Union Missionary Baptist offers hot meals, warm hugs to the community to nourish souls

Originally published in The Dallas Morning News on Nov. 9, 2014.

His clothes were dirty and his beard patchy, but Lawrence Gibson’s smile shined as bright as the the metallic cross around his neck. His sneakers were well-worn, but he showed them off as he stood in line for food at the small church.

“I cleaned them up real good,” Gibson said.

A few weeks before, Gibson came to the Union Missionary Baptist Church in south-central Oak Cliff looking for shoes. He lives in a low-income apartment complex across Polk Street.

Pastor Charles Martin welcomed him and offered him the pair of white, worn sneakers. The clothing bank is just one of the programs the Union Church operates to serve the neighborhood, where 31 percent of people live below the poverty level.

In a part of town where a lot of groups talk the talk of reaching out to the impoverished neighborhood, Martin, his wife and co-pastor Earlene, and the Union Church try to walk the walk.

The church presents a case study in making a significant difference: The congregation has set up a food bank and supplies the church with donations to help anyone coming in off the street. They offer classes to help the growing Hispanic community with English and citizenship training. They feed up to 600 people with monthly free meals, and plan to add more programs, even hoping to one day expand their efforts by purchasing a nearby motel.

“We’re in the business of making sure needs are met,” Earlene said. “I don’t care if you come in smelling drunk, we’re going to give you a hug.”

Every first Saturday of the month, for example, Earlene and a small group of volunteers cook 200 to 600 hot meals to hand out to anyone who comes into their fellowship hall.

One recent Saturday feeding brought Gibson, his daughter, Nickey Gibson, and his grandson, Lee Linthecum Jr., to the church. “I gotta get some clothes,” Nickey Gibson said, gesturing to her son.

“Talk to the Pastor Man,” Lawrence Gibson said. “Him, right there.” He waved Charles Martin over, and explained the situation. Lee needed school clothes. They were trying to get him into a nearby school with uniforms.

The pastor scheduled a meeting for the next week to meet the pair and try to find some clothes for him. “We invite them in because it gives them a chance to meet us,” Charles Martin said. “It turns the attention of the community to the church as the center.”

Sticking around

When the Martins and their congregation first moved to their current location in the 3400 block of South Polk Street in 2000, 20 percent of the population in the 75225 ZIP code was living below the poverty level. By 2012, it was up to 31.5 percent.

In that period, the proportion of the population which identified as black dropped from 34 percent to 26 percent, according to the U.S. Census. In the same time, those who identified as Hispanic rose from 49 percent to 62 percent.

While other traditionally black churches moved out of the neighborhood, the Union Church stuck around. They started the First Saturday feeding, which along with passing out hot meals often includes extra programming like free medical screenings and prepaid cellphone service.

Food bank

Along with participating in the North Texas Food Bank, the congregation keeps its own food bank in case someone comes in off the street looking for food or clothing.

They’ve reached out to the increasingly Latino neighborhood with a new pastor from Mexico and free ESL and citizenship classes, as well as Spanish-language classes for the English-speaking part of their congregation.

The Martins dream big in a neighborhood riddled with insecurity and uncertainty. Earlene wants to open a community garden on their property, maybe put in a soccer fields so the local kids can play in a safe environment.

“I have a grandiose vision,” Earlene said. “If they have something they can own, do you really think they’d let these drug lords up on this street?”

Their biggest dream is to buy the Dallas Inn, a motel down the street which the Martins say is a hotbed for drug use and prostitution. They tried buying it once before, but the owner wouldn’t budge. They’ve since invested the funds into other programs like the First Saturday feedings.

If the Union Church owned the motel, the Martins said, they’d transform it into transitional housing. They might make it veterans housing or something to help reduce recidivism or something to help young people leaving the foster care system.

To buy and renovate the Dallas Inn, the Martins estimate they’ll have to spend at least $2 million. Without big-name sponsorship or partnership, it has been difficult to raise the money. Funding their programs is at the mercy of individual donations from their congregation.

But the Martins believe it is possible, and continue to grow their programs.

“It’s salvaging people who have been thrown away,” Earlene said. “If we were able to buy the place… we could build our own community.”

Latino outreach

The first in line for food on the First Saturday was Mark Anthony Rodriguez, 8, and Matthew Torres, 6. While their mothers stood nearby, Charles Martin crouched down to talk to the boys before they started serving meals.

“¿Que pasa?” he asked. “How’s it going?”

He asked the boys about their age, what school they went to, what grade they were in. Then he turned to their parents. “Do you know anyone who needs to learn English, could use English as a second language classes?”

They used to charge a nominal fee for ESL classes, but they’ve become more popular since they started offering them for free.

“It was a choice of, do I spend my money to learn English or do I buy food or do I buy medicine,” Earlene said.

They also hired Juan Alejo, a pastor who is a doctoral student at the Dallas Theological Seminary, to reach out to the Latino community. He’s started using teaching curriculum available online for free that teaches both English language and helps his students work toward their citizenship.

He’s had students come in who are completely illiterate — in Spanish and English. Other students will come for a lesson or two but will leave after their husbands tell them not to return.

Alejo’s class is 13 weeks long, with two weeks off for Thanksgiving and DISD’s parent conference week. He doesn’t have a standard for where he wants students to be at the end of the course, but instead just hopes each student is a little better.

“We just encourage them, it’s really motivation,” he said. “It’s like any other school.”

Feeding the flock

Earlene Martin said she serves “only the best” at the First Saturday feedings. Whole wheat pasta with hearty meat sauce, fresh garlic bread and salad.

Pulling everything together so quickly, however, looked a little more like organized chaos than a well-oiled machine. As the morning went on, they had to pause the line to make more food, never really getting a break to restock.

They ran out of salad but kept passing out spaghetti and garlic bread. They ran out of meatballs but kept serving with plain tomato sauce.

“I’ve been so busy I haven’t even looked at the time,” one volunteer said, glancing toward the clock on the wall. “Ooh, 20 minutes.”

“Yeah, but they’re still coming,” Earlene Martin said. “Whoo, y’all did the job without killing each other didn’t you? That was crazy, wasn’t it?”

Based on their reserve food, they passed out over 600 spaghetti plates. That, combined with the 500 boxed lunches another group of volunteers passed out at the church, means the church passed out over 1,100 meals.

“It’s a calling,” Earlene Martin said. “My thing is: You help the people, you help the community.”