Pastor to the poor shares stories from the real world

CorrespondentDecember 15, 2012 

  • Nonfiction The Weight of Mercy: A Novice Pastor on the City Streets Deb Richardson-Moore Monarch Books, 288 pages

Deb Richardson-Moore opens her book with an anecdote about a break-in at the inner-city church she had recently been called to pastor. When the building was finally secured, “I leaned against the brick wall of the breezeway, where the smell of urine wafted through the morning mist. I stared at the ugly patch job and wondered: What kind of church nails its doors shut?

“That would be Triune Mercy Center.

“And I am its pastor.”

With that, Richardson-Moore launches into what is essentially a dual memoir – one about her evolution as a pastor, the other about the evolution of Triune Mercy Center, a church that ministers to the homeless and down-and-out in Greenville, S.C.

Richardson-Moore grew up in Greenville and spent 27 years as a reporter for the Greenville News, covering everything that came up from hard news to Queen Latifah shoveling elephant poop at the Greenville Zoo. When she was offered the religion beat, she enrolled in a nearby seminary to learn more about religions. Her interest in the subject went from academic to spiritual, and she ended up with a master’s degree in divinity and a realization that she wanted to be a pastor.

Meanwhile, the life of Triune Mercy was also evolving. It was once a United Methodist Church on the edge of Greenville’s downtown, with a membership of about 700 at its largest. But as downtown degraded and the nearby textile mills closed and the number of homeless in the area grew with the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, Triune fell into decline.

Triune and Richardson-Moore came together in 2005, when members of the ecumenical board called her to lead what had become an institution to serve the poor. With the ink on her diploma barely dry and her rosy visions of what being a pastor meant to her, Richardson-Moore was thrilled.

“That is what the church is supposed to be, I thought. These are the people Jesus told us to reach.”

Then reality set in. Break-ins. Theft by staff members. Fights. Drug use. And a constant parade of people seeking food, clothing, money, rides, medicines, and all with a story worthy of a con artist to get it.

Richardson-Moore’s disillusionment produced a change in her. She realized that caring for the poor and downtrodden was more than providing for their physical needs, and more than offering them spiritual succor.

Working with more prosperous downtown and suburban churches, Richardson-Moore expanded the mission of Triune. Over time, the staff grew to include a rehabilitation counselor who helped find treatment facilities, a jobs counselor to help with job placement, a drug counselor and volunteers to staff music and arts ministries where people, sometimes for the first time in their lives, could play instruments, paint, draw and sculpt.

The book essentially ends about halfway through her tenure. While she tries to capture what has gone on in the interim in an epilogue, it is hard to get a clear picture of the modern-day Triune, where Richardson-Moore (known to one and all as Pastor Deb) still ministers.

Because of Richardson-Moore’s background as a newspaper reporter, the book has a breezy, accessible style. She has an eye for detail and knows well the adage, “Show, don’t tell.” While organizing the book as essentially a series of feature articles makes it readable, it does tend to jump around a bit.

Still, it is a engaging yarn about the development of an individual and an institution.

“I thought I’d be wise by now,” Richardson-Moore writes, explaining how her influence on the church and its influence on her have become intertwined. “I suppose the lessons I was seeking are simply too complicated, too messy. Not unlike our lives in this place.”

Kenneth S. Allen, a former reporter and editor at The Charlotte Observer, is editor of Greenville Business Magazine and Columbia Business Monthly magazine.

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