LINCOLNTON – Working as a “lifelong” reporter for local newspapers, frequently reporting on poverty, didn’t prepare the Rev. Deb Richardson-Moore for her second career as a pastor of an inner-city church in Greenville, S.C.
“I thought I understood poverty,” said Richardson-Moore, who was invited to visit First United Methodist Church in Lincolnton to give a talk on her ministry Feb. 10. “I had done dozens of stories on issues surrounding poverty and I really thought I got it. In those first few years at Triune Mercy Center (formerly a run-down inner-city church where the homeless gathered), I met people I didn’t know existed.”
She started her career as a reporter in Greenville in 1976. When she took on the religion beat, she decided to return to school, intending to study comparative religion. But she couldn’t find a master’s degree program so she decided to enroll in the Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, S.C.
“In the beginning, I just wanted to learn more about what I was writing about, but during the process of taking those classes and being in seminary, slowly I changed my thoughts and decided I wanted to go into ministry,” Richardson-Moore said. “Otherwise, I never in a million years would have gone into seminary. It just never occurred to me. You might as well have told me I was going to become a bullfighter or hog farmer.”
Triune had been a Methodist church but dissolved before Richardson-Moore took what was her first post out of seminary 13 years ago. At that time, the primary purpose of the now non-denominational church was to offer relief to the underprivileged.
“When I got there, it was just a mess,” Richardson-Moore said. “I was this middle-class person dropped into what was essentially like a Third World situation. I was dealing with people I didn’t know existed in America. There was violence, people cursing, drinking and using drugs on the property.”
Richardson-Moore opened her talk with the story of a man she met on one of her first days at the church. He waved a fried chicken breast in her face that he had taken out of the dumpster at the restaurant next door.
“‘Can you believe somebody threw this away?’ he asked me. ‘It only has one bite taken out of it.’”
On another of her early days as the pastor of Triune, she had to call an ambulance because she thought a staff member had been hit in the head with a board. It turned out he was suffering from a seizure triggered by a drug overdose.
“He was buying and selling to the homeless congregants that came there,” Richardson-Moore said. “Someone desperate to huff cleaning fluids kicked in our sanctuary door to get some. A drug addict spit in my face because, near as I could figure, I wasn’t a drug addict, too. The brokenness was so profound. All I could think of was how could I get out of here? These people needed doctors and rehab counselors, housing, jobs, mental health care and money. They did not need a news reporter masquerading as a pastor.”
Her experiences at Triune were so “surreal” that she wrote “The Weight of Mercy: A Novice Pastor on the City Streets” to share her stories of the ministry.
In time, Richardson-Moore realized that most of the people were either alcoholics or drug addicts. She wondered why the only assistance offered to them was food and clothing.
“I slowly began making those changes, trying to cut out the relief piece and go to the more transformational side of things,” she said. “We simply began trying things. If it worked, we kept it. If it didn’t, we threw it out. I’m here to tell you that we failed left and right.”
In the past 13 years, the church has sent more than 1,300 people into drug rehabilitation and offers 12 Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous classes per week. As people began to get clean and sober, they started needing other things, so social workers and rehab counselors were hired. Lawyers also offer services to those who need them, and a local hospital and doctors offer assistance.
“What we’re trying to do is to offer people a way out of addiction, homelessness and poverty,” Richardson-Moore said. “Everything that we do is to lift people up and to say to them, ‘You’re a child of God. We are glad you are here. You matter, to us and to God.’ Then we invite them to give back by volunteering.”
While Richardson-Moore is no longer working as a journalist, the skills she developed during her years enabled her to write “The Weight of Mercy” as well as several murder mysteries with homeless people as the main characters.
The man who waved the chicken breast at Richardson-Moore 13 years ago was a severe alcoholic and eventually developed gangrene in his feet. Doctors had to amputate some of his toes. One day, he was sitting in a wheelchair on the sidewalk, and Richardson-Moore asked how he was. He said that he could use some clean bandages, which she got for him.
“I planned to simply hand them to him but another homeless drug addict named Alex stopped me,” she said. “’Pastor,’ he said, ‘if you’ll get me some warm water I’ll wash his feet first.’ I brought Alex some paper towels and warm water and he knelt on the sidewalk and uncovered that foot that I would not have touched for love or money, and gently washed and bandaged it. That’s the danger when you invite someone in to serve. You invite them to belong and they end up making you look bad.”