GREENVILLE — This is the kind of story that journalist Deb Richardson-Moore would have liked to have covered for the newspaper.
It’s the story of a middle-aged pastor with no experience who is thrust into an inner-city church in Greenville, S.C., that draws few congregants other than homeless people looking for a free meal. It is the story of her struggle with the overwhelming task of being faithful to “the least of these” while also learning to minister to the rest of these.
After more than 25 years as a reporter, Richardson-Moore never wrote that story for The Greenville (S.C.) News. Instead, she wrote a first-person account in “The Weight of Mercy: A Novice Pastor on the City Streets,” a book about leaving her newspaper career and living out her new calling as pastor of the Triune Mercy Center.
The reporter turned pastor recently visited Greenville, N.C., to share her story of struggles and success in a messy ministry that is becoming a model for other churches.
“There are a number of people all over Greenville who are engaged in poverty-related ministries. ... They want to do what’s in the best interest of other people,” said Layne Rogerson, community center minister at Oakmont Baptist Church, which hosted representatives from such ministries for a discussion with the author.
“(Richardson-Moore) offers a word of hope and encouragement,” Rogerson said, “especially when you wonder if what you’re doing is really making a difference.”
There was a time when Richardson-Moore was plagued with those same kinds of questions. She found little to be encouraged about in the summer of 2005, when she took the job as pastor at Triune. Here, people didn’t just occasionally nod off during the Sunday service, they “stretched out full-length on the pews, sleeping off the crack and the malt liquor from the night before,” Richardson-Moore wrote.
At this nondenominational mission church in a run-down section of downtown, people showed up for a hot meal and a chance to come in from the cold. Most seemed far less interested in the pastor’s ability to deliver a good sermon than in her ability to deliver food, clothes and toiletries.
“‘You’ve essentially taken on a Third World mission,’” Richardson-Moore wrote, recalling a fellow pastor’s assessment of her undertaking.
“And that’s exactly what I thought I wanted. But I’m so bad at it,” she told him. “I thought being a minister would be walking alongside people, not handing out Vienna sausage and shampoo.”
When she enrolled at Erskine Theological Seminary at age 46, being a minister was not what she thought she wanted at all. Richardson-Moore had just taken over the religion beat at The Greenville News and thought some seminary courses might be helpful. She was a part-time student for more than three years before she decided to quit her job as a reporter.
Even then, Richardson-Moore did not envision herself as a preacher. She put off a required preaching course until her final semester, a move that almost kept her from graduating. To her surprise, once she began, she found that the course she feared was, in fact, something that was quite familiar.
“What a revelation that was,” Richardson-Moore said in an interview from her home, where she was working to prepare her next sermon. “I always thought preaching was drama, was acting, theater, and it’s not. It’s writing.”
Still, few things she learned in journalism school or seminary could have prepared her for her experiences at Triune. She was cursed at and spit on. She was awakened by police after someone broke in early one morning to steal cleaning solvent to sniff to get high. She had to nail the doors of the church shut.
But in other ways, the ministry opened Richardson-Moore’s eyes to a kind of grace she had never known. She saw homeless people empty their pockets into the collection plate and watched one addict wash another’s wounded foot. During Communion one evening, “an addict pulled a crack pipe from his pants pocket and placed it on the rail, not looking up,” Richardson-Moore wrote. “(We) recognized it for the symbolic act it was.” A volunteer took the pipe to the parking lot and crushed it beneath his heel.
While such victories were not commonplace, any small step forward was an encouragement to Triune staff and volunteers. Richardson-Moore initially had wondered how she would last a year, but later found she could hardly tear herself away. In the summer of 2009, she was given a 12-week sabbatical. It was during that time that she wrote “The Weight of Mercy.”
Recalling some events from those first few years at Triune was painful, but Ricardson-Moore decided she would rather feel that hurt than to forget what happened.
“That had to be a life-changing time, and (I thought), “If I don’t write this down now, it’s going to disappear, and nobody’s ever going to know,’” she said. “I just didn’t want that to happen.”
When she finished the manuscript, Richardson-Moore, who had spent decades writing for an audience of 100,000 or more newspaper subscribers, was not sure the book was something she wanted anyone else to see. After receiving encouragement from a fellow pastor, she finally looked for an agent or publisher, a process that would take two years.
“What I thought was the interesting part (about the book) was this middle-aged woman who’s been a professional all her life stumbles into this completely alien world right under her nose,” she said. “... I was not thinking of it for church people.”
But shortly after the book was published in 2012, churches began to take notice. Richardson-Moore started getting phone calls and emails from members of congregations in Georgia, Texas and New York who wanted to know how to model ministries after Triune. A shuttered church in nearby Anderson, S.C., decided to reopen its doors as the South Main Street Mercy Center.
From Columbia, S.C., to California, volunteers in other ministries could relate to what they had read about at Triune. Other volunteers had struggled with many of the same issues: manipulation, entitlement and a concern that the ministry might actually be doing harm in its attempt to do good.
Within months of the publication of “The Weight of Mercy,” two other Christian books, “Toxic Charity” (by Robert Lupton) and “When Helping Hurts” (by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert) had identified similar ministry challenges.
“You can’t do this work for more than a few months ... and you just know there’s got to be a better way,” Richardson-Moore said. “Just giving and giving and giving isn’t solving anything if there’s not some effort at reaching the root causes.”
To address the source of problems caused by homelessness and addiction, Triune has added mental health and substance abuse counselors as well as social workers. The ministry recently shut down its clothes closet, choosing to devote more time and space to equipping people rather than outfitting them.
Early in Richardson-Moore’s tenure, Triune began not only serving people in need but also inviting them to serve. It is not at all unusual for a homeless person to hand out church bulletins, sing in the choir, collect the offering or lead a responsive reading.
As the ministry has evolved, so has Triune’s congregation. Today the church not only draws homeless people, it attracts business people, young adults and senior citizens.
“We have Furman students and we have a guy who just finished a quart of liquor before walking in the door,” Richardson-Moore said. “All these people worshipping side by side, having mental illness and mentally handicapped worship right beside some of Greenville’s finest lawyer minds and kneeling for Communion side by side.
“(If a) person who comes in here is middle class or rich, sometimes I’ll say, ‘Why did you come here?’” Richardson-Moore said. “And they’ll all inevitably say, ‘I think this is what the kingdom of God looks like.’”