Open Arms

Photos by Lee Cave, C Studio

 

Hattiesburg's Michael Dixon embraces life - and has from the start. Even during those days he didn't know what was next, he knew the right opportunity would come along. And he's never been disappointed. 

Michael Dixon came from ‘Nothing!’ Actually he came from south Florida, but if you look at his senior high school yearbook entry, there beside an awkward and embarrassing baby picture of him with a diaper on his head and his senior picture is his name in all caps and the word ‘Nothing’ – no clubs, sports, organizations or other activities.  

While most of his classmates had their high school activities listed next to his or her picture, Dixon’s simply said ‘Nothing.’ Others with the same predicament were left blank. 

“I genuinely was not good at anything,” he said of the ‘Nothing’ moniker.  “I was ranked 58th out of 81 in my senior class. I didn’t even make the yearbook staff, which all seniors made and they rejected me. 

 “If I ever write an autobiography I’m sure that will be the title – ‘Nothing!’ I didn’t have a niche. No place. I struggled. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do. You think you are the only one doing it. It’s an awkward time. It was bad.” 

But since that time, his ‘Nothing’ has turned into a lot and a love of ‘somethings.’

Dixon was born on 9 Mile Road in Detroit. His dad was a minister who had grown up on a farm in Montana. Dixon explained you were either a farmer or a minister and his dad hated farming, “so that’s why we were in Detroit.”

Dixon’s dad was a minister for a time in an inner-city church, but after preaching a child’s funeral a few years in, decided it wasn’t his calling. 

“That was the final thing for him,” Dixon said of his dad. 

The family moved to south Florida when Dixon was two or three.

 He describes his father as someone who found his niche (in the financial world) and “did well at it,” Dixon said.

His mom stayed at home and worked at whatever school Dixon was attending at the time. 

“She was there so I couldn’t get away with anything,” he said. She also sold Mary Kay cosmetics to help make ends meet. Dixon’s sister, Sherry, who is six years older than him, knew from first grade that she wanted to be an elementary school teacher. And she did just that as soon as she graduated, teaching first or second graders at a school outside Charlotte, N.C.

“Whereas I’ve done a little bit of everything, been all over the place, she knew what she wanted to do in first grade and has done that ever since,” Dixon said. “I kind of envy that a little bit, but I’ve had fun doing the things I’ve done so far.”

 

COLLEGE ON THE BEACH
After graduation, Dixon attended Palm Beach Atlantic University, which he described as “William Carey on the beach.”

“It was very similar in size and feel and while technically non-denominational, it was Baptist; they just didn’t say that,” said Dixon, whose major was in psychology with a minor in Christian social work. He looked at going to graduate school in psychology and counseling, but decided to take the theology route instead.

“So I have a psychology degree, which doesn’t do anything for me,” he said. “My dad’s quote on my graduation day was, ‘So, you’re going to go work in a psychology store now?’ I was destined to keep going to school, because I couldn’t do much with my undergraduate.”

When deciding to go the theology route, Dixon said people talk about getting the calling and have a pall moment where the sky lights up and they get knocked blind. “I really didn’t have that,” he said. 

When Dixon got to college is when he finally started to find there were actually some things he was good at or could do and he leaned into that.

Dixon got involved in Improv theater. “That was the first time I ever risked and put myself out there with anything,” he said. “But I loved it and it was probably the most important thing I did in college. I wouldn’t tell my professors that, but I learned more from that than any of my classes. There were some other people, who were in ministry on campus or local churches, who saw something, invested in me and encouraged me, so by the time I was leaving college it was the only thing I’d ever done that I felt like I was good at. It wasn’t so much that all the vocations weren’t vying for my attention; it was the one that kind of stepped forward and I connected to. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.”

Trying to make the good times last, the school had a Master’s of ministry that Dixon enrolled in while working. 

“It was really just a rehash,” he said. “I ended up taking a lot of religion classes even though it wasn’t my major. That was a very unsettling year for me when it should have been the greatest. Instead, I ended up feeling sort of untethered and not sure where or what.”

Dixon started looking at seminaries and theology schools, ending up at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Georgia, where he stayed the next five years finishing his Master of Divinity. He interned at the University of Georgia Baptist Student Union on campus, where he met a lovely student who he was not allowed to date while he was employed. His employment only lasted for one year and he did not re-up because he wanted to date this nice young lady, Sarah, who would eventually become his wife.

“I finally did well in school and got a wife who is way out of my league, which was one of the real benefits of Athens, Georgia,” he said. “There was like a 5 to 1 ratio of females to males and a lot like me who ended up with girls for pure mathematical reasons. It really wasn’t fair to her. She really should have gone somewhere else where there were better options.”

Sarah was on the education track, but didn’t realize until she got in the classroom that this wasn’t her thing. She finished her education degree, but has never taught, just because she didn’t enjoy the classroom experience.

“She worked in a bunch of different areas, but found her way into the nonprofit sector and kind of found her groove there,” Dixon said. “She currently works with The University of Southern Mississippi Luckyday Citizens Scholars program, where she serves as assistant director. It’s a great job and she’s great at it.”

During Dixon’s last year in seminary, the couple got engaged and spent the next year trying to get out of debt and save money for a wedding. Dixon was in school and doing some traveling and speaking to help make ends meet. One day he received a call from a good Hattiesburg friend whose wife worked at First Baptist Church. The church was getting ready to create a new position and his friend thought Dixon should interview.

“I asked, ‘Where do you live?’”said Dixon. ‘Hattiesburg, Mississippi’ came the reply.

“Where is that?” ‘South Mississippi.’ 

“South Mississippi?” ‘Yeah, no, I’m never going to live there. I don’t want to do that.”

“I was just convinced this would be the worst place in the world to be.”

The friend remained persistent, so Dixon decided he could take a free trip to see his friend, which he acknowledges was not a very nice thing to do. 

“I came and interviewed, and kind of connected and everything started falling into place in such a way that not too long afterward, I am looking at my fiancée telling her I think I’m supposed to go to south Mississippi,” he said. “To her credit, she rolled with it.”

 

HEADED TO THE HUB
In 2013, Dixon graduated seminary, got married, went on a honeymoon, and one-and-a-half days later the couple was in a truck moving to Mississippi. Dixon said it ended up being a good thing for the newlywed couple.

“We showed up here and we were the Dixons,” he said. “We weren’t used to that yet and it was weird to come home and have another person there; with no friends yet we spent a lot of time together.”

Dixon served as Minster to Young Adults for three and a half years. First Baptist was still downtown at that time, but was going through the procedure of looking at a new building and moving.

About three years in, Dixon said he had a really unsettling feeling that there was something he was supposed to be doing, something else.

“Honestly, I didn’t think we would stay in town,” he said. “We liked it, but weren’t really attached.”

After talking over his predicament with the pastor, he was encouraged to do something else.

“I actually resigned that job and didn’t have anything lined up and that’s not something I would necessarily recommend to people,” he said.

He spent the next six months trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. The couple had no intent to move unless they had a specific plan. Dixon was working with a small group of people who were interested in working in the downtown area and who had started meeting about once a month. He said there were some pastors and lay people in the group, all talking about the nature of church, God and theology, and all these big life questions. This was a group who wanted to go out and find some place to serve and make a difference.

That place was Hawkins Elementary School, the lowest-performing school in the Hattiesburg Public School District at the time.

Dixon said they knew the principal and a couple of teachers and had done a few things there at different points.

“The school was kind of forgotten, in disrepair, just the place you really didn’t talk about, so we started helping out, projects and raising money,” Dixon said.

The other pastors in the group went back to their churches which left a small group of people. It spawned a “I think you are my church now and I’m not sure what that means conversation.”

The group started meeting in a house, which ended up giving birth to the job Dixon has had for the last 11-plus years, which is pastor of Ekklesia. 

After cramming into a little room week after week, Dixon was talking with Bruce Case, who served as pastor at Church Street United Methodist at the time and now serves Parkway Heights. 

“I told him I thought we were going to have to find some place to meet. I guess we’re a church,” said Dixon, who admits he really didn’t know what that meant and he really didn’t want to be a pastor, but….

“Case took the key off his key ring and handed it to me and said, ‘Just meet at Court Street; there’s nothing going on on Sunday night. Just use the space and take care of it. One day if you can pay some rent, great, if not, that’s fine.’ 

“So they gave us a key to the church, which was just amazing, and we started meeting there. Suddenly we were a church somehow. A weird little church, and still are, but it’s been the best thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s definitely the place where I found my identity as a person and vocationally.”

Ekklesia started with 10 or 15 people, but has grown. 

“We’re still small and very odd and we are not for everybody,” Dixon said. “We are a place where everyone is welcome and we genuinely mean that. We have no building of our own. When we formed we made a couple of commitments, which have not always been easy to keep, but we’ve stuck to them.”

Dixon said the church will always budget more money to go outside the church’s walls than stays inside.

 “We’re committed to not programming ourselves to the point where we can’t give a lot of money away, so we don’t,” he said. “We are very simple in what we have and that’s not always attractive to people. We are welcoming to whoever comes in the door and that can sometimes be problematic for people. It just doesn’t look like a church in a lot of ways to some people.

“We’re kind of there for folks who are comfortable with that and if that’s not someone’s cup of tea, the good news is there are a ton of great churches around that fit a more typical kind of bill. There’s a lot of great places for people to go. We tend to be a place where people who wouldn’t go to your typical church or are just sticking their toe back in the water coming back to church. That tends to be the folks we get. It stays small, intimate. We know each other, we take care of each other. We laugh together, cry together, mourn and celebrate together. It’s beautiful, it really is. I love it.

“We attempt to as a community act the way we want our individuals to act as individuals, so we aren’t going to preach about generosity on a Sunday night, if we as an organization are not generous. We’re not going to talk about hospitality on a Sunday night, if we as an organization and community are not going to say anyone can come. We’re not going to talk about unconditional love and then attach strings to who we are friendly with. As a church, we are trying to embody the ideals we hope to one day embody as individuals. That’s probably been the best part of Ekklesia, at least for me.”

The church has two paid employees, one being Dixon, and Caroline Nurkin, who tends to the church’s different needs – bookkeeping, records, etc. They also have a full-time employee, Abigail, who is a former teacher, whose office is at Hawkins Elementary School. She has a daily presence there, organizes volunteers, mentors and various projects.

She is sponsored through the PineBelt Foundation, as are two full-time reading tutors.

“We pay that bill to make sure they are there,” Dixon said. “We’re writing checks, putting our money where our mouth is. We barely make budget and this past year we didn’t, but we’re kind of committed to it. It’s how we’ve continued to be able to take steps on this bridge we are building.”

Eleven years ago if you had asked Dixon to bet all his money that Ekklesia would still be here at 11 years, he’s not sure which way he would have bet if all his money was on the line, because on paper it kind of shouldn’t work. “It really shouldn’t,” said Dixon. “It’s not a great business plan and yet somehow we’re still here.”

 Dixon is proud of who is there, what they’ve done and who they are. “I just hope to one day be as good as the church I’m a part of,” he said. “It’s been an honor to be a part of it, but it’s also created a unique life for me. I’m not a full-time employee there. I am a pastor, but it’s not my full-time job. And so I’ve just always had to work these other second jobs, which has given me a unique life in a lot of ways.”

ATTENTION: DETOUR
That unique life has included several interesting, but worthwhile detours.

Luckily during the six months Dixon didn’t have any work, Sarah was working full time, they had no kids and had tucked away some money. “We weren’t desperate, but I couldn’t sit still,” he said.

Dixon started selling medical supplies in south Mississippi for his wife’s aunt and uncle, who own a company out of Jackson. He had no training whatsoever. 

“I was completely unqualified to do it, but that’s where the improv from college came back,” he said of the back, ankle and knee braces he was peddling.

Dixon said he made very little, but it was a little something extra and when Ekklesia became a job he could cobble together a living. 

That went on for a while and parlayed into another job in town, Fusetek, which works with orthopedic surgeons during surgery. Dixon was in the surgery suites with orthopedic surgeons, helping talk through the different surgeries he had been trained on, which he described as super fascinating, but again, something they didn’t cover in his psychology classes.

“I enjoyed watching people come in a mess and leave being put back together,” he said. “It was kind of the great metaphor for what I like to see happen in life.”

Then one day Dixon found himself having lunch and catching up with Robert St. John, who was looking for someone to replace the executive director of Extra Table, and Dixon was trying to help. Before the end of lunch, St. John suggested that Dixon take the job. For the next four years, Dixon worked to help spread the non-profit into a statewide organization.

“We grew like 50 percent a year in food output and we were delivering to 32 locations around the state every month,” Dixon said. “It was very rewarding, but a lot of work for two people trying to run a small organization without a staff.

 “I was happy in it, loving it and then the opportunity came up for the PineBelt Foundation and it was just one of things I couldn’t say no to.

“That’s just kind of the way it’s worked for me. If I tried to over spiritualize myself, I would just say I’m just a person of faith, but it’s probably just a lack of planning and grace of God. Anytime I try and plan anything too far ahead, it just never turns out the way I think. My prayers often are open doors, close doors or then I’ll faceplant into a wall and turn around or walk through it and try to make the best of it with what I have.”

Dixon has been with the PineBelt Foundation for a little more than a year.

“It’s been very rewarding and I’m getting to be a part of charitable work in all sectors and I’m able to work with people who are really wanting to invest in the  community and are not quite sure how to maximize it,” he said.

The PineBelt Foundation has more than 200 funds for different individuals, companies and nonprofits that put more than $2 million a year into the community.

“I get to sign off on checks that help send people to college, feed people, give them healthcare,” said Dixon. “I get to be a part of all of that and it’s awesome. I just never thought I’d get to be a part of something like this that has such a far-reaching impact. As you can tell by my work history, I like learning and being in on different things, so it really fits with that part of my personality. I’ll be honest with you, for me, nothing else would feel like it’s worth my time.

“As a pastor, I’m privy to a lot of peoples’ pain, suffering and loss and I’m at a lot of weddings and funerals, so you get to see the beginning of life and you get to be one of the first people in the room holding the baby, and you get to be the first person in a room praying with someone who lost someone. So it gives perspective. The beauty of that, as difficult as it can be sometime, is it gives you a perspective on how precious life is, how short it is, how little control I have over it. I don’t want to spend my life; I want to invest it. Again, why this is a good place for me. Because the entire concept of the foundation is you’re not just spending your resources, you’re investing them, trying to make an impact.”

 

A LUCKY MAN
Dixon said he’s very lucky to be in a position where his personal life and his professional life and everything kind of meets in that space.

“I wouldn’t trade lives with anyone, I really wouldn’t. I love the family I have, I love the friends I have, I love the work I get to do, the community I’m a part of,” he said. “We love Hattiesburg, which came as a big surprise to us. We live downtown right across the street from the school where my daughter goes. We walk to Live at Five, to the restaurants where we eat, see people around town we know wherever we go; it’s just a great place to live, raise a family. We sing its praises all the time. I’ve got a lot of friends who don’t understand why we live in Mississippi. But you just can’t replace the kindness and the good things that you get here. It took me a while, being in the South, but I like the fact that somebody will look at you and smile and talk to you even if they don’t know you. It’s just a good place to be; I understand that Mississippi is No. 49 or 50 on a lot of lists we don’t want to be on, and we’ve got a lot of problems and struggles with poverty, education, and you name it, which is for some people a good reason not to live here. But if you’re looking to invest your life in things that matter, it makes it the perfect place to live. Because you can do meaningful work, anywhere, anytime.” 

As for down time, Dixon said the hobby he wishes he had was playing music. “But I have no talent whatsoever, hence the Mike Dixon-NOTHING. I couldn’t even make band nerd, but I love music.”

So much so that Dixon brought his turntable, speakers and all of his vinyl to his work office, “because I have a 4-year-old at the house, who if it’s not the Frozen soundtrack will yell, ‘Boring!’ at the top of her lungs within the first three notes. I force everyone to listen to my music here.”

His tastes are varied, although he’s not much into modern county. 

“I do like the old county – the Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.” But he’s a really big fan of ’50s and ’60s jazz and likes a little bit of everything else. 

“I’m really mellowing out as I get older,” he said. “I’m not banging my head as much as I used to. But I still like to occasionally turn up something that’s really loud.”

He also likes books and used to play basketball even though he wasn’t very good at it and always came home with a limp or something. And then there’s hanging out with his family – Sarah and Lillian Violet, and later in the year there will be a new baby. 

“I’ve gotten really good at Barbies,” he admits. “I tell people you’re either a socio- path or father of a 4-year-old if you are dressing and undressing Barbies as much as I do on a day-to-day basis. She’s at a really fun age right now. She’s the little version of her mommy, which is good.

“I told Sarah I thought she would give birth to this lump of clay we could form into this thing. But what we have is a bowling ball we’ve just go to keep out of the gutter, so let’s just try to love her, be good parents, teach her to be kind, compassionate and still believe in herself and all those things. We work on that and are trying to keep out of the gutters, but she is pretty much who she is. She came out a pretty particular way and that worries me about being pregnant again. We got a little Sarah the first time, so I’m slightly terrified that we’ll get a little Mike this time. The universe owes me a few things, so if Karma exists, I’m probably in trouble.”

Where does Dixon see himself down the road?

“I see myself in this job for a long time, at least I hope I am,” Dixon said. “We’re 21 years old but the nature of this work is one foot in front of the other, day after day. It’s kind of a slow steady journey as an organization, but I really do think we are at a particular point in our history where I hope we start to get a little bit of a downhill run going. Because the nature of the foundation is such that we can be a real benefit to people who want to invest in this community, and just don’t know it yet.”

According to Dixon, that’s why they work so hard to get people to understand what they do and why they do it.

“We would love to see this become a foundation that really grows. Not so we’ll have a better bottom line and I certainly don’t work on commission, so it’s not about ego or having a better looking spreadsheet. But every dollar we add means more future impact for the community we all love. Our entire job here is to make people charitable dreams become a living reality.”

Dixon is not interested in political power or getting as rich as he can. 

“The world changes by people serving each other,” Dixon said. “I’m a big believer in that. Micah 6:8 always comes back to me and kind of wraps it all up:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

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