Dehoney’s legacy lives on through urban ministry center

Communications Staff — December 1, 2008

Students and faculty at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have heard about the school’s new Wayne and LeAlice Dehoney Center for Urban Ministry. But many have not heard about the legacy of the center’s namesake.

According to their daughter, Kathy Evitts, knowing the Dehoney legacy will motivate students to work through the Dehoney Center to reach the world’s cities for Christ.

“My dad stood on the Mount of Olives and recalled that Jesus stood there and looked out over Jerusalem,” Evitts said. “Moved by compassion He wept. Wayne Dehoney, looking upon cities around the world was moved by similar compassion.

“He saw teeming thousands ‘wandering as sheep without a shepherd,’ with no voice to tell them of God’s love for them and point them to the One who would give them hope. His desire was that no person be left untouched by the Gospel regardless of gender, race or social standing. God called, and he answered.”

Dehoney (1918-2007) served as pastor of urban churches throughout his ministry along with his wife LeAlice, who also died in 2007. Dehoney led his final church, Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, to adopt a motto that exemplified his entire ministry, according to Evitts—”Find a need and fill it, see a hurt and heal it.”

He began his urban ministry in 1950, becoming the pastor of Central Park Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Located in a working class neighborhood, Dehoney led the church to build a new sanctuary and educational space to better reach the community around it.

Central Park gained a reputation during Dehoney’s eight years as pastor for its excellent Sunday School.

“As a child I remember other pastors coming into our home to explore ‘how to build a church through Sunday School development,’” Evitts said.

From Birmingham, the Dehoneys moved to Jackson, Tenn., to pastor the First Baptist Church. Though the congregation was located in a declining area of town adjacent the bus station, Dehoney challenged it to stay downtown and minister to the surrounding community.

During the mid-1960s, Dehoney took a strong stance with church leaders when word spread that African-Americans would attempt to attend a worship service. He told them visitors of any race were to be welcomed without fanfare or resistance.

“We soon had African Americans worshipping with us even though much of the balance of this west Tennessee community was still struggling with the process of integration,” Evitts said. “Much of the area just adjacent to our church in Jackson had already begun to be integrated, and these folks needed a place to worship as well.

“He was on the leading edge related to welcoming with open arms anyone who would want to worship with us.”

While at First Baptist, Dehoney was twice elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. In that position, he used his influence to urge the entire denomination to treat people of all races in a manner consistent with the teaching of Scripture.

In 1964 he called on Southern Baptists to comply with the recently passed Civil Rights Act.

“As Christians, let us continue with new zeal at the never-ending task of proclaiming a Gospel that transforms the hearts of men,” Dehoney said. “Legislation and law can only enforce an orderly social climate, conducive to moral ideals. It still remains for the Gospel of Jesus Christ to transform and change the individual hearts of men to eradicate the prejudice that spawns racial discrimination.”

Dehoney moved to Walnut Street in 1967, where he remained for nearly 20 years and continued to apply the Gospel to race relations. The year after he became pastor, race riots broke out in Louisville within two blocks of the church.

During the riots Dehoney voluntarily spent a night in jail ministering to African Americans brought in for rioting. He then preached a sermon to his mostly white congregation urging them understand the frustration blacks felt from decades of mistreatment.

“What the black community has done to the white community during this time of rioting, turmoil and looting, is nothing compared to what whites have done to blacks through the years,” he said, adding that forgiveness was the key to interracial Christian brotherhood.

In addition to his work for racial reconciliation at Walnut Street, Dehoney began an extensive community missions ministry and hosted conferences in which he taught other pastors how to minister to the neighborhoods around their churches.

Evitts noted that many members at Walnut Street today received a fresh start in life because of Dehoney.

“Many of the current leadership at Walnut Street got their first chance at life or encouragement to make something of themselves from the committed saints who volunteered in these ministries long before it was vogue to be a big brother or sister or mentor for (local public) schools,” she said.

Along with duties at Walnut Street, Dehoney’s ministry in Louisville included service to Southern Seminary. He served as chairman of the board of trustees and was senior professor of preaching and evangelism.

Southern students interested in continuing the Dehoney legacy of urban ministry can explore the Dehoney Center’s training opportunities for urban ministers as well as its resources and research on church growth in the inner city.

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