I had the privilege to sit down with a presence that always makes me feel at home because of how well she exudes the love of Jesus, Suzanne Wallace, the director of loving people at a nonprofit organization called Behind Every Door. We talked about all things serving, loving and being the hands and feet of Jesus. Read the interview and be inspired to pour yourself out for the King. – Andrea Sutton
Q: So first, tell me a little bit about yourself and tell me about your current nonprofit work with Behind Every Door and its mission.
A: Well who I am is a mom and a grandmom! And God’s given me the great opportunity to pull lots more kids to love into that job description.
Behind Every Door is almost 10 years old and our mission is to bring the fullness of the kingdom of God to underserved neighborhoods with the hope of transformation. How we do that? We are on the properties of apartment complexes that fit into the poverty sector 5 to 6 days a week with an after-school community for the kids.
We work with our kids in 4 main areas: 1: Literacy – because most all of our kids would be a minimum of two years delayed in reading when they come to our program. 2: Social-Emotional Learning – we give tools to constructively help kids handle their own emotions and then branch out into relationship tools. 3: Discovery – the opportunity gap lends greatly to the poverty gap. Because we want the same opportunities for these kids as I want for my own kids, this area looks like giving kids exposure to all sorts of things that they wouldn’t have any exposure to otherwise. Some examples would be dance, theater, even coding, etc. All 3 of these areas is under the umbrella of 4: Discipleship because everything we do is to bring them into a relationship and encounter with Jesus.
Q: Suzanne, your title with Behind Every Door is the “director of loving people.” What does this title mean to you? Do you have a personal mission statement?
A: After about 5 years into starting Behind Every Door, we really had a strategy that was working well. So our executive director, Will Dowell, wanted to put me into a position where I could oversee the development and execution of our process on other properties, so he created this position and told me what it was. And I pushed back at first because I wondered if people would know what I actually did. But I gave in, and I’m really glad I did. This title brings me back. Loving people is the most important thing I do.
My personal mission statement? I got it from a combination of Hagar in the Bible and Mother Teresa. In Genesis 16, we see Hagar alone and abandoned in the desert, pregnant with a baby she’s conceived with Abraham. She does not have a husband. She’s a woman in a very oppressive culture out in the desert with nobody. And the angel of the Lord shows up, and in her response back to God, she says “you are the God who sees.” That’s what she came away with: “He saw me.”
And Mother Teresa never set out to start a movement. All she did was to see the one person in front of her. In fact, she says, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”
I want the one person in front of me to be seen, to be heard and to be responded to.
Q: How did God prepare you for your current position? And what are the gifts and passions that God has equipped you with love people well?
A: Well, there are three things that come to my mind. One is being a mom. And then the second one was in 1979. We were a part of Sunday school class, and the leader of the class wanted to move into a low-income neighborhood, establish a church and have a ministry to the neighborhood. So we had a three-year-old and a two-year-old, and I was nine and a half months pregnant (YES, two weeks overdue), and we pack up the moving van and moved to a house in East Dallas in the barrio to join their vision.
I think we moved there thinking we were going to make this great impact on the neighbors, but what actually happened is the neighbors had a huge impact on me. My neighbor was a woman who had lived in generational poverty, meaning something different than situational poverty (ie. her family history was poverty). She raised 7 kids and was raising her granddaughter whose mom was a drug addict. And for the next fourteen years, she was my mentor. It really broke through my white middle-class understanding and began to challenge my judgments like why don’t they try harder or get a job.
The third thing that prepared me was my daughter. We realized when she was around 5 that she was dyslexic. At the time, we didn’t have the means to send her to private school or afford the extra training she needed. But one day, I ran into an old friend from high school who worked at the Shelton School in Dallas, and she said “Well, I do the training for this; why don’t you come to learn it so you can have the training needed to remediate her dyslexia. I would go up to her school like I was the paid therapist and work with her. And of course, I had the skill to do that going forward.
I felt like God said very shortly after that to take salvation in one hand and literacy in the other hand and don’t let go of either one. That was 28 years ago, and I feel like that’s still my marching orders. That’s what I’ve done.
Q: Most of the time people don’t start out passionately serving people. Do you have any moments or memories where God sparked this in you?
In 1990, I was teaching at a private school where well-to-do parents brought their children to remediate dyslexia. I was a dime a dozen – there were 10 people behind me that would have been so happy to have my job. I was standing in line at a grocery store and I look over at the magazines, and one sparks my interest. It was a picture of a young man who had dropped out of school in 8th grade because of dyslexia. He was involved in a gang and becoming a statistic. This was the beginning of my obsession. From that moment, I knew that I had to teach gang kids how to read. Over time, God gave me that desire, and I trained kids at Lipscomb Elementary, which ended up opening doors to serving the community in more ways than I could’ve hoped.
Meanwhile, in this time, I had a dream that I was walking beside a man, and I looked up and saw a house. I could see through the walls and there were three children in a room. In the dream, I knew the room was getting ready to explode. So immediately my instinct was to go save them. But then I told the man, “Well if I go in there and do that, I might get hurt, and anyway, those aren’t my children.”
And this man turned to me and he whispered in my ear. And I don’t know what he said to me. But I know as soon as I turned around and I looked at those children again, every single feeling I had changed to one of protecting and giving them the best. It’s what I felt for my own three children.
I really believe this was a visitation from Jesus. I got an impartation of heart in an instant that totally changed my trajectory of life.
Poverty’s children are my children.
Q: What would you say has been your greatest challenge?
A: One that comes to mind was during a time that I had just reached a state of burn out. We were involved in ministry to the poor and homeless but also discipling and rehabilitating young people in a discipleship house, and I was just done because of the emotion of pouring into people who would go back into cycles of unhealth over and over again. And I remember overhearing a friend and pastor involved in discipling these young people, Robert Morris, answer this question: What’s your success rate? And he responded back: “It’s 100%. I give 100% of what God’s given me to bring healing to hurt and pain, to bring Jesus, to give them tools to work. You’ll have to ask them about their success rate, but mine is 100%.”
I’m in ministry today because of Robert Morris. It totally shifted my perspective and took the responsibility of the outcome off me. I am planting seeds for a Harvest of which I may not live to see, and I’m okay with that now. As long as I’ve done the best with what God’s given me to do each day, I can sleep well at night.
Q: How have you seen God work? Greatest victories?
A: Well first, we’ve seen so many kids be the first in their families to graduate high school, go to college, give their lives to Jesus. Those are big victories.
But my favorites are the little moments. Tenaya is five and she’s the cutest, tiniest, sweetest little girl you’ve ever seen. She’s African-American. She’s lived in poverty all of her life. So the statistics in Dallas Independent School District are: she will be exposed to around 70% less vocabulary by Kindergarten and a 22% chance to be reading on grade level in 3rd-grade than a middle-class child. Now the ramifications of this could be huge. In fact, prisons look at 4th-grade reading levels to predict their future growth.
But I don’t come into agreement with statistics.
I have a memory of Tenaya from last Christmas running down the halls toward me. I hadn’t seen her in a couple of weeks, so we were both excited. And she gets all the way to me and exclaims with a big smile on her face, “Category!” And that’s because 2 weeks previous, we worked over and over on this word during vocabulary time! She learned it and she remembered it, and that’s a huge victory in my book!
Q: What would you say to someone who has never really gotten their hands dirty in serving but feels the desire to?
A: This reminds me of a PBS series out right now called Victoria. There’s one point in the series where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are standing up in their palace balcony window and looking out into the streets during the French Revolution. The poor are rioting and just trying to get somebody to pay attention to their needs. Neither of them understands why these people aren’t happy with what they have.
BUT Prince Albert makes a decision in this moment. And his decision is to walk out of the castle. And as he walks into the reality of the poor around him, he goes back with a new understanding and empathy.
And for me, I would tell someone, take your kids by the hand and go leave your castle. Go look for the one. See, hear and respond.
Q: How can we get involved in support of you and Behind Every Door?
A: Well you can visit us at www.behindeverydoor.org see more of what we do and if you feel like you might be interested in exploring some possibility of getting involved, there are many opportunities. We have several opportunities to volunteer physically and financially. We also take prayer very seriously and would love for you to join forces with us!