Episode 58: Richie Butler and Project Unity

This week on Good God is Richie Butler, pastor of St. Paul UMC in downtown Dallas. He and George talk about being called to pastoral ministry, and the work Richie has been involved in to help Dallas become a more equitable city. We also learn about DFW Year of Unity - a project that brings together people from different backgrounds to find commonalities.

Learn more at www.yearofunity.com.

Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here for the full video.

George Mason: How can an African American pastor raised in the Baptist tradition become a United Methodist pastor in downtown Dallas in a historic church and be a source of unity for the whole of the city of Dallas? We'll be talking with Richie Butler, just that man on Good God. Stay tuned. Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason your host. I'm pleased to welcome today, Richie Butler, my friend, and co-pastor, well colleague, not co-pastor, but a pastor here in Dallas at Saint Paul's United Methodist Church, a downtown historic church in the arts district.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: That's only just the very beginning of being able to talk about your journey and our relationship across time, Richie.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: Thank you so much for coming on the program.

Richie Butler: It is my honor. I certainly respect and revere you and what you've done in ministry. When George calls, people listen and respond.

George Mason: Yeah, well that's really kind of you to say. I sort of feel the same with you when you call on me as well. That's part of the fun of being in Dallas right now is knowing we have these collegial relationships. We're finding ways to work together. Yet, people would be really interested to know that you didn't grow up in a United Methodist track.

Richie Butler: Yeah, no, no, not at all.

George Mason: You have come to this ...

Richie Butler: I'm a good Baptist.

George Mason: You're a good Baptist who's now a United Methodist.

Richie Butler: United Methodist, yes, yes.

George Mason: All right, so let's talk about that story. Tell us about your call and your journey a bit.

Richie Butler: Born, bred, and raised in Austin, Texas.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: Like you, a pretty good athlete.

George Mason: That's right. Played football at SMU.

Richie Butler: SMU, highly recruited out of high school and played quarterback.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: I didn't do it in college, but in high school and probably got ...

George Mason: All the best athletes played quarterback early, you know?

Richie Butler: That's right. That's right.

George Mason: Yeah. That's right. Yeah.

Richie Butler: So grew up in Austin. Grew up in New Hope Baptist Church, 16th street, East Austin.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: I was the kid, my mother, single-family household, two kids. What's interesting, we literally grew up in the church.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: I mean Sunday morning, Sunday school at 9:00, Baptist training union at 10:00.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: Sunday morning worship at 11:00.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: 3:00 service, 6:00 service.

George Mason: Oh, my goodness.

Richie Butler: We were the only kids left after everyone.

George Mason: You were churched.

Richie Butler: Yeah, we were churched. My brother got churched out.

George Mason: Ah, really, yeah. Okay, and you got churched in.

Richie Butler: I got churched in.

George Mason: Yeah.

Richie Butler: I got the bug if you will.

George Mason: Okay.

Richie Butler: I had a mentor once tell me as I was wrestling with my calling, started wrestling with it in college.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: If you can ignore it and it doesn't continue to bother you or chase after you, then maybe not. If you try to run from it and it keeps coming back at you or hits you upside the head, then you need to pay attention to it and so I decided to pay attention to it.

George Mason: That is such an interesting thing. I mean the way we talk about calling, it has always mystified me because apparently you're not supposed to want to do this work.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: You're supposed to only concede to doing it.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: You know, if after everything else it just won't let you go.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: I guess there's something to that, you know when I reflect upon it because sometimes it's difficult work.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: If we only chose it, we might think well, we could choose something else, but there is a feeling of it has chosen us.

Richie Butler: Yeah, yeah, most definitely. I mean, for me there are a number of options per se that I definitely had. You know, actually what I told God and I think the calling is not just a sort of one-time event.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: For me, when I actually decided to accept my calling to ministering in the African American Baptist church, that's typically called to preach.

George Mason: Yes, right, right.

Richie Butler: And defined by that. I told God I'll preach, but I'm not interested in pastoring.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: I want to do deals during the week and I'll preach in somebody's pulpit on weekends.

George Mason: Yep, yep.

Richie Butler: That's what I wanted to negotiate with him. Part of that call, I think also as I've evolved, I realize that the call is not just to preach, but there are people who are called to advocate. There are people who are called to focus on justice. There are people who are called to lead economic change. I mean, so I think that's, and I think that's more critical.

George Mason: My goodness but that's all of your call. Everything you're doing you just mentioned. There are people who are, and then there's Richie who's called to do all of these things. Let's just keep going with your call because you know, you went to SMU. Then you went off to Harvard and did an MA in theology.

Richie Butler: MTS.

George Mason: MTS in theology and came back. When I first got to know you, I think you were maybe working for Henry Cisneros, weren't you?

Richie Butler: Oh, not quite, but I was probably putting together a Unity Estates.

George Mason: Okay.

Richie Butler: A development by the African American Pastors Correlation.

George Mason: Right, that Zan Holmes created.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: Which again, economic development.

Richie Butler: Yes, yes.

George Mason: Right and housing which would create the opportunity for middle-class black families to build wealth through housing.

Richie Butler: Homeownership and this was not when you think of blacks and housing, it's low income. This was housing for first time home buyers, so it really does begin to create.

George Mason: Exactly.

Richie Butler: Because for most people, their greatest wealth is within their home.

George Mason: Well, and this is part of the tragedy of the history of redlining in this country.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: You know, when we think about the inequity and we'll talk more about that, the inequity and inequality of wealth distribution on racial basis, so much of that is rooted in very deliberate decisions that were made to identify neighborhoods that were going to be able to get mortgages and those that weren't. The building of equity in those houses has been incredible in the traditional white community and the failure to do that has left the black community without that kind of net worth that could be built over generations.

Richie Butler: That is in part why the call for me was not just from the pulpit, or classified, or directed just in the church.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: When I got to SMU, I started to research and thought about how I go back to east Austin, which is very different today than the east Austin I grew up in.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: And transform that neighborhood because you know and I go to my home, or that area, you know the housing is depressed. Retail services, I mean you name it, you know, it's always underclass, under-represented.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: I did the research and concluded that real estate developers can change neighborhoods.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: And thought about the fact that if you want to resurrect or improve a community, a real estate developer will find a piece of dirt, a building, and go make it happen.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: That was part of a call for me to be able to go back to Austin and ultimately here in Dallas, and be able to create communities and be part of the built community. Also, I concluded, I tied it biblically because I believe Abraham was the first real estate developer.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: I'm like, okay we're going to all in the Abraham tradition.

George Mason: Abraham as the first real estate developer. I don't believe I've ever heard that, but there's a way of talking about him moving into a land that God has given him that he had not known.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: And building a city, essentially.

Richie Butler: Yeah, yeah.

George Mason: Which is, yeah. I mean, I hadn't thought about in that way. There is a movement in the bible from a kind of more garden and agrarian kind of rural sense to the building of cities, isn't there?

Richie Butler: Cities. That's right. That's right.

George Mason: Yeah, right.

Richie Butler: Also, when we think about it, most of our biblical leaders were not pastors.

George Mason: Right, right. That's true.

Richie Butler: When we think about Abraham.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: I mean you know, Moses was an activist.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: And probably would've, if he had stayed the track, he'd become the Pharaoh possibly.

George Mason: That's right. He could have been and he chooses not to.

Richie Butler: Yeah and David was a politician. He was a man after God's own heart. If we had a few more politician's like David, we may be in better shape today.

George Mason: Well, all right. You are this polymath that is at work in our community.

Richie Butler: I've been described that. I like that.

George Mason: Well, but I mean you are all over the place.

Richie Butler: Yeah, yeah.

George Mason: I mean you're on the board at SMU and the Communities Foundation of Texas. When we find ourselves in a place of division like we did after the Dallas police officers were shot, you are called upon to create Project Unity. We'll talk more about that later.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: I think that I want to go back to your sense of call. You interpret it more broadly, but it's still rooted in this call to the church.

Richie Butler: Yes, yes.

George Mason: I know that when we first became acquainted, you started a church.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: You began Union Cathedral.

Richie Butler: Cathedral, yes.

George Mason: Your ambition for that was to plant a church that would be multiracial, multiethnic in the center of Dallas.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: That had a hard time flowering. It didn't take off the way you wanted to and it led you to some other exploration, right?

Richie Butler: Yes, so I mean started Union Cathedral with grand visions and ideas, as you just described. I believe God had called us to be in the center of the city in part to help shepherd. That's why we named it Union because we wanted a place where all of God's people could come together and be in. Unfortunately, sometimes a church is the last place that galvanizes and brings people together.

George Mason: That's true.

Richie Butler: And so really wanted to sort of press against that. Probably and we were at probably ten years old and we were trying to find a building.

George Mason: Yeah.

Richie Butler: And literally spent two long years trying to find sometimes in around downtown. You know, limited resources because of the size, so we were limited in our options. Ended up getting another Bishop of the United Methodist Church, Mike McKee, who I think is a Rockstar. He did some things that was completely out of the box.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: And Saint Paul United Methodist Church was a church that was definitely on a downward trajectory. We had a conversation and probably for a year or so, and came to the conclusion that wanted to bring Union and Saint Paul together. You imagine, at the time, a 141-year-old Methodist church, I mean the oldest African American Methodist Church in North Texas. The mother of Saint Luke, and Hamilton Park, and some of these great, great United Methodist churches and Union Cathedral, this 12-year-old nondenominational church, which was founded by a guy who grew up Baptist.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: The Bishops, we looked at each other in the eye and said, "Let's do this." My first series as a new, the pastor of the merged congregations was, this is a God thing. You could not script it any better because everything that I think God had birthed in me through Union was about, is now coming to fruition with the merge of Saint Paul and Union Cathedral.

George Mason: Right and really isn't it one of those signs of how the spirit is at work in our churches and in our denominations, that the strict denominational divisions that we have, the way we have to either identify this way or that way. The way the Spirit is working on the ground in helping to create new partnerships, imagine new ways of relating to one another, that's bringing the church together in a way that all the national council of churches meeting in boardrooms never could do.

Richie Butler: You're right. You're right. I think if we are disintuned with the Spirit and I tell people this all the time and I mean maybe it was part of God's plan that Union did not have the kind of growth I wanted it to have at the moment because it probably would not have, the merger would not have happened.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: There would not have been a need for us to join Saint Paul in terms of you know, driving it as a space.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: I think that when we're walking in the purpose and the will and we're in tune with the Spirit, He definitely leads. I'll give you a great example. After we merged, literally a month after we merged, we hosted a community forum at the church in response to the Michael Brown shooting. I think the Grand Jury had chosen not to indict.

George Mason: That's right.

Richie Butler: We had the DA there. We had the chief of police and the sheriff. In that space, there was so much anger, resentment, and frustration, and it was out of that moment that God gave me the vision for Project Unity.

George Mason: Okay, out of the Michael Brown moment.

Richie Butler: Yes, so it was out of that.

George Mason: Okay, all right.

Richie Butler: We launched Project Unity, pastors Andy Stoker and I started doing some things together. We started to host a prayer call, which you have facilitated for racial healing.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: And then you know, came the events of 2016 with the police officers being killed and our city coming together. Out of that moment, we realized that there was a lot of energy, and sense of unity, and people wanting to work together. The question was how do we take this moment and make it a movement. And then, God put in my spirit a year of unity. And then I sort of take a step back, George and I realize my first real estate development deal was Unity Estates.

George Mason: Wow, interesting.

Richie Butler: The church I started was Union Cathedral.

George Mason: Yes, so you've been Unity all the way through.

Richie Butler: Now I'm United Methodist.

George Mason: That's right, all right. All right, and the United Methodist are not always united either.

Richie Butler: We're working through some stuff.

George Mason: We all are, aren't we?

Richie Butler: Yes, we are.

George Mason: That's right. We're going to take a break and talk about Project Unity a little bit and then we'll come back and continue in this conversation about unity.

Richie Butler: Okay. Awesome, thank you.

Speaker 3: Project Unity is committed to building and sustaining community relations. It began with a community forum at Saint Paul United Methodist Church. It launched an initiative to address the divides in our community and country. Join the dialogue and find out more about Project Unity's community building events, activities, education, and empowerment. Visit yearofunity.com.

George Mason: We're back with Richie Butler, who is both the senior minister of the Saint Paul's United Methodist Church downtown Dallas, and also the founder and president of Project Unity.

Richie Butler: yes.

George Mason: Unity, unity, unity. Union Cathedral, United Methodist, Union Estates, Unity Estates, right?

Richie Butler: Estates, yes.

George Mason: And so, Richie, we keep seeing you turn up as a person who is trying to hold hands with the business community, the politic government agencies, the church, church as, different religious groups, white and black and brown in our community. Every time we turn around, that's what matters most to you. Where does that come from?

Richie Butler: Yeah. Wow. I think we all have a bent that God has given us and I think that's part of that calling.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: That's my bent.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: I've had to, it's probably within the last couple of years that I've realized, as I stated, I mean I didn't think about the first real estate development deal, Unity Estates with a coalition of pastors, over 70 pastors that I had to corral and get on board with the project.

George Mason: A coalition, people don't understand out a coalition of pastors. Getting pastors in a coalition ...

Richie Butler: Coalition.

George Mason: Is just, yeah.

Richie Butler: And these are all black pastors.

George Mason: Exactly. Yeah, right.

Richie Butler: Yeah, yeah.

George Mason: So anyway, this is always been at the heart of who you are. Now, I mean in a sense I think people often view a person who is working at bringing people together as being one kind of person and a person who is an activist being another kind of person. I think you probably have had to struggle with that some too, in the black community especially.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: There are those who you know, we don't care about unity so much as we want to care about justice. Is it really that those two things are in opposition to each other?

Richie Butler: No, I don't think they ... I care about justice.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: I am fighting for justice.

George Mason: Yeah.

Richie Butler: But I also recognize that all of my allies may not look like me.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: Also, I think there's an opportunity to connect with people who may not even have a sense of awareness about what's going on because they just sort of live in their ... I've realized that a lot of people, we live in our little neighborhoods and we are just disconnected.

George Mason: Yep.

Richie Butler: I think on some level that sense of unity is bridge building and getting people to cross their bridge, or cross over and engage. I think it will help if you've got a whole lot of people that don't look like you on your side, I mean it builds some momentum and strength around the effort and the cause that you're fighting for.

George Mason: Well, so let's talk a little more about how you do that with Project Unity because, in Project Unity, this nonprofit that you have formed with lots of people of good will in our community, the programs, almost all of them begin with together we.

Richie Butler: That's right.

George Mason: Together we.

Richie Butler: We, yeah.

George Mason: Right. Together we dine.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: Together we ball.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: Basketball.

Richie Butler: Which you haven't participated yet.

George Mason: I know. I know. I got to work out a little bit to get into that next one. Together we sing.

Richie Butler: Sing, pray.

George Mason: Pray. All those sorts of things. Talk a little bit about the ways these programs are trying to reinforce and bring people together.

Richie Butler: Yeah. I mean one, you hone on it together we. I believe what unites us is greater than what divides us. Sometimes we play to division and from a faith perspective, I think the enemy loves to use the division to create the breach and keep us from, you know we focus on molehills when God's called us to call Mount Everest.

George Mason: Nice.

Richie Butler: I think that with together we, like together we dine, which I believe is just critical to the work of what we're doing. We're bringing people together to have courageous conversations about race. First and foremost, just to get people to listen, to listen to each other's stories.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: I believe that's where sympathy moving to empathy, but also relationships are formed. We've hosted and one of our first together we dine events was at Highland Park United Methodist Church.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: For many people the last place they would think about having conversations about race, which I believe is one of the first places it needs to take place.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: Out of that, you know actually form unity groups because some people will be like okay we do it, then what? We're working on the what and part of the what is organic.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: It's people feeling called, or moved, or motivated to do something different, to actually and one of the things we challenge people to do is to listen to someone else's story, so that means engage with somebody that you normally would never, they're not on your radar.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: Maybe it's a coworker that you have perceptions just because of the way they look. Go spend some time with them because when it boils down to it, we may realize that we have a lot more in common. If we can find to the theme of your ministry if we can find common ground.

George Mason: Right, right, right. Faith Commons is the sponsoring organization of Good God.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: Good God is trying to drive toward the common good. How can our faith inform our commitment to the common good? When you get people together, you're putting them around dinner tables, at least so far in large rooms with lots of tables and people talking to each other. Then, when you put them on a basketball court together, say for instance, or when they pray together, you know it forces people out of their normal circles, and makes them listen to one another to hear, and gives them also an opportunity to speak.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: And to say, "From my experience, it looks like this."

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: Which, where do you get that opportunity in our community otherwise?

Richie Butler: You don't. You don't and where it's safe.

George Mason: That's right.

Richie Butler: We want to set the environment up in such a way where people feel like okay, I can be vulnerable.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: If I am a racist, I can share that vulnerability because the only way we can turn the corner is to be naked before it's other. It's like we are before our God.

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: When we're naked before God, God can transform us, but as long as we keep you know our coverup and concealed, you know there's no way for God to truly work on our hearts.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: That's what we're trying to do. That's why it may not be, Project Unity is not a faith-based organization, but it is undergirded by faith.

George Mason: Of course. Okay, so tell me some experiences you've had with this. Have you seen some people's lives change because of it, some signs of hope in our community because of the work you've been doing?

Richie Butler: Yes. You know, I'll give you an example what our together we ball. One of the referee's participated the first year and afterward he said to me, he said, "Pastor, I want you to know, I want to thank you for doing this because I really have issues with the police." He said, "But, it's softened because they were, I saw them as me. I mean like me. I mean human beings."

George Mason: Right, right.

Richie Butler: I think vice versa. We've had, we literally had a group of Baptist from Louisville who came to together we dine and they were at the same table with a group of good old Presbyterian's.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: Those two congregations are now working together.

George Mason: Go figure, yeah. They would never have had an opportunity to know each other.

Richie Butler: A black Baptist and a white Presbyterian church at that.

George Mason: Okay, yeah. Wow, fantastic. Right.

Richie Butler: And so, I think and the fact that we have a unity group that it's been a year and a half and they're still meeting once a month.

George Mason: Wow. Good, good.

Richie Butler: And there are people and you're saying what's the difference? I think if you're going to create a snowball, it starts with one snowflake.

George Mason: Yes, yes.

Richie Butler: And you get a second snowflake. I realize that trying to build momentum, this is not a sprint and as a former athlete and you as being a former athlete. You know, as football players, we're not used to distance.

George Mason: Yes, yes. It's quite a ...

Richie Butler: But God has called us to the marathon.

George Mason: Right, right.

Richie Butler: That's what we're focused on so every opportunity and the fact that there are people, in particular, those because I want us to influence those who are decision makers in particular.

George Mason: That's an important part of this work too. I think what happens in a lot of our work in advocacy, activism, and justice work, we sort of demonize the people who are people of wealth, and privilege, and position, and say they're really the enemy. Many of them are doing the best they can in their own social location and the places, but they don't really know how to exercise stewardship over their resources and influence.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: That's the big move that has to take place, right?

Richie Butler: Yes, yes.

George Mason: It's like if in Dallas, if the business community decided that Dallas had to be different because they saw the inequality of wealth distribution in this city as being unacceptable, and they threw themselves into that challenge, rather than allowing the marketplace to just let everything fall out the way it does, things would be different.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: But, you've got to address it.

Richie Butler: And in part, that's why I sort of navigate these worlds because I recognize to be very candid, if I walked in just as a pastor, there is a different and especially as a black pastor, there's a different perception, as walking in as Richie Butler, you know, former partner of Henry Cisneros private equity, and have raised money, and invested dollars with CalPERS, and deals all over the country.

George Mason: Right, right.

Richie Butler: That's a different ...

George Mason: You have credibility than with people on both sides of the faith community and the business community, and social capital.

Richie Butler: I'll give you a real-life example. There's a small church and I'll sort of give it a, leave them nameless and the location, but in the city here in Texas. They're trying to get a loan with a bank for a new building and they don't have the resources. I know the pastor. We talked and happen to know the person who is one of the senior executives, I mean at the very top level of the bank. I called him and just said, "Hey, man. You know, can you guys do something?" He said, "Send me an email, but send it from your business."

George Mason: Ah, interesting.

Richie Butler: Not the pastor, from your business.

George Mason: Right, right. There you go.

Richie Butler: There's a level of credibility when it comes from Richie Butler, Prescott Group.

George Mason: Exactly, right. Got you. Yeah, well there it is, okay. What we're really talking about here is you know, Paul liked to talk about how he becomes all things to all people, in order for God's work to be done.

Richie Butler: Amen.

George Mason: I think you are demonstrating how you can be in various different places, learn the language of government, the language of business, the language of the church, the language of community justice and work in all of those areas for the common good. That's changing things around here.

Richie Butler: It's hard work, hard work. Thank God for a wife and children who support Dad being away.

George Mason: It's a little exhausting at times, isn't it?

Richie Butler: It is. It is.

George Mason: It's hard to know always which hat you have one at any given time.

Richie Butler: Yeah, yeah, yes.

George Mason: Richie, one of the things we love about you is that we know that whatever is going on in Dallas that matters, we know you'll be there.

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: We can count on you. It's hard work sometimes because sometimes the party's are at each other's throats and it's not easy.

Richie Butler: Yes, yeah.

George Mason: You're the guy who wants to see unity happen and we want to be partners with you in that and we're grateful for you.

Richie Butler: Well, thank you. I'm honored.

George Mason: Thanks for being on Good God with us.

Richie Butler: Glad to be with you. Thank you, George.

George Mason: Terrific. Okay.

Speaker 3: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God, and faith, and the common good. All material copyright 2019 by Faith Commons. Project Unity is committed to building and sustaining community relations. It began with a community forum at Saint Paul Unity Methodist Church. It launched an initiative to address the divides in our community and country. Join the dialogue and find out more about Project Unity's community building events, activities, education, and empowerment. Visit yearofunity.com.

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