When you visit Life in Deep Ellum, the last word that comes to mind is "church." Directors Joel and Rachel Triska are just fine with that. They describe Life in Deep Ellum as "a cultural center built for the artistic, social, economic, and spiritual benefit of Deep Ellum and urban Dallas."
Housed in an industrial-style building in the heart of Dallas' artsy Deep Ellum district, the center is a veritable smorgasbord of creative culture. Walk through the front doors and you enter a stark gallery with avantgarde art. Turn to the right and you'll land in a coffee shop. This isn't your typical church coffee shop with a donation jar and a few carafes. Think Intelligentsia—dark ambiance, soft leather chairs, with baristas swirling amongst hissing machines.
Past the art gallery and down a hall, at the very back of the building, is an opening with wood floors and a small stage. It looks like the setting for an Indie rock concert (and sometimes is), but this is where their faith community meets at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings.
Running a center with so many moving parts is a challenge, "like trying to hug a Sequoia," Joel says. But the holistic approach is central to their vision. Drew Dyck sat down with Joel and Rachel to talk about the unique ministry and what the relationship with their community can teach others.
How did Life in Deep Ellum start?
Joel: In the late 1990s and early 2000s Deep Ellum was thriving. The art and music scene were hot. It was the height of the punk and Goth scene. The streets were packed all night long. But around 2008 Deep Ellum suffered an economic crash. Bar after bar, music venue after music venue shut down. I remember a cover of The Dallas Observer. It showed an image of a tombstone with "Deep Ellum" etched in the stone. The message was clear: Deep Ellum was dead.
What was your strategy coming into a dying community?
Joel: We didn't just want to be a spiritual benefit; we wanted to address the community holistically. We saw the name of the organization, "Life in Deep Ellum," as a prophetic call of what we were about—bringing life to a place in desperate need of it.
Rachel: We hit the streets of Deep Ellum and did over 1,000 interviews asking people, "What would you miss if Deep Ellum was gone? What is your favorite aspect of this community?" Then we took all of those responses and narrowed it down to four things that residents really valued. It was art, music, community, and commerce. So we decided to build our cultural center and our faith community on those four pillars. We believed God was already at work and we wanted to get behind what he was doing.
How were you received initially?
Rachel: Some people were suspicious. They would ask, "Why are you doing this? What's your agenda?" We stressed that we didn't have one. Yes, we want people to come into a relationship with Jesus, but we wanted to simply underscore to our new neighbors that we were there to do life with them. We want to be a faithful Christian witness in a context that is very post-Christian. Our conversations are not driven by an I-have-to-get-this-person-saved agenda. We believe the Holy Spirit is a pretty effective evangelist.
Joel: We're just doing what any good missionary would do. We take time to learn the language and the customs of the people we're trying to reach. We build relationships, and we know that fruit is slow. We measure success very differently than a church in the suburbs. We're not reaching for low-hanging fruit. We know the fruit we're after is going to take years to grow. In some cases we will never even see what the seeds we plant become.