Riverside UMC’s multi-faceted Outreach Ministry
Debra Mitchell being interviewed by Aswad Walker. Jan 2022.

Riverside United Methodist Church was founded on June 25, 1939 but did not get its first Black pastor until Rev. Robert Hayes, Jr. was appointed to the position in the 1980s. And with the new Black pastor came a new Black congregation; one reflective of Third Ward’s largest demographic group — Blackfolk.

Currently, Rev. Keith L. Somerville is Riverside’s senior pastor, and under his leadership, the congregation has experienced a revival, becoming one of Third Ward’s greatest beacons of light. Somerville believes a large part of Riverside’s resurgence is due to the work of its Outreach ministry, which is not only feeding thousands, but working in partnership with K-College institutions and other entities to put tangible actions behind the preached word.

The Defender spoke with Debra Mitchell, a member of Riverside UMC’s Outreach Ministry, to find out exactly what they doing to have such an impact on people’s lives.

DEFENDER: Ms. Mitchell, please introduce yourself to the Defender faithful.

DEBRA MITCHELL: I’m Debra Mitchell. I am a member of Riverside Houston United Methodist Church. I’ve been a member there for about 28 years now.

DEFENDER: We want to talk about the outreach ministry, but I just want to ask a couple more questions about you. What attracted you Riverside?

MITCHELL: At the time, my husband was working at Texas Southern University and some of his coworkers, some of the professors he worked with, told him about Riverside and the choir. Several members of the choir were members of the Houston Ebony Opera Guild. So, we started attending, enjoyed the services and the pastor at that time. It was just great. That’s why we joined.

DEFENDER: When did you begin working with the Outreach Ministry?

MITCHELL: That’s been more recent. I’d say probably within the last five years or so. But, I’ve always been involved, either with children’s ministry and doing Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, things like that. So, Outreach is just something new and different for me these last few years.

DEFENDER: What role are you playing with the ministry?

MITCHELL: I am the pantry manager for our Food Pantry. We have a partnership with the Houston Food Bank and with students from the University of Houston Honors College. They volunteer for us. That partnership was a Food for Change Market where we come in and provide more healthy, nutritious food for persons in the community. I’m the manager for that particular outreach ministry. We also have collaborations with several churches in the area. We have an upcoming health fair that’s scheduled for March 5, from 10am to 12 noon. It’s going to be held at Riverside United Methodist Church (4920 Cullen Blvd., 77004) this year, but it’s the, the 5th Annual Third Ward Collaborative Health Fair. It’s a collaboration with several other United Methodist churches in the area.

Debra Mitchell

DEFENDER: How does the food pantry work?

MITCHELL: We are open twice a month, on the second and fourth Saturdays from 9am to noon. The next one will be held on February 12. In order to receive the food items, a person has to qualify for either a Food RX card or a Food Scholarship card. These are programs offered through the Houston Food Bank. For the Food RX card, they have to have taken certain classes, like a class for diabetes or high cholesterol or hypertension, things like that, and then they receive this card from those different programs or they can receive it from their doctor’s office. There’s several clinics now in the area and agencies who provide that Food RX card, as well, to clients. And then the Food Scholarship card is for students who may be attending universities like the University of Houston, Texas Women’s University, the nursing school, different universities in the area.

DEFENDER: So, how has that the food pantry been received?

MITCHELL: With the Food RX card and the Food Scholarship card, we are looking for more clients. When COVID first began we changed to a disaster MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the Houston Food Bank. And with that, we were open to anyone. So, our numbers were much higher then. We only switched back to the Food for Change program this past August because numbers for COVID were going down. But then Delta came along and, you know, those COVID numbers went up again. But, during that time when were under the disaster MOU, we were open three times a month, the first, second and fourth Saturdays. So, we served a much larger population.

DEFENDER: What are some other programs that the Outreach Ministry is a part of?

MITCHELL: I mentioned the health fair that’s coming up March 5. We also have a Dental Clinic that’s going to be open to the community. It’s going to be held at Emancipation Park and that’s April 28 and 29. It’s open to the community. People are prescreened, and then they can come in and receive free dental services. That’s, again, a collaboration with several of the United Methodist churches in the area. We also are members with Houston Response, the Central Coalition. That is a program that offers responses to people in the community after a disaster, either hurricane or the freeze last year. When people had pipes bursting and everything, they helped with repairs for some homes and different buildings and things like that. After floods, they assist with repairing homes, with the cleanup. They also help with covering the roofs with tarps. We also would provide organized food distributions and water distributions.

DEFENDER: It sounds like you all are doing a whole lot of really good work. What’s your favorite past ministry event or program?

MITCHELL: There’s quite a few. I really like the food pantry. That’s my passion, is providing healthy, nutritious food out to the persons in the community that need it. So, that’s my favorite of all. But we also partner with Thompson Elementary, and we work with the wraparound specialist there and help provide different items that they need there at the school, whether it’s some toiletries, hygiene items or the coat drive or the eyeglass drive. We went over this past October when they had their Trunk or Treat activity and passed out Halloween candy to the kids. That was a really great event. We also did a COVID vaccination event at the campus on a couple of Saturdays last year. Pastor Somerville, he’s on the Wraparound Advisory Committee with UH and HISD, and that’s for the Sterling High School and Worthing High School feeder patterns.

DEFENDER: Any other activities you’d like to mention?

MITCHELL: Riverside has a community garden. The Wesley Community Garden is housed on our campus. Our Associate Pastor Denise Caulfield is the minister for the Wesley Foundation at UH Main Campus, and she and her students started a community garden and it’s on the property there at Riverside.

For more information on Riverside UMC and their Outreach Ministry and other ministries, visit RiversideHouston.org or call (713)748-5730.

Connect with Riverside UMC

Facebook: Riverside Houston

Instagram: Riverside Houston

YouTube: Riverside Houston

Sunday’s Worship Service is at 10 a.m. on Facebook Live, Youtube Live and Zoom  (meeting ID: 243020097)

Children’s Zoom Room is at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays

Pastor Keith Somerville’s weekly podcast: PKast

(If you are part of a faith community, educational institution, community center, civic organization or community-minded business or initiative, or you know a community change agent who deserves to be recognized, contact me at aswad@defendernetwork.com. The Defender’s Community Central Channel exists to place the spotlight on YOU—the community!)

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...