Wearing many hats: Making the most of White Rock United Methodist
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, after school programs, coffee shops and urban gardens — whatever the surrounding community needs. story is one in an occasional series looking at some of the programs offered in our neighborhood’s houses of worship.
Stocked with markers and paints, the second floor of White Rock United Methodist Church, tucked inside Little Forest Hills, is home to a place where children can play and learn how to make art. It can get a little loud, as you might imagine. Just two doors down, Zen Buddhists peacefully practice their faith, tuning out the din of the other activities under the same roof.
“It’s like an incubator,” says senior pastor Mitchell Boone.
The 31-year-old with a shaggy beard and thick-rimmed glasses who makes “Silicon Valley” jokes might not be what you expect in a pastor at an East Dallas church that recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.
When Boone was named associate pastor a few years ago, the church was at a crossroads.
“There was a lot of anxiety in this church about where we were headed and what we were up to, and there was even a vote to close,” he recalls.
At the time, the 60,000-square-foot building was averaging around 120 people at worship services each week, down from its peak of more than 3,000 members in the early 1970s. The dwindling number of parishioners didn’t come close to justifying the vast space, Boone says. The church voted to remain open, but the congregation was ready to change the status quo.
“We kind of came out of that saying we’ve got to do something really different if we’re going to be a church that’s involved in the funky neighborhoods of East Dallas,” Boone says. “I think that’s the best thing for churches to do, is to look around their community and ask how can we be in relationship with as many people as possible, not just on Sunday morning.”
The church began making much of its unused space open to the community. It essentially handed over the church basement to the Missional Wisdom Foundation, a nonprofit that teaches churches to repurpose underutilized space and reconnect with their communities, which is guiding the effort. The basement was then repurposed as office space known as The Mix.
“We’ve got 35 members [using the space] and they just run the gamut. I’ve literally got a mobile app developer sitting next to a real estate agent, sitting next to a team of ballerinas … sitting next to a blogger who writes for the Poynter Institute,” says Daryn DeZengotita of the foundation. “Not one single bit of that did I plan for.”
Ronda VanDyk is one of The Mix’s tenants. The former owner of a yarn shop runs a fiber arts studio out of the church basement.
“There’s a big room I’ve set up with shelves and fibery things and yarn. We’re starting to teach classes and workshops and we’re using it as a meeting place for community members interested in fiber arts,” VanDyk says.
In addition to those using the basement as office space, the foundation is working to have the church’s kitchen rezoned for commercial use, so that people who want to sell their treats have access to a commercial kitchen.
The hodgepodge of tenants have found ways to support each other. Take the Ahadi Initiative, a community of African refugees living in Dallas, who meet in space rented at the church. Members of the group had trouble attaining gainful employment, especially some of the women who were charged with caring for large families, DeZengotita says.
The church stepped in to help the women capitalize on their creative talents by forming a sewing collective. They brought in commercial-grade equipment and hired a community manager from the group. “Now they’re commercially viable.”
The basement also houses a recording studio, dance studio and music studio, to name a few. Plans are growing to build a community garden outside the office space.
The church is still finding new ways to repurpose its expansive building. The Children’s Center school moved to the church earlier this year.
Plenty of churches have their own schools, but letting another organization come in and run a school on their property is unusual, to say the least. Boone says White Rock United Methodist had a preschool in the past, but it wasn’t firing on all cylinders, so they decided to move on.
“A lot of that is because we were kind of in flux as a congregation. So instead of trying to reinvent another school or reinvent our own school we thought, why don’t we partner with one of the best preschools in Dallas? The chances are that, if we want to do something, there’s someone out there who’s already doing it better than we ever could.”
Opening the church’s space to the community comes with obvious benefits. For one, the rental income takes a lot of pressure off the congregation to help fund the upkeep on the infrastructure. Plus, the added exposure from new groups seems to be paying off. Attendance is up, with around 170 people at worship services each week, and younger families make up about half of the congregation.
“We still have a lot of very traditional elements of church around here. It’s not just a carved out building where we’re doing all this funky stuff. It’s not a bait and switch type of deal,” Boone says. “I think a lot of people think that we have to somehow make church cooler and then more people are going to show up… or you have really great contemporary music and people are going to become engaged. We know here at White Rock that that’s not the path we’re on.”
Opening the church’s doors, however, has transformed the church’s often empty spaces into a bustling hive, almost like a community center.
“For a long time people said this building was the noose around our neck, and we’ve just kind of flipped that on its head,” Boone says. “Now it’s our greatest asset.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.