There’s a quotation, often attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., that goes “One of the tragedies of our nation is that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours in Christian America.”
He may not have been the first to say it, but the observation is something Mark DeYmaz, founder, pastor and directional leader of Mosaic Church in Little Rock, has been trying to rectify for nearly 20 years.
“Racism is, ultimately, a spiritual problem,” says DeYmaz (pronounced De-maz) on a warm fall morning at his windowless office in the sprawling, renovated former Kmart on Col. Glenn Road. The building now houses Mosaic, a church determined to bring together a diverse flock of the faithful to not only worship but to transform its surroundings.
“Who is supposed to work on the human heart? Not government, not educators. It should be the mosques and the temples and the churches,” DeYmaz says.
It’s a sentiment that first hit De-Ymaz in 1997, when he and a group of youth pastors — some black, some white — organized the Racial Reconciliation Rally, which brought 15,000 people to what is now First Security Amphitheater in downtown Little Rock’s River Market District to hear bands like DC Talk and speakers ranging from politicians to boxing champ Evander Holyfield. The rally also coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Central High School crisis.
After the rally, he couldn’t fully shake the desire to be a part of a different kind of church and, in 2001, he left his position as youth pastor at the well-established Fellowship Bible Church to start Mosaic in southwest Little Rock.
“A lot of prayer went into it,” says Linda, his wife of nearly 30 years. “But we felt a need and saw a hole for this kind of church in Little Rock.”
“I looked around the city and I wanted to create a church of diverse people who could walk, work and worship God as one,” DeYmaz says. “The idea was to create a church that reflects the city. That’s not political correctness, that’s biblical correctness. And I wanted to do it in an area of high need, where the church could actually deliver on community transformation.”
To that end, DeYmaz, a youthful 55 with a neatly trimmed salt and pepper beard, planted his church in a part of the city he says was underfunded and underserved and set about changing not just the area’s spiritual life but also its economic well-being. It wasn’t enough to simply be a church made up of a flock from all walks of life — black, white, Asian, Hispanic, rich, poor, liberal, conservative — Mosaic also needed to have a positive impact on the area.
“He has always stepped out of his comfort zone to pursue a dream,” says Linda, who owns Linda De-Ymaz Designs and helped design the church’s interior.
For the first four years the couple and their children relied primarily on donations from supporters who didn’t attend the church but supported their vision. “It was a huge risk for our family, but Mark is like an entrepreneur for the church,” Linda says.
DeYmaz, the only child of a single mother, was born in San Francisco and spent the first 11 years of his life in the Bay Area before the pair moved to the Scottsdale Valley region of Arizona. They weren’t getting rich off his mother’s salary as a government worker so he helped his mom, Dorothy DeYmaz, sell Avon door to door in California and, in Arizona, swept the parking lot of a convenience store and washed dishes at the Phoenix Playboy Club.
He was raised Catholic and attended the Jesuit-run Brophy College Preparatory school in Phoenix on a partial scholarship. He was also working in the rectory with the priests.
“Who is supposed to work on the human heart? Not government, not educators. It should be the mosques and the temples and the churches.”
“There’s a strong Jesuit influence on my life,” he says. “Their motto is ‘men for others.’ You’re called to give your life away, and that still resonates with me. Even though I’m now on the Protestant side of the house, I’m a Jesuit at heart.”
AND SKATE CHURCH
That journey to the Protestant side began during his senior year in high school when his mom took him to a conservative Baptist church that was closer to their home.
He attended Mesa Community College on a baseball scholarship (DeYmaz was a third baseman and one of his teammates was future Razorback and St. Louis Cardinal Tom Pagnozzi) and kept attending the Baptist church, where for the first time he was exposed to people his own age acting on their faith.
“I saw these young people who weren’t just about partying and drugs and all the stuff that’s available to high school and college kids,” he says. “They had a zeal for their faith and they were engaged and active.”
A full-ride scholarship to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University took DeYmaz to Lynchburg, Va., where he graduated with a degree in psychology. But he was too slow to get drafted to the majors and returned to that Baptist church in Arizona to work as a youth pastor. Nearly two years later, on the recommendation of his pastor, he was at Western Seminary in Portland, Ore.
After the initial shock wore off (“I thought everybody would be wearing robes and chanting.” They weren’t.), he settled in with his studies and took a job as a youth pastor at a Portland church. He was part of starting a skateboard ministry known as Skate Church when he met Linda.
“I looked at the office door of the church, and here was this beautiful woman my age in this very colorful clothing. Portland is pretty rainy and drab and gray, and she just popped out,” he says.
She was there offering to volunteer to work with young people. DeYmaz asked her out a week later and they’ve been together ever since.
In 1993, after serving as a youth pastor in Oregon, Arizona, Washington and at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, DeYmaz took a position at Little Rock’s Fellowship Bible Church and moved his growing family to Arkansas, where his mother had grown up in Hermitage.
After eight years at Fellowship, he followed his vision and started Mosaic. It wasn’t easy. The early days of the church were spent trying to find a place to have services.
“The first five months, we bounced around. They called us the stealth church.”
Harry Li, a former electrical engineering professor, moved to Little Rock from Idaho to be Mosaic’s pastor six months after it started. Li is now the church’s senior pastor. “That kind of shows you Mark’s visionary abilities, to see this geeky academic and the potential for him to come join and help pastor this crazy little church,” Li says.
The small group — there were about 40 at the first service — met in a building across from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for 18 months before moving to an empty Wal-Mart on Col. Glenn Road near its current location. Mosaic, which now has 450-500 members, eventually bought the old Kmart store in 2006 and refurbished the building into an active and busy center where the church has plenty of room to grow.
DeYmaz believes he is doing exactly what he has been called to do.
“I feel like this is where God led me,” he says. “I want to invest in the people of the 72204 [ZIP code]. If we created a church that reflected the community, then the mission wouldn’t be a program, it would be who you are. You wouldn’t be building bridges to the community, you become the community.”
It’s one thing, for instance, for a church to help the homeless, but it’s quite another when the homeless are part of the congregation.
“They’re not just people you help,” he says. “They’re actually members of your church and they have needs. And because they’re from the community, you’re not just rubbing your hands going ‘What can we do for those people’ — you are those people.”
It’s all part of a threepronged effort that includes spiritual development, social justice work and economic impact to spread throughout the area Mosaic serves. The church has a nonprofit arm, called Vine and Village, that oversees programs like The Orchard, which distributes food to needy families of the 72204 area from 2-4 p.m. every Tuesday. “About 55 percent of this entire ZIP code depends on us for three to four days of meals a month,” DeYmaz says.
The nonprofit allows Mosaic to “get other people involved and track additional resources a church couldn’t, like grants,” he says. There are also programs for teenage mothers, foster children and a chess club. The Fresh2You Mobile Market takes fresh food to areas of the city that don’t have the easiest access to well-stocked grocery stores. The church is also a Baptist Health Community Wellness Center, offering health education, care coordination, immunization, screenings and other health-related services once a month. Immigration services are also available.
And though this may be the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus (Mosaic will have one service today, at 10:45 a.m., instead of the normal two), it’s the resurrection that sticks in De Ymaz’s mind.
“We believe that really happened, that Christ died and was resurrected from the tomb and this brings a redemptive factor to our personal lives,” he says of Christians. “I’ve taught that, I’ve heard that, I’ve studied that, but I wanted to see it happen. We don’t raise people from the dead here at Mosaic, but we can raise abandoned buildings, we can help create jobs, we can bring a measure of physical and economic redemption to a community in need.”
This premise is most evident in the building the church inhabits. The former retail space is divided between the church and its offices and a gleaming new 10 Fitness gym, which rents the location from Mosaic. It’s an income stream for the church as well as a new business and job creator for the area. Midstate Furniture and Appliance, LLC, a small company that refurbishes appliances, also rents space from the church.
“We saw that we could do this in a way that wasn’t gentrification,” DeYmaz says. “This wasn’t taking advantage of the community, but doing it in a way that is a blessing to the people and at the same time helps fund a mission.”
Others have seen the impact.
“Beyond question, Mosaic has been a great addition to the University District,” a defined area bordered by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says former UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson, who first met DeYmaz in 2003 at a presentation of a university-conducted survey on racial attitudes in Pulaski County. The refurbishing of the once-empty building and drawing a tenant such as 10 Fitness to the area helps bring other businesses, he says.
The church also takes its role in the community seriously, Anderson adds. “They might not be the richest congregation in town, but in terms of vitality and activity in the community, by deploying the outreach activities they have there, they have made a further contribution toward improving life and health in the community.”
Li, the senior pastor, has watched the church grow and has seen DeYmaz mature as a leader along the way.
“I would say he definitely has evolved a lot over the past 15 years,” Li says. “When I first got here, he was young and inexperienced in terms of adult leadership. He was probably a little on the brash side, initially. He’s the one who has had to change the most over the past 15 years … he’s definitely one of my closest friends and the guy that has the eye to see who people can become.”
DeYmaz has written six books on multi-ethnic churches, with his latest, Disruption: Re-purposing the Church to Redeem the Community, to be published in March. Much of his time is now spent spreading the Mosaic word nationally and internationally.
In 2004, he co-founded Mosaix Global Network with Dr. George Yancey, a sociologist with the University of North Texas, and oversees the triennial National Multi-Ethnic Church Conference. Mosaic has also expanded with churches in Conway and Durham, N.C.
It’s not the easiest work, raising a multi-ethnic and diverse church like this, but it is crucial, DeYmaz says.
“This is, in my opinion, the single greatest thing God is going to do in the 21st century. He’s going to integrate the church, because we cannot continue to preach a message of God’s love for all people, and be believed and credible, from segregated churches,” DeYmaz says.
“Jesus said, ‘On Earth as it is in heaven.’ Then why are we segregated? That’s the mantra that launched this movement. If the kingdom of God isn’t segregated, why is the local church?”