“She broke her ankle in a cemetery. We were just courting, and she was climbing over a tombstone,” said University of Central Arkansas alumnus Jim Dickerson, about his wife, Grace ’78. “She had to go to the hospital and was there for six weeks. While she was there, I asked her to marry me.”
Forty-five years later, Jim and Grace Dickerson are still happily married and living in Washington, D.C., where they have lived since 1971.
“UCA was a big part of my life growing up because I lived just a few blocks from the Arkansas State Teachers College. That’s what we called it back then,” Jim said. “I played basketball and tennis there, went to school dances there, and so it was just natural for me to go to college there.”
“However, I moved to D.C. because I felt a calling,” Jim said.
Jim moved to the nation’s capital to learn more about a unique church there with the intention of returning to Arkansas to start a similar church in North Little Rock. Instead, he met Grace in D.C., who was volunteering with the Mennonite Church, and he began laying down roots for his church there.
“He had a vision of helping families purchase homes at lower-income, affordable rates in order for them to move into affordable housing,” said Grace. “He felt a calling toward an inner-city church as well. He felt very deeply about that. He wanted to start a church that would serve a poor neighborhood, and not only serve the people on Sunday mornings, but throughout the week, and serve the community with whatever needs they may have.”
“When we started, it was with very few families. We met where we worked in this low-income area in D.C., and we worshiped in a conference room in an office space we rented,” Jim said. “We were looking for a building we could use for the long-term.”
Then, on Christmas day in 1984, Jim got a phone call that changed his life.
“I have a building on the 600 block of South Street, North West,” said the voice on the other line. Jim knew exactly where that was: in the Shaw neighborhood in inner-city Washington, D.C.
The property was in great disrepair and had many outstanding liens and fines against it. The city was threatening to tear it down, and the neighborhood was famous for drug activity, crime and poverty. It had been burned out from the riots of 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I went and looked at it, like Nehemiah going around the walls of Jericho. It was a drug hole at the epicenter of the drug trade,” Jim said. “I asked the Lord, ‘Are you sure this is the right place?’ And it was.”
The church members took a leap of faith, and with only $2,000 in the bank and fewer than a dozen people, New Community Church was born. With the help of volunteers, they began to renovate. Jim began making friends with the local drug dealers because he knew they used this building.
“I had to have their support if I was going to make a difference in that area,” said Jim. “They helped us renovate the building. They sent their children to church there. In that church, I buried them, and I married them. They knew I opposed their actions, but we made contact and connected as human beings, and it made a difference. We made a difference.”
The full renovation took three years to complete, and many amazing things blossomed since then. Grace’s brainchild, the After School and Advocacy Program was born, which offers a safe environment for children in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade to participate in college readiness-oriented STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) academic enrichment and recreational activities.
“People ask me why I do what I do, and I say it’s because success is addicting,” said Grace. “In my work, we emphasize education so much, and what we are seeing from these lower-income kids is that they aren’t just graduating high school, they’re graduating college. We provide the support to help them get to the end, and it’s so exciting to see kids finish their degrees, get careers and break that poverty cycle that has been in their families for generations. That’s what keeps me going.”
MANNA, Inc., Jim’s ministry in which he buys rundown properties in order to renovate and resell to lower-income buyers, was then incorporated into the church office building. Then came Hope and a Home, a transitional housing program for homeless families. Hope and a Home has provided more than 1,500 homes throughout the last 35 years, and they’re still going strong, with a less than 2 percent foreclosure rate.
“We make sure that they are successful. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not a giveaway program or temporary assistance,” said Jim. “This is a permanent change. It’s helping people change their lives and to have something for their families. It’s breaking patterns. It’s changing lives. It’s giving hope.”