East Dallas is full of churches — old, new, big, small, traditional and modern. On Sunday mornings the parking lots swarm with neighbors dressed to impress and ready for an hour of worship and teaching, but during the rest of the week many East Dallas churches transform into community gathering places. They become concert venues, art galleries, afterschool programs, coffee shops and urban gardens — whatever the surrounding community needs. Over the next several months, we’ll take a look at some of the programs offered in our neighborhood’s houses of worship.
A lot of churches have food pantries, but only St. Matthew’s Cathedral in East Dallas has Varita Michell, who quit her job in church administration last year to dedicate herself full-time to the needy.
The food pantry at St. Matthew’s has been around for decades and it has always been one of the few places in Dallas that embraces an open-door policy, where anyone who is hungry can find respite. Staff members give away bags of ingredients for a full meal, as well as food that doesn’t require cooking, every Thursday to whoever shows up, without requiring identification.
“We don’t have any restrictions on who can come to our food pantry,” Michell says. “Anyone can come, as often as they want.”
Michell is the wife of the Rev. Neal Michell, the church’s dean and rector, and she was on staff at St. Matthew’s when she saw an opportunity. High school students who attend summer school at the church could serve the homeless population who primarily frequent St. Matthew’s pantry, she thought. So she volunteered to lead the effort.
“At first I was like, ‘Is it safe?’ ” she admitted, “but the more I got to know [the homeless population], the more I got over my fear and realized they’re just people with needs.”
She had planned on opening the students’ collective eyes to the needs of the community and show them how they could help make a difference in their own neighborhood. What she didn’t expect was the profound impact the experience would have on her personally.
Michell says she has always been passionate about missions. What could be more perfect than helping people in her own neighborhood?
“[Being involved in the food pantry] has been making a way for me to get to know these folks and what their needs are,” she explains.
Michell stepped down from her job to focus all her time and energy helping homeless people navigate the resources available to them in Dallas.
“I’ve gotten a whole education on shelters and treatment centers,” she says. “I’ve helped people get bus passes and food stamps. I’ve been to the social security administration and the DMV to help people get their IDs.”
She organizes food, clothing, coat and blanket drives, and she occasionally donates money to cover needs when they arise. Most people just need a friend who has access to a computer and a car, she says.
Although she doesn’t have a clear picture of where her path will take her, she plans to follow it wherever it leads.
“Everyday I learn something new and meet new people I can help,” she says.
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