Episode 62: Richie Butler and the great Dallas divide

Today on Good God, Richie Butler and George talk about the economic and racial divides in Dallas. They also discuss the Botham Jean murder indictment and the implications of that tragedy on Dallas and our wider culture.

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

George Mason: He calls it Project Unity. Richie Butler is the pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Dallas and also the founder of Project Unity that's calling the city to come together across racial and ethnic lines and bring people together. Hear more about that on Good God coming up. Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason, your host, and I'm just delighted to be able to welcome to the program again today, Richie Butler. Richie is the senior minister of the St. Paul's United Methodist Church, downtown Dallas and also the president and founder of Project Unity. Richie, we have lots of work to do in Dallas and we have lots of organizations that are working on things. I think probably in the many years that both of us have been at it here in Dallas, there are more signs of cooperation and help in Dallas across denominational and faith lines, different religions, and even racial and ethnic lines. We're finding ways to come together, but the challenge is still enormous because Dallas is really a tale of two cities, isn't it?

Richie Butler: It is. I mean, you think about the trinity as one of the great divides. I mean, the majority of the real estate is south of downtown across the south of the trinity. Unfortunately, it also has... That's the lowest part of the tax base.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: Probably an oasis of opportunity, but continues to languish because lack of resources that are dedicated. But it's also where most people who look like me reside. And fortunately, people who look like me and who have sort of advanced are not congregating or moving into those areas either they are going for the south or somewhere north.

George Mason: Right. Years ago I helped to start a group called Faith Leap Dallas that was going to work with churches around teaching mothers of preschoolers how to read to their children to get them ready to start school. And so, what we found was that we thought we would go into at risk communities and work with pastors and churches who would work with their neighbors about this. And the startling discovery to me wouldn't be to you, but it was to me was that a lot of these churches really don't know their neighborhood very well because their churches started there but now mostly their people drive in from other places. And so, they were somewhat disconnected from their neighbors because of the fact that moving into the middle class meant moving out.

Richie Butler: Yes, yes. That's so true. And it's a conundrum because on one level, you understand if you are upwardly mobile you want a better "life" for your family and for your children. Good example, when we moved to Dallas, I told my wife we're going to live in South Dallas on South Boulevard, and my wife said, "I don't feel safe."

George Mason: Right.

Richie Butler: And my mentor stopped me in my effort to push my wife. He said, "If that's your call, that's your call. You can't infringe your call on your family."

George Mason: Right, right.

Richie Butler: And, and so I live up north, I mean someone who's really committed. So, we lived-

George Mason: Well, she also worked at TI though, right?

Richie Butler: No, she's in American now.

George Mason: Oh, she's in America now?

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: She was at TI at that time?

Richie Butler: Yeah, yes. Yeah. So it was also convenient, easier. Yeah.

George Mason: Right, right. But nonetheless, still the point is that it felt safer. It felt like a community that was more supportive of the kind of aims that you have as a family and all of that. And that's what has to change in part, isn't it?

Richie Butler: Yes.

George Mason: I had a good broad conversation with Wick Alison, who's the publisher of D magazine, and we were talking about South Dallas and development and all of that. And he said, "Well, what neighborhoods like that need is a dry cleaner." I said, "A dry cleaner? I thought they needed grocery stores?" And he said, "Well, yeah, they do," but his point was, if you see a dry cleaner go into a community that means somebody needs a dry cleaner because they're putting on a suit and tie and they're going to work and they want to live in a community that supports the kind of work that they do because there's opportunity there. But as you used the word conundrum, the question is chicken or egg? How you create a community like that, where you don't just put a dry cleaner in without anybody to be a customer. So you've got to build the capability of all of that happening too.

Richie Butler: I mean, as someone who's been in real estate from a development standpoint of me, rooftops drives retail.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: And so if you've got rooftops with resources or income, that's the formula for a traditional developer. And so the question is, in neighborhoods where you may have some rooftops, but the resources are limited it's hard to attract, and that's also the challenge. So, I think we've got to... And I think this is where the faith community plays a role. And just imagine you've got some mega churches all over north Texas who claim Jesus, and we want to make a difference. What if a hundred of those members, I'm talking to churches that have 20,000 folks. If 100 of those members said, "You know what, we're going to be part of a transformational initiative." High church is going to bring some resources, and we're gonna move into an area. I mean, you want to talk about transformational, and I think that's, rather than us writing a cheque. And myself included, if some of us said, "We're going to invest ourselves..." And as you know when those hundred families invest themselves then they're going to be engaged in the school, they're going to be engaged in neighborhood services. They're going to be down at City Hall and then with the Church alongside, you have this comprehensive approach to working with the overall community because what you don't want to do is isolate the hundred are there, and they're not in tandem with everyone else. We've got to think complately out of box.

George Mason: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And I think that when you raise a question like that, the idea of a hundred folks moving from North Dallas into South Dallas neighborhood, for example, in an intentional community development kind of concept, I think the apprehension there is that there's kind of a colonizing that happens. And is there a colonialist mentality happening? A gentrification that says we're going to disrespect the culture and history of this community. How do you bridge that gap when you have this effort to say let's be part of this renewal and resurgence in a community?

Richie Butler: Well, I think one, it starts with the approach.

George Mason: Yeah.

Richie Butler: One, when I threw out the hundred, it's not a developer saying, "Okay, we're going to start building some houses here and sell them," and as gentrification, how it typically happens someone starts planning stuff, this has to be intentional from beginning to end. And it includes the people who are there.

George Mason: That's the key, isn't it?

Richie Butler: Yeah. And they're partners in this. And I can imagine that someone... Everyone wants a better life for themselves and for their family. And if I can be a resource in my participation with you in improving your life and also give some purpose and meaning to mind, it creates a win win.

George Mason: Well, let's take education for example.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: Okay. So there's a perfect example I think because as a result of a desegregation, the white flight is well documented.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: We have 95% non white in DISD students. And so essentially what you have is suburban white school districts, and you have an urban black and Latino school district. And of course other ethnicities as well. But the lack of therefore having the mix of those who have been traditionally more well educated from families that have been more successful and have developed habits of prosperity and success. Taking all of those folks out of the school system has left a challenged urban school district.

Richie Butler: Yes, yes.

George Mason: And if you imagine, what if they had stayed?

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: What if they had stayed, and we'd been neighbors the way we could have been. What if they had said, "You know what, in Dallas, we're not going to hear the siren call and leave behind our neighbors. We want to do this together and we want to build a future together." I mean instead of the last 50 years being what it's been, imagine where we would be in race relations, in wealth distribution and all of that.

Richie Butler: All I can say today is a Amen.

George Mason: Yeah. Well it's not too late.

Richie Butler: Yeah, no, it's not.

George Mason: And what we see is that DISD has created some absolutely remarkable programs now of school choice and creativity and campuses and we're beginning to invest in the best teachers going into the most challenging neighborhoods and we've seen just enormous progress. And my hope is of course, that now school reform is going to bring people back into town and people will see that it's not going to hurt your white child's education to be in a mixed school. In fact, it's going to not harm them intellectually and academically, but it will enormously increase their cultural intelligence, which is a big factor in the coming economy I think.

Richie Butler: I agree. As we are all recognize America is definitely browning, has brown and continues to brown. And as we think about people we work next to, people we interact with, whether it's local, nationally, or globally, I mean they're probably not going to look like us.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: And we definitely have to appreciate... I celebrate my kids grew up in a school district and went to school with kids... extremely diverse. I mean, I think in the elementary school there were 25 different languages spoken.

George Mason: Wow.

Richie Butler: So our kids have a... I understand when I went to my daughter's sweet 16, we celebrated it and I took a picture and it was just exciting. We've got like a United Nations symbol, and I think that's our future. And I think if we're not culturally intelligent, we can have... My mother says that I was, "Baby, you can have all the book sense in the world, but if you don't have any common sense..."

George Mason: There you go.

Richie Butler: And I think we need to add the element of cultural sense.

George Mason: Right. And when we talk about cultural sense, I think part of the struggle is that people hear cultural and what they mean by that is my culture, which has to remain privileged to me and someone else has a culture that instead of seeing it as interesting into which I can learn about my own culture and engage in someone else's culture, so that we have this really lovely mix of cultures pulling together, I see the emergence of other cultures is a threat to my culture.

Richie Butler: Threat. Yeah. Yeah.

George Mason: And I feel like we're seeing that in America, in a big way right now. And the backlash against that has been to hunker down and say, “Our culture defines America.” And unfortunately that's been over the course of our entire history, it's been largely the white Christian culture that he has done that. If we could learn to see that cultures don't have to be a threat to one another, they can be an expression of the diversity of the way God has made people to find meaning in their lives. That might be an exciting new America that we could see come back.

Richie Butler: I can see that. And that is in part... I mean the work we're doing with Project Unity, and I believe part of my personal mission is to help realize it and to also help set a place or a pathway or blueprint that helps many Americans. And understandably, the fear with an emerging cultural dynamic that is in process.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: And most of us are just not comfortable when things are in process and change because I don't know how I'm going to come out in all of this. But I think if we recognize and note, first of all, for those of us of faith that God is still God.

George Mason: Exactly.

Richie Butler: And God is not going anywhere. And if we'll let the spirit move, the Bible says, by prayer and supplication make your requests known through thanksgiving and the peace of God will surpass all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds. If we can abide in that, man, we can find peace and an appreciation for all of God's creation, not just creation that looks like me, but all of God's creation.

George Mason: So let's take a break and talk a little more after the break about this direction, about how we carry our faith and our commitment to bring people together into some areas of ongoing division.

Richie Butler: Yeah. Okay. Alrighty.

Jim White: Project Unity is committed to building and sustaining community relations. It began with a community forum at St. Paul United Methodist Church. It launched an initiative to address the divides in our community and country. Join the dialog 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. And Richie, you've been working on how to bring the city together in so many ways. The faith community and racial and ethnic unity, business community, government and all of that. We've had some pretty big challenges here in recent years, and one of those challenges has been the relationship between law enforcement and the black community in particular. You're Together We Ball program, brings police and first responders. I guess, just police?

Richie Butler: Police.

George Mason: Just police primarily together with other citizens, largely black community and other faith leaders to play basketball together, to just interact on a fun basis and recreationally. But we've had some pretty big high profile cases in recent years. Right now where we've just received the indictment from the grand jury in the Botham Jean murder. I say murder, it's a murder indictment and we'll see how the legal process works out in that respect. But we had the conviction of Roy Oliver the police officer in the Jordan Edwards killing as well. And then going back to 2016, the shooting of the Dallas police officers, there's a sense that law enforcement is also under siege. And so we're wrestling now with how to bring about a sense of equal justice across racial and ethnic lines to have respect for the role of police and yet to recognize that it feels like things have not been equally applied in policing and in the judicial system.

George Mason: So where do you see Dallas right now? What's the temperature of this? Where do you think we are? It feels to me like we're a bit at a pivotal point that if we can get through this next period of time toward a more just application, it will be helpful. And if we don't we're teeming with an awful lot of pent up history that's gonna explode on us.

Richie Butler: I just want to say Amen to everything you just said, George. I do think that our city is reflective of our country, I believe I'll say.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: And I also believe that if we do this right, I think Dallas can help navigate and lead the nation in some ways. I think we're doing it economically.

George Mason: Yes.

Richie Butler: When you look at all jobs reports and economic indicators and leaders, I mean the city, north Texas has been a leader. And I think it's time for us to step up from a social justice and socially and also lead. And that's probably a call for business to show up. And sometimes I think those in business care, but I don't know if we've given them a space at the table where they don't feel like they are going to get beat down but a place at the table. And also, from a business standpoint, it's all about what's practical, what's pragmatic, let's set some goals, objectives and let's move it forward. And so if we can clearly define... Because what does justice... I mean we know in the Botham Jean shooting for many of us, justice means a murder conviction. But what is justice reform and what are some of the forces that need to happen in order to improve how policing is done?

George Mason: Well, okay, so for example, we can't prejudge what a jury is going to decide in the Botham Jean case. The fact that there was a murder indictment only suggests that there was adequate evidence to move forward with a murder charge. And we don't know whether the standard of proof will be met for that or not. But I think what many people don't realize is that when Amber Guyger, who is the shooter, the police officer who shot Botham Jean, is allowed to remain free for how many days? Three days I believe it was after the shooting. When she's not permitted to be questioned for 72 hours and during that period of time, stories then are able to be concocted to suggest alternative narratives of the way things took place. When the Texas Rangers are called in on the surface to say that this is, we want to be impartial and we're not just going to do this in house, but then immediately they recommend a manslaughter charge instead of a murder charge to be done. All these things suggest this is not the way it would happen if the tables were turned.

Richie Butler: Turned, I agree.

George Mason: So when people look at this and say, “Well, we should just let the process work because we should just trust the decision.” Well, if it worked the same for everyone then we wouldn't have this question. But repeatedly it feels like, although she might not have had any knowledge of who it was that she was shooting, we don't know that yet even, whether she knew who was in that apartment. And therefore was it racially tinged in terms of bias or not? We don't know. But we do know that that exists, implicit bias. So what we're talking about here is not just a one off situation of this particular case, but the whole history of the way these things come down in communities over time.

Richie Butler: Yes. Yes. And let me say this, I think what makes the Botham Jean shooting unique and an opportunity is because Botham Jean was... I hate to put in these terms, he was the right personality.

George Mason: Yes, yes.

Richie Butler: Educated, good God fearing young man, led the praise team at his church. He worked for one of the big accounting firms, and was on the trajectory. I mean, it was said that he'd potentially go back to Saint Lucia-

George Mason: To run for president of Saint Lucia, exactly.

Richie Butler: And so I think he becomes the poster child, or that I think in my opinion and I think we have to leverage and use every resource and every opportunity to move this agenda for justice forward because people who normally don't pay attention actually are paying attention.

George Mason: Well, they are and I suppose this is human nature that because it's Botham Jean and he is the poster child of character and all of that, we are paying more attention. But let's be clear about the fact that if you are a young white male who is arrested for using marijuana or for drunken driving or whatever the case may be, over and over again, that's not considered to be a character flaw somehow, it's just growing up. But when an African American young man has the very same kinds of behavior we justify the way he's treated by the police differently and whatever sentencing comes down and then we... So, where Botham Jean is concerned, I really have to say that I feel like, yes, you're right, he is the ideal person in this case, but that's unfortunate that we would even say that because we would want every one of our children to be treated even if he weren't in that fashion.

Richie Butler: And where I'm going with that is that his shooting helps to awaken and engage some people that-

George Mason: That would not have been otherwise.

Richie Butler: I mean, I've gotten calls from people who are business leaders. This was never on their radar it's now on their conversation around police involved shootings, and also the tension and the unrest that is created and has existed. But somehow Botham has awakened it not in the black community or in communities of color, but in communities that are not aware. And I think that helps those of us who want to see justice move forward. You have to leverage that. And I just believe in sports. You've got to use every resource now and get into the end zone. If you got to do a trick play, whatever it is, we got to score.

George Mason: Well, and let's carry that metaphor a little farther because one of the things we have on the field is we have people playing different positions. And they have different skills and they contribute differently. And this was one of the things I think people in communities that looked like me, we have a tendency to say, “I sort of like the way Richie Butler goes about it, but there's some of those folks out there, some of those activists they go a little too far. The way they protest, their language, it seems like they're angry.”

Richie Butler: Richie Butler's angry, I just want people to...

George Mason: Well, and George Mason's angry too.

Richie Butler: Yeah. Yeah.

George Mason: Okay.

Richie Butler: Yeah.

George Mason: But it's what we do with our anger and how we express it. But being selective about how we're supposed to tell people how to engage is part of the privilege that some of us have had. And part of the way I try to tell people to look at this is, look, we have to realize that a lot of people play a lot of positions in this and it's like being on a team. And what we don't want to do is make a wide receiver into an offensive tackle. We don't want to make a quarterback into a linebacker. We need people to play their roles in the way they feel called and gifted to play them, and then recognize that we have to work together as a team to see this victory through.

Richie Butler: I completely agree. One of the things I actually attempted to do was to get the different groups, and when I say different groups that are focused on justice, to your point, those who are what many may call extreme activist, and I mean protest to those who are more conciliatory in their approach. Because at the end of the day we all want justice, and if we can at least set some ground rules and mutual respect that we all care about the same issue. And not to demean the other but actually figure out how we strategically can collaborate and get to the same end. And so, we actually had a meeting and now we're trying to figure out what are some next steps to collaborate, like sharing more information and as you know we decided if Botham Jean's indictment ended up being a no bill, what would happen. And many of us leaders and you were included we decided we would join in with the protesters and not go try to do our own thing because to show a sense of unity.

George Mason: That's exactly right. I mean, we can't always be flying our own banner and saying, “This is our press conference. This is our rally, this is our...” let's find a way to do this together and not try to exploit it for the purposes of our own organizations or whatever this is about. Not about us, it's about the common good in our community. And so I know that whether it's Project Unity or any other thing that you're working on in the community that's your spirit and we can depend upon you with that. Richie, thank you for being on Good God, and thank you for all the work you do with us. I look forward to years ahead of working together.

Richie Butler: That's a two way street. Thank you, George.

George Mason: You're welcome.

Richie Butler: All right.

George Mason: Okay.

Richie Butler: Be blessed.

George Mason: Thank you.

Jim White: 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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