Rip Parker stood in the florescent-lit lobby of Park Cities Baptist Church on Thursday night and briefed his crew of 18. Outside, the sky was blue verging on black.
“I have to warn you: It’s not going to be milk-and-honey down there,” Mr. Parker said, his forehead creased with seriousness. “Men are down there because they do drugs or alcohol. It’s tough. Sometimes they get greedy and go back for more food. Sometimes they fight. Sometimes we have to call 911.”
The night’s volunteers were a varied bunch – children and adults, Baptists and Catholics. With furrowed brows and pursed lips, they took in his words like gospel, and with good reason.
If anyone knows the rules of the streets, it is this 64-year-old man with bright white hair and deep blue eyes who is known to many of Dallas’ homeless as “The Rev.”
Mr. Parker has been feeding homeless people nearly every day for almost a decade. It started in March 1992, on a night he still remembers. He was driving through downtown Dallas, he says, and somehow he ended up on Park Avenue, an industrial tract near Farmers Market.
“I saw a couple of guys who were sleeping on the ground in the fetal position,” Mr. Parker recalled, “and I pulled over and offered them some food that I had in the car, some crackers. And, well, I came back the next day with doughnuts, and the next day with tuna-salad sandwiches. And soon I was coming every day.”
In recent years, he has taken volunteers along with him. But in many ways, it’s still his show.
Car dealer Tom McIntyre, who has helped for the last couple of years, said: “The man is so selfless. I’ve never met anyone who cares as much for the downtrodden.
“He lives in a one bedroom, unair-conditioned apartment in East Dallas, and all the money he has he uses to buy food and clothes. He’s a saint,” Mr. McIntyre said.
Mr. Parker is more modest. “Please don’t focus too much on me. I detest notoriety. That’s not why I do this. Never has been.”
At 8 p.m. Thursday, Mr. Parker and his crew arrived in a Suburban-and-minivan caravan at the first stop: a large parking lot near the Union Gospel Mission on Park Avenue.
Big-rig trucks idled nearby. Sirens blared in the distance. And 80 or so men gathered nearby, waiting under the street lamps’ glow for their night’s sack meal.
Mr. Parker’s volunteers handled the food, passing out sandwiches, salads, cupcakes, and candy. Most of the operation’s food is donated, although volunteers frequently buy food, too.
Mr. Parker, meanwhile, stood near his minivan. As usual, it was so stuffed with clothes and other donations that there was barely room for him to get in the driver’s seat.
“Anyone want a blanket?” he shouted.
A man in his 30s stepped forward and took it.
“Anyone for a T-shirt,” he asked, holding up a soiled white shirt. A taker materialized at once.
“Sweater?” he asked, grabbing from his stockpile.
As Mr. Parker continued, Anthony Tomas looked on from several yards away. Mr. Tomas said he had been homeless since he was laid off from his job in November. This isn’t his first time on the streets.
“Everyone knows Rip – well, we call him ‘The Rev,’” the 41-year-old Dallas native said. “He’s a good man. I mean, he really does what he can.”
An older man stepped up and said: “I knew him back when he was in a little car, that little gray car that was all stuffed with clothes. It’s been a long time. And I’ll say this much: I couldn’t put up with the hell he has to put up with. Like that guy there,” he pointed toward Mr. Parker’s van. “Did you see him? That guy didn’t want that sweater because he didn’t like the color.”
To fully understand why Mr. Parker does what he does, Mr. McIntyre said, you have to know about his past.
“I think he can imagine he could have ended up in the same place himself,” Mr. McIntyre said. “He could have had the same fate.”
After graduating from the University of Texas in the 1950s, Mr. Parker dabbled in several jobs before investing in what he thought would be a cash cow: the dry cleaning business. He invested in 14 shops.
But the investment went sour, and he fell into financial disarray. His shops were shuttered, he says, and he was left with $ 300,000 in bills. Creditors called at all hours, tearing his marriage apart and leading his employer to fire him, he said.
His life seemed to be falling apart. But he credits his Christian faith in helping him start anew and slowly begin to repaying his debt.
Along the way, he also became “The Rev.”
Mr. Parker’s style on the streets is part buddy, part headmaster. He’s not afraid to call someone a hustler or a fraud when he sees one. And he’s not afraid to raise his voice, or break up a fight, or call the cops, if need be.
But he’s also not afraid to befriend the men he sees every night. On the final stop Thursday night, in a parking lot across from Dallas’ City Hall, the mood was jovial. Volunteers and the men laughed. They shared stories and patted each other on the back. After the meals were handed out, they stood in a circle and listened to an elaborate, three-minute prayer delivered by one of Mr. Parker’s regulars.
And then Mr. Parker, Mr. McIntyre, and the other volunteers stepped into their cars and headed north, and the men scattered into the night. Until the next evening, they had parted ways.