Monday, August 5, 2013

The Beginning of the Wesley-Rankin Center in Dallas


In 1935, a middle-aged Dallas woman, a church worker, read a newspaper story about a hardened criminal who had been sentenced to die in the electric chair in a few days. His mother was visiting him for one last time at the penitentiary.  Although there was no doubt the man deserved justice, the church worker was moved to tears by his mother’s grief, and the hard realities of the poverty in West Dallas that would lead a man to pursue a life of crime. The woman got into her Model A Ford, and drove to West Dallas. 

The church worker was Miss Hattie Rankin.  The mother was Mrs. Steve Davis, and Ray Hamilton was Mrs. Davis’s son. Ray Hamilton had been a member of Bonnie and Clyde Barrow’s gang as well as a robber and murderer in his own right. He had finally been captured in April of 1935 and was sentenced to die.

Miss Hattie was no stranger to disadvantaged people. She'd just returned to her family home in Dallas after working for several years at the Methodist Mission in San Antonio where she had ministered to unwed mothers, alcoholics, and orphaned children.

According to a Dallas Morning News story written seven years later, Miss Hattie knocked on Mrs. Davis’s door and Mrs. Davis tried to turn her away. Miss Hattie persisted, saying, "My heart aches for you. I want to pray for you," and Mrs. Davis opened the door. During the days that followed, Miss Hattie comforted and ministered to the grief-stricken woman. She prayed with the family during the long night of Ray Hamilton's execution, and helped arrange his funeral.

Miss Hattie stayed in West Dallas and rented a small house across the street, and began to hold church services and Sunday school classes there.

She went door to door in the rough neighborhood, encouraging people to attend and send their kids. By the end of the summer, over 100 people were attending services at the Eagle Ford Mission, including Mrs. Henry Barrow, the mother of the deceased bandit Clyde Barrow, who promised to bring with her "a gang of people who never saw the inside of a church."

The mission flourished, and as Miss Hattie raised more funds, a new building was built and the Eagle Ford Mission was renamed Rankin Chapel in her honor.

Miss Hattie continued to minister to people whose lives were hard, and to those who were outcast by mainstream society. It wasn't enough for her to simply bring them to the Lord; she wanted to make sure they had something else in life besides crime. A missed opportunity that led to tragedy strengthened her efforts.

 Some of the neighborhood boys promised they'd come to Sunday school if the chapel sponsored a sports team. Miss Hattie did her best to raise money for equipment, but was unsuccessful. The team remained nothing more than a wish. A few weeks later, she opened her morning newspaper to see that four of the boys had gotten into trouble, brawling and beating an old man to death with a beer bottle. They were charged with murder.

As she wrote in a letter to the editor: "Folks wonder why so many West Dallas boys turn out to be criminals.... they haven't a dog's chance to be anything else. We have no parks, no playgrounds, no handy schools, no lights, no water, no gas. The dogs in Dallas are housed better than our boys and girls."

It was from this compassion, courage and commitment that what we now know as Wesley-Rankin was born.

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