DBU Alumnus Experiences a Life of Trials, Tragedy, and Triumph

A man is standing holding a bible.

“The doctor says I have cancer,” Dale Braswell’s father blurted out as they packed up his dorm room in Lange Hall on the Dallas Baptist University campus. Dale’s roommates had just taken a few boxes of out to the car, and in this brief moment alone, Dale’s dad dropped the bombshell. His father’s eyes welled up. “We’re gonna try to figure this thing out,” he said.

Dale stood stunned. As a student working to become a pastor, he knew the right answers, and he had spent so much time counseling others to seek the Lord in times of trouble. But at this moment, he needed to hear those words himself. His buddies stumbled back into the room, awkwardly interrupting the poorly planned moment, and in that moment, Dale was reminded that he did not face this trial alone.

“If I'd been on the campus of a state school, I would have had friends, but there was something really special about that community,” the 1998 graduate recalls of his time at DBU. In the harrowing years that followed, his DBU friends not only supported him, but they would also break away from school to come to his home to hang out with his dad as he fought a losing battle with the disease.

It was a defining time in life for Dale Braswell. One of those moments when Romans 8:28 ceases to be a cutesy catchphrase and becomes a promise to hang onto with all one’s might.

Foundations of Faith

Truth be told, God had already started laying the foundations for Dale through the meticulous and challenging instruction of professors at DBU. Dale remembers the cornerstone laid by Dr. Trammell, who instilled in him a pastor’s heart and prepared him for many of the practical realities of pastoring. And, of course, Dr. William Bell established a bedrock of theology on which so much of his future would be built.

“These men built in me a genuine love for scripture and learning,” Dale explained.

The foundations laid at DBU reached beyond the academic and intellectual when a girl named Tina Wright entered the picture. At first, Tina viewed Dale as just a friend, a co-minister in the musical group Glowing Heart, which served as a DBU outreach team at that time. But Dale had his eyes set for more.

They’d been fast friends for so long that it required all the courage Dale had to ask her out, and it wasn’t until after several dates that Tina really began to take him seriously. They were married in October of 1999, on Tina’s birthday.

Preparation for the Pastorate

In January 2000, the couple embarked on a new life together as Dale worked to complete his seminary training at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. Tina and Dale started serving in a local church with the youth, and (with a bright future in the ministry before him) Dale was eventually named a student-pastor.

Yet in 2002, just a few years after he heard the news, his father succumbed to the cancer. He was gone.

That profound absence changed him, transforming the whole paradigm through which he saw the world, and others noticed it. “The Bible is going to look all different to you now,” Robert Smith, Dale’s preaching professor at Beeson commented. “There’s a depth to it now, and you're going to see it all through new lenses.”

In the following years, Dale and Tina’s student ministry flourished as their family began to grow. By 2007, they had one daughter and another on the way. Life was good and stable, and then God decided to shake things up.

While at a youth conference, Dale heard well-known author and pastor, David Platt, speak and his words reached deep into his soul. “Some of you guys need to go home and resign at your church and go plant a church…” Platt had said.

The young youth pastor could not shake those words. He knew he wasn’t created to be a youth pastor forever. It was time for a change, and Dale, being a visionary, was ready to jump in with both feet and never look back.

But Tina served as his balance. She slowed him down enough to prayerfully think things through. After all, they were a young couple with one small child and another on the way. There were a great many logistics to think through before heading off to another part of the United States. And so after a wonderful six years of ministry in Alabama, they spent eight months exploring, learning, and growing toward a new call—planting in an unchurched area of Seattle, Washington.

Defining Successful Devotion

And so the young family set out with a dream in their hearts to bring God’s goodness to lost souls in the Northeastern United States, but the dream would not be easily realized.

“The first year, all we had was a vision and a website, but I wasn't really doing anything yet other than trying to build momentum,” Dale said. They met neighbors at block parties, but instead of being a beacon of hope in Christ, the interactions left Dale feeling defeated.

“At this neighborhood block party, I met guys who work at Microsoft, T-Mobile and Amazon and so then they naturally would turn to me and ask what I do,” the young pastor remembers. “I’d answer, ‘I'm actually a pastor; I'm starting a church.’”

The neighbors would inquire where the church was, and all he could say was “Well, it doesn’t exist yet.”

Everywhere they turned, it was all roadblocks and barriers. During that time, Dale discovered how much of his personal identity was wrapped up in human definitions of “success.” He had no great numbers to show for his efforts. His approach did not seem to be working. Was this dream destined for failure?

He theoretically knew the answers. He had taken all the classes, read all the books, and knew all the biographies. “But in the back of my mind,” Dale recalled, “I still foolishly thought ‘that’s not really going to be me.’”

Dale realizes now that it was the place God needed to take him in order to craft him into what he was created to be.

“Hardship is designed to refine us; hardship is for our good,” Dale says when looking back on the experience. And God was working things together for good, even then.

It was Tina, his wife and teammate in life, who played a key role in the breakthrough. They were sponsoring big events to try and bring people in. That’s what Dale specialized in. Comfortable on a stage and sharing a message to the masses, Dale’s strategy played to his strengths.

“Real effective ministry takes place from one to a few,” Dale now concedes. And Tina proved especially gifted at it. “I would say that a good percentage of our initial core group in Seattle came from [Tina’s] relationships with other moms in the area and families that she would meet and connect with,” the church planter explains.

It’s an example of how the two proved to be a balance for one another.

A New Call

Eight years later, after the little church plant in Seattle had grown into a small but solid church of around 100, Wedgwood Baptist Church began looking for a new lead pastor. The sizable Fort Worth congregation had been catapulted into national fame in 1999 when a gunman entered a Wednesday night service, killed seven people and injured seven others.

Al Meredith, the pastor who shepherded the congregation through the tragedy and the years of recovery that followed, decided to retire in 2015. After going through the interview process, Dale was shocked to learn he had made the final cut.

“You're picking a guy who has planted a church that runs a little over a hundred to come all the way down here to pastor this church of thousands?” he had asked.

But it was perhaps those dark times of his brokenness in Seattle, those moments struggling with the tension between his calling and his dreams, and those periods of mourning within his Christian friends that best prepared him for the challenges of leading this unique congregation.

How does a pastor come in to lead a congregation impacted by such a tragedy, even all these years later?

“It is very much like if you've ever known anyone that has lost a child, it never leaves you,” Dale explains. “You do have to move forward but you never forget.”

Although the tragedy occurred 20 years ago, it still colors aspects of who this congregation is, and the Braswell's are sensitive to this fact. They face the realities every day. “One of our staff members still literally has a bullet in his back,” Dale points out.

Dale knows from experience how God takes what others may see for evil or tragedy and use it for good. The congregation at Wedgwood Baptist is a living monument to that truth, as are Dale and Tina.

Looking forward, this young couple is prepared to continue to proclaim the wonderful message of the Gospel, regardless of where God has led them, knowing that in all things, he works it for our good and His glory.

Written by Trudy Chun

Trudy Chun serves as a freelance writer for DBU and served as a missionary in Eastern Hungary for more than a decade.  Her husband, Russell Chun, teaches English in our International Department, and the two and their family are very actively involved with World Relief. She is the author Love & Ashes and The BuddhaPest, as well as the co-author A Story of Grace.