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Pastor Richie Butler preached his first sermon to a teleprompter after taking the pulpit of one of Dallas’ most influential Black churches in July 2020.

When he finally got the chance to deliver God’s word face to face, it was not at his new home inside St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church but for socially distanced Easter services at Klyde Warren Park.

Even when COVID subsided enough that some St. Luke members wanted to return to regular in-person worship, their beloved sanctuary — still undergoing repairs after the brutal 2021 winter storm — remained closed.

The only way forward was many more months of online-only services.

That’s when Butler’s longtime friend Paul Rasmussen, senior minister of Highland Park United Methodist, made a suggestion that led to an unprecedented milestone in local church history: Beginning in July 2021, these two churches of influence and prestige worshipped on the same campus and occasionally joined together for special events.

But there’s no place like home — the message I heard loud and clear from St. Luke members as we gathered Sunday for the unveiling of their updated sanctuary and to hear Butler’s long-delayed first sermon here.

Bobby Jefferson, a St. Luke usher and member for more than 20 years, paused for a moment amid his continual greeting of “Good morning, saints” to talk about this special day.

“The storms and the pandemic didn’t defeat us,” Jefferson, who lives in Buckner Terrace, told me. “If I got any more excited, I’d be running and shouting up and down the aisles.”

Dating back to its heyday under longtime and legendary pastor Zan Holmes, St. Luke has been a steadfast voice in this city for justice and equity. Very aware that churches that have rich pasts sometimes fade away into that same history, Butler and his congregation are intent on forging a new pathway forward.

“We’re not waiting on anyone else,” he told me as he prepared for the service. “We are called to lead and that’s what we will do.”

Butler used Sunday’s sermon to begin framing out that mission from the pulpit as he kicked off a series entitled “No Going Back.”

The praise, music and worship Sunday morning reverberated with the joy of homecoming as members got their first look at the sparkling sanctuary.

Purple floodlights shimmer to the rafters. A big new stage accommodates a variety of performances and worship styles. The completely overhauled audio-video operation enriches the online programming.

Everyone I spoke with at St. Luke was happy with the changes, but they were even more thrilled just to be back at 5710 E. R.L. Thornton, on the south side of Interstate 30 east of downtown.

Understandably worried about COVID, some hadn’t worshipped in person since the pandemic struck. Others had been adamant that they didn’t want to attend anywhere but St. Luke.

Even on this homecoming day, with more than 500 congregants in the pews, Butler told me far more would still be worshipping from their own living rooms.

Throughout Sunday’s service were words of thankfulness to Rasmussen’s church, 8 miles to the north, which provided St. Luke a home away from home for eight months.

St. Luke executive pastor Lynda Mayberry described it in her opening prayer as the “radical understanding and generosity of Highland Park United Methodist Church.”

Just before the 10 a.m. service began, St. Luke communication director Ronnie Hughes told me: “Highland Park changed us and we changed Highland Park — all for the better. We are one family under God.”

Rasmussen and the Highland Park congregation invited St. Luke to worship at their Mockingbird Lane campus after learning in May that its renovations were still far from complete.

Broken pipes during the February 2021 storm had caused water damage in the pastoral offices and in the front of the sanctuary. Butler said that as much as he wanted to make quick repairs and get the church reopened as soon as possible, he saw a better way forward.

“This was an opportunity to reimagine and reenvision something new for this several-decades-old sanctuary,” Butler said.

To allow time for all of that, St. Luke selected the Tolleson Family Activity Center on the Highland Park UMC campus as its worship site.

Due to COVID restrictions, the two congregations weren’t able to regularly engage with one another. They did worship together on Christmas Eve, and each church’s worship team visited the other’s services.

Butler and Hughes said Rasmussen’s congregation received St. Luke’s with open arms and served in myriad ways — whether it was making coffee, setting up for services or helping with communication needs.

In turn, Hughes said, the members of the host church “got to see a different style of worship — and they enjoyed it.”

At the end of St. Luke’s final service at the Tolleson center Feb. 27, Rasmussen relayed his congregation’s best wishes and presented Butler’s church with a $400,000 check.

Butler recalled that as the donation sparked an encore of song and prayer, Rasmussen responded that “in white churches, we just clap a little bit. You guys started having church again.”

Indeed, St. Luke knows how to do the kind of church that reverberates through your body and soul. Even though the worshippers kept their masks firmly in place Sunday, there was no disguising the electric energy and connection among pastors, worship team and congregation.

Lola Redic, who lives in West Dallas and has been a member of St. Luke for almost three decades, described the experience of being at the Highland Park campus as very different but said “it was a blessing to just be able to be in God’s house.”

“We have weathered a lot, but we always come back strong,” she said.

Brenda Williams, who drives by more than a dozen places of worship en route from her south Oak Cliff residence to her 30-years-plus home at St. Luke, told me, “It’s just so beautiful to be back home.”

“This is exciting,” she said. “I’m always interested in what’s new and what we are doing going forward.”

Butler has more big plans ready. The church’s “All in” motto has evolved this year into “All in with the next gen,” and Butler says connecting with the younger generation requires the kind of top-notch technology just installed at St. Luke.

The church has also launched its Vision 2024, a blueprint for tearing down some of its old buildings and constructing the St. Luke Empowerment Center, similar to Highland Park UMC’s Tolleson center.

Butler regrets that COVID concerns hampered efforts for the two congregations to become more involved, but he hopes that the experience of sharing a campus forges deeper relationships.

“If we are truly going to solve the issue of race and genuinely move forward, it has to be done in community and collaboration,” he said.

He hopes to continue using the Project Unity ministry, which he created in 2014, to bring people together under a justice and unity banner.

For example, several Project Unity board members from St. Luke and Highland Park UMC are spearheading plans for a “Together We Dine” event, tentatively scheduled for April 24 at the Dallas Arboretum.

As the venerable St. Luke church positions itself to again do history-making work, Butler’s message Sunday is one we might all heed as we move beyond the pandemic:

Let’s not talk about getting back to normal, he said, but instead strive for next-level normal. “Just because we are back at 5710 doesn’t mean we are going back to 2019 ways of being and doing.”