Seminary alumna feels ‘weight of mercy’ in Greenville’s homeless triangle

Posted on March 6, 2013

Deb Richardson-Moore

The “weight of mercy,” however heavy on a given day, is the subject of Deb Richardson-Moore’s recently published memoir, The Weight of Mercy: A Novice Pastor on the City Streets, chronicling her ministry at Triune Mercy Center in Greenville. She was the featured speaker Feb. 28 at Erskine’s fourth THRIVE convocation of the academic year.

A lot like your mothers

Triune Mercy Center, a non-denominational mission church, formerly a United Methodist congregation, is one of three facilities that make up the points of Greenville’s “homeless triangle,” the other two being the Greenville Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army, both of which offer shelter.

The ministry distributes food and clothing, serves meals, makes referrals for drug rehabilitation, offers the services of a nurse and mental health worker, laundry services, and even art, music and theater. Central to Triune is a worship community in which “all levels of having and not having” are represented.

A veteran journalist, Richardson-Moore spent 27 years writing for the Greenville News. She began her tenure among the homeless, the addicts, the mentally ill—and some members of the former Methodist congregation—in 2005, the same year in which she graduated from Erskine Theological Seminary. She had enrolled in seminary because she had been assigned to write about religion and felt she needed to study it.

“I was probably a lot like your mothers when I started out,” she told the Erskine College students in the audience. Her children were in high school and college when she began working at Triune, serving as pastor/director.

Being there

Triune Mercy Center

Early in her ministry, while distributing winter clothing, Richardson-Moore was verbally abused and spat upon by a homeless man. The man, his arms full of items he had been given to ward off the cold, also shouted at the people standing in line for blankets, asking “why they were listening to a rich [woman]” who was going home to a warm house while they were going back onto the street.

In another disturbing incident, the church was invaded by someone who seemed to be looking for something to huff. The front door was badly damaged and had to be nailed shut: the symbolic import of that necessity struck her hard. Inside, empty cans of furniture polish and other cleaning supplies were strewn around.

“I had never dealt with people like this before,” she said. “People who lied. People who smoked crack. People who kicked down doors. People who spat in my face.”

At that point, Richardson-Moore began to understand “the weight, the burden, the underbelly of working with the poor, homeless, addicted, mentally ill.”

She worried and felt “deep, deep shame” about “not being able to love these people as I thought I should.”

But in the long term, she said, “I found it boiled down to simply being there, putting one foot in front of the other, slogging it out.”

Eventually, she found, “I stopped gritting my teeth and they stopped kicking in doors.”

Love and transparency

One of the people Richardson-Moore hired to help her at Triune was Alfred, the facilities manager. After she had been there awhile, she noticed that people were coming in early, well before scheduled meals or food distribution, and were helping Alfred by emptying trash, dusting, and sweeping.

It dawned on her that these people “wanted to be part of our community.”

Richardson-Moore believes that “virtually all the people we serve have a voice in their heads telling them, ‘I’m a loser,’” a voice that needs to replaced with one that tells them, “You are a child of God, you are a part of this community.”

Thus she sees the physical pain of homelessness as only a part of the suffering street people endure. “I’ve had homeless people say that the worst part of being homeless is not being cold, or hungry, or on the street. The worst part is being looked right through.”

For Richardson-Moore, with her secure suburban churchgoing background, learning to respond to the homeless “in love rather than censure” is a continuing process.

In some church communities, members work hard to hide anything unseemly, anything that might be amiss with their children or their marriages or any other elements of their lives. No one must know.

But for those who are often “looked right through,” there is another kind of transparency.

“Our hurt is right out there at Triune,” she said. “We call this transparency. If we are nothing else at Triune, we are transparent.”

Falling down, getting up

Ira Kinard, left, and Samuel Kemp collaborate on a painting.

Some people who come through Triune Mercy Center return on a regular basis. Others show up once and are never seen again.

A onetime visitor named Angel, shaking and perhaps in the throes of drug withdrawal, was persuaded by Robbie, a “prayer warrior” and volunteer, to come to a prayer service in the church. The homeless woman was told she would receive a free Bible.

As Angel entered the sanctuary, she seemed “truly at home in church,” Robbie said. She loved the stained glass and was entranced by the large window depicting Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

Robbie selected a Bible for Angel, but it was falling apart and the print was too small. The next one was old and worn, but in better shape than the first one. When she opened the second Bible the words “Welcome Home, Angel” were penciled inside.

Robbie didn’t know what to say, but finally managed to speak. “Clearly, Angel, this one’s for you.”

Nurse Jean Lilley, left, with Deb Richardson-Moore

During the prayer service, Angel held the Bible and knelt on the floor. After about a half hour of praying on the floor, she asked Robbie if she could sing Psalm 121.

The first two verses of the Psalm are: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.”

“Robbie never saw Angel before or after that day,” Richardson-Moore said. “But she is convinced that God sent that personal message, that personal Bible, to tell his wounded child, ‘Welcome home.’”

Referring to the words of a song by her friend Kyle Matthews, “We Fall Down, But We Get Up,” Richardson-Moore said, “We all fall down—the question is whether we stay down or get back up. Few of us can get up on our own.

Charles McGee on bass

“That’s where the support of a worshiping community, an oasis of calm in a violent, drug-riddled neighborhood comes in,” she added.

One man, a regular at Triune Mercy for six years, came close to staying down. He had failed to get a job even though the rescue mission had allowed him to stay for a year, well over the usual limit, before they turned him out.

Then it was discovered by a recently hired mental health worker at Triune that he was not a crack addict, as had been thought; he was mentally retarded.

A suitable job and housing were found, and just before Christmas last year, the man gave Richardson-Moore a tour of his new living quarters, complete with a new sofa, still covered in plastic, and artwork he had created at Triune decorating the walls.

“Some days,” she said, “the weight of mercy is considerably lighter than others.”

For more information about Triune Mercy Center, go to the website:

http://triunemercy.org/

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