By Rick Lowry
Samson Dunn serves as lead pastor with Catalyst Church in Phoenix, Arizona, a culturally diverse church committed exclusively to reaching the inner city. Over the past 10 years, Catalyst has grown from a small urban work to two campuses that touch thousands of people weekly. Samson’s personal journey and the church’s journey have followed a nontraditional path. Their story will expand the vision of any church leader who takes the gospel of Christ seriously.
QUESTION: Your upbringing didn’t prepare you for ministry in the traditional way.
SAMSON DUNN: I’m from southern Kentucky, Monroe County. My parents were what you would call hippies, with a nontraditional lifestyle and few parenting skills. That resulted in me going to live with my grandmother, who laid the foundation of the Lord Jesus in my life. She went to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night.
When I was a young teen, my father and mother came back into my life for a season. I had two sisters and a little brother, and they wanted to get the family back together. We went to live in Indianapolis. After a year or so, my parents went back to their previous lifestyle in the drug scene.
All four of us kids wound up living with an aunt in Indiana. We were pretty much on our own—no supervision, no guidance, not many social skills. Being from the country, we were pretty rambunctious.
I started to spiral, got in trouble with the law, and ended up in jail. Mine was the typical “kid from the hood” story that you hear—the violence, the drugs.
Eventually I went on a road trip with my dad and wound up here in Phoenix. This is where I met Jesus, who went ahead of me and put a lot of things in place in order to call me to himself. I was completing one of my jail terms, and they wouldn’t release me because I didn’t have a place to go. So, a friend suggested I use his ex-wife’s house, vacant at the time, which was in the Maryvale section of Phoenix. I stayed in Maryvale a year and became intimate with the community.
I was applying for a job in the inner city in order to help young people avoid the same pitfalls I had experienced. At that time, I met Paul Covert, who has now been my mentor for 20 years. Paul introduced me to a chaplain at the youth correctional facility. The chaplain suggested I apply for a youth pastor job that was available in the inner city. The only requirement was that I had to be familiar with the Maryvale area, where our main campus is now located, and that helped me get the job. God had placed me in that community all those years ago to prepare me for my future ministry there!
How and when did Catalyst Church get started?
That youth ministry in Maryvale eventually led to God calling my wife and me, and a few families, to start Catalyst Church in 2007. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this year!
More people are released from juvenile correction facilities into the Maryvale zip code, 85033, than any other zip code in Arizona. And we wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. We did talk about moving a couple of times, but God said, “Don’t you understand the blessing of where you are?”
We shared our first property with a charter school, which helped us pay the bills. The median income of the families in our area is $18,000 to $23,000, so our offerings aren’t as large as churches in other areas. By the time we got up to 400 or 500 in attendance, it became hard to share the facility with the school, so we stepped out in faith, went solo, and never looked back.
God has continued to grow our church. Our biggest challenge is still finances. But we refuse to stress about that, because he has been so faithful. Three years ago we were out of children’s space at our Phoenix location, and every inch of our campus was being utilized. So, we expanded that campus, gave it a face-lift, and added 300 seats. But from the excitement of the building and evidence of life in our urban area, we were back at capacity before we even officially opened the new space!
So, we decided it was time for the next campus. That’s when we purchased the building in Glendale. We just celebrated our one-year anniversary at that campus on Easter, and it is running just under 400.
Tell us about the cultural diversity of Catalyst Church.
These are neighborhoods in need, and no new churches have been planted in these areas for decades. They aren’t the places where many Bible college students go to plant their first church. There are some small, long-established churches in the area, but the culture or demographic doesn’t reflect the community around them, which is mostly Hispanics and blacks.
Because we are in a location where the general population is 75 to 80 percent Hispanic, people tend to think of us as a Hispanic church. And while two-thirds of our church does have Hispanic background, we’re not exclusively a Hispanic church. Very few people in our church even speak Spanish; their families have been here for decades. There’s a huge difference between American Hispanics and Mexican nationals.
We try not to be identified by our culture, such as “a black church,” “a white church,” “a Hispanic church,” or “an Asian church.” As a result, we have a truly diverse church where anyone from any background can feel welcome. Anytime you visit us on campus you might see some scary-looking guy with tattoos on his face . . . whose smile just blinds you!
It’s ministry in its purest sense. We have to be authentic. People in our neighborhood don’t want to hear what’s politically correct. Even if they don’t agree with you, they want you to tell it like it is.
This kind of ministry can’t be done without relationships. Some organizations come to our community to “help,” but they are just chasing grant money. The government supplies money for communities like ours, but it usually doesn’t get to the individuals who need it. At first, we tried to work with government agencies, but there was too much red tape, so we chose other routes to fund our ministries.
What really jazzes you about your multicultural approach to ministry, and what are some of the challenges?
Eternity won’t be home to people from just suburban white churches or urban black churches; it will be home to people who follow Jesus out of a pure heart. And as we meet all kinds of people where they are, and they become part of our fellowship, we get to experience a little of Heaven right now!
One of our biggest struggles is not from within our own church; it’s from partnering with other churches that aren’t quite on the same page with us with regard to multicultural ministry. I’d encourage churches to do a lot of listening and learning before partnering with churches that have different cultures from their own.
Not many churches are teaching cultural diversity or understand it in its purest sense. My upbringing gave me a unique perspective. I am from southern Kentucky, a child of a black man and a white woman, working in a church in a predominantly Hispanic community. I never even met a Hispanic person until I moved to Arizona at age 19. It’s easy to isolate ourselves and be only with people like us. Unfortunately, these days we can’t seem to engage in civil dialogue or sit down and respectfully discuss our differences.
So, we would not want Catalyst to be in any other place. In fact, we’re in the process of putting into our bylaws that we will exclusively plant campuses in other underserved areas in metropolitan Phoenix.
What’s it like to do church when you don’t always feel like you have adequate facilities?
If you came to one of our campuses, you would not think, These guys are struggling. Excellence is free, so our campuses are just as nice as any suburban church you might visit. (I learned the importance of excellence from Don Wilson at Christ’s Church of the Valley, where my wife and I were members.) We have many volunteers and even some professionals who offer their skills to help the church.
But it is hard to work in an area where people have not learned how to manage money, balance checkbooks, or set up a family budget. We offer education about stewardship, which helps people move on to the things they really want to be doing for God.
We keep looking for creative ways to fund our ministry. For example, every church does cross-cultural mission work. We’re in dialogue right now with a missions-funding agency to help churches see us as cross-cultural missions work and partner with us to reach the people in the inner city. This is a forgotten place that resources don’t reach.
I know you have a passion for mentoring young people. Can you say a little about your experiences?
Our main focus is youth because we have to change the next generation in the inner city before they begin to make poor life decisions. We have outreach programs that we run as separate nonprofit organizations, and they help us get into places we cannot reach as a church. We’re actively and aggressively reaching into the community, the high schools, and anyplace we can get access.
Obviously, the best way to help inner-city youth is to introduce them to Christ. But kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care. So, we’re high on developing meaningful relationships with young people. [Once there is meaningful relationship,] they experience what we call “the epiphany”—when a student realizes there is a God who loves them, and they don’t have to live this life they’ve been handed. This often happens at a summer camp we offer.
From there, we steer them toward education. We make them aware that the government has two years of college funding available to minorities. I took advantage of that as a 30-year-old brown guy! Higher education came later in life for me than for lots of people, and I am pleased to now be completing my PhD when I’m past age 30.
So, we teach kids how to access those programs, how to be interviewed, how to dress appropriately, and how to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form. We’ve had a 92 percent success rate! And it changes them forever. Our former students are in medical school, ministry, and many other successful careers. And a majority come back to our area to serve. Not only are they changing their own lives, they are changing the life of every family member who comes after them.
Anything else you’d like to say to church leaders?
Two things: first, everything I have said today is not me, but Christ working in me, and second, we’re better together!
Rick Lowry serves as spiritual growth pastor at First Church, Burlington, Kentucky, and is an adjunct instructor at Cincinnati Christian University.