitySquare was originally known.

As his notion of authentic faith changed, he saw his calling to run a food pantry, a vocational training operation, and a medical and dental clinic.

The faith was in the answer to questions such as how he would want to be treated if he was homeless or if he was a marginalized minority mother who happened to be single.

As James expanded CitySquare’s services for those in need, he also educated policy makers and led anti-poverty efforts at the request of elected officials.

Mike Rawlings got to know James through his own work as the city’s homeless czar and, once elected mayor, saw the champion in the fight against poverty as a trusted adviser.

Rawlings told me that James had both the right motivations and a smart way of approaching problems. “He was practical, not chimerical, and it was helpful,” said the former mayor.

In April 2010, singer Jon Bon Jovi visited what was then still Central Dallas Ministries to...
In April 2010, singer Jon Bon Jovi visited what was then still Central Dallas Ministries to hear staff, including right-back Larry James, talk about his housing efforts.(Rex C. Curry)

In many ways, James is Dallas’ mother Teresa, Rawlings said. “He left his church ministry and invested himself with all his heart and soul to help the poor in Dallas and did so successfully.”

Raised in Richardson, James entered the ministry and pastored congregations throughout the Southeast before returning home to lead the church he grew up in.

For 14 years at the Richardson East Church of Christ, James led a 1,000-member, mostly white church to challenge racism and advocate for the poor and homeless, often in partnership with black pastors and congregations.

Feeling that Central Dallas Ministries was more in tune with his heart, James took the plunge with little illusion of success. He laughed as he recalled, “Then I got here and realized how stupid I really was.”

Yet he made what would become CitySquare a formidable champion of the poor, in large part, he says, thanks to the unconditional help he received from neighbors in the association.

“That was the real seminary education,” he said.

From its earliest days, CitySquare adopted the habit of calling the people it helped neighbors, not customers.

Larry James visited in March 2013 a woman who lived in an abandoned house not far...
Larry James visited in March 2013 a woman who lived in an abandoned house not far from where the CitySquare Opportunity Center was being built in South Dallas.(Brad Loper / staff photographer)

James sat with these neighbors on their porches, in homeless encampments, or in the middle of busy roads many times. He took them to the Social Security office to try to get benefits. He visited them after they got housing for the first time.

“Larry is the good neighbor, the one with the eyes to see the pain of others,” John Siburt, president and CEO of CitySquare, told me. “And when he sees it, he stops and he listens and he helps.”

“He doesn’t ask, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ but rather, ‘Who am I next to?’

Reminisce with James and he’s more likely to tell you about all the mistakes he’s made – and all the times longtime CitySquare colleague Gerald Britt had to teach him things.

James recalled that they both surveyed the damage to Cadillac Heights in East Oak Cliff and the Rhoads Terrace-Turner Courts area south of Dallas after another devastating flood caused by the inadequate levee system .

At one point, Britt stood to the side listening to James offer comfort to an elderly black man whose home was now habitable.

As James tells it, Britt replied that those comforting words to the resident were fine, but what these neighborhoods needed was for him to go to the white churches and ask, ‘How can we keep letting this go? happen in our city? ”

James said that was the start of his move. He is the one who always asks the hard questions. The one who doesn’t let people down. One that challenges the security status quo.

Britt, who left CitySquare in 2020 and is now part of the Dallas Leadership Foundation team, told me that Dallas would probably never fully appreciate that James’ efforts had changed and saved so many lives.

“He also gave those of us who worked with him the opportunity to transform lives and communities while transforming our own lives,” Britt said.

    Larry James, whose title at the time of this May 1995 photo was Director of Central Dallas...
Larry James, whose title at the time of this May 1995 photo was Director of Central Dallas Ministries, helped unload a truck full of building materials for the nonprofit.(dmn)

James, who officially left CitySquare’s payroll on December 31 but is still CEO Emeritus, admits he is still considering the retirement issue.

“When you’re 28 years old at full speed in one place with your hair on fire most of the time, it’s not easy to slow down,” the 72-year-old said. But given his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in January 2020, he said slowing down probably made sense.

James remains confident that he won’t give up hope that everyone in Dallas will have a fair chance to do well.

“We have the potential and the opportunity to create a community that cares for everyone,” he said as we parted ways. “It probably takes a leap of faith to believe it’s even possible, but I’m still working with it.”

Staff, family, friends and neighbors will gather at the CitySquare Opportunity Center on Tuesday afternoon to celebrate Larry James. If you would like information about the event, please email [email protected]

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.