Deb Richardson-Moore loved being a journalist and never dreamed of becoming anything else – especially not a pastor. But after attending seminary to learn more about her new religion beat, she knew she had found her second career.
Now, almost a decade after becoming pastor and director at Triune Mercy Center, Richardson-Moore can’t imagine her life any other way. Though the job was daunting at first, and she considered quitting daily – an experience she recounts in her book, “The Gift of Mercy” – she stuck around, and has led Triune as it grew from a small church for the homeless to a growing center of worship and support for people of all socioeconomic levels.
“I had a homeless man tell me one time that the worst thing about being homeless wasn’t being cold or wet or hungry. The worst thing about being homeless is being looked right through,” she said. “So in everything we do here, that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to look.”
What is your most underutilized asset?
I don’t know – if I had one, I would be using it. I guess I don’t have enough time to write as much as I would like to write.
What keeps you up at night?
This winter, when it’s been so cold, a lot of times I wake up in the middle of the night and just wonder where our folks are – the ones I know are sleeping outside.
What, if anything, is holding the Upstate back?
I would really like to see expanded transportation services, because not just Greenville, but a lot of midsize cities are spread out, so you almost have to have a car to have any sort of job success. Our folks who don’t have that are very limited. And wages. Even when we can help folks get a job, on minimum wage, they can’t even survive. And then affordable housing, and I’m talking about … affordable, decent, safe housing for $250-$300.
What can be done or is being done to make these changes?
The community has to have a will to change things. The homeless service providers in Greenville have been meeting together, and we have written a white paper on our suggestions for what the community as a whole needs, being very specific about certain types of affordable housing for certain populations. It’s a good first step, but it’s going to take a community that stands up and says, “No more. We aren’t going to have our citizens so marginalized anymore.”
What was a game-changing moment in your career?
Coming here [to Triune Mercy Center]. I’d been a news reporter for 27 years and loved it. They asked me to start writing about religion. A lot of times when I changed beats, I would go study … and so I ended up in the seminary. I went down there just to study about what I was going to be writing about, and it was just like, oh my gosh. That was just a turnaround.
How quickly did you know you wanted to change the course of your career?
It was that very first class. I didn’t know this stuff, I didn’t know I wanted to know it, or how to go about finding it out. Already, my brain was churning. It took three years of classes, because I was still working for the paper and going part-time. So it took three years to say, “I’m leaving journalism, I’m going into ministry.”
Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?
I would like to be here. This has become a place I absolutely love. I still want to be writing as well.
What do you still have to learn?
You never stop learning here. I could study the Bible from now until the day I die and I wouldn’t have adequate understanding. I want to learn more about people who are experiencing homelessness. I’m always being surprised by the different dynamics, the different stories. Everybody gets here for different reasons, and the dealing with it and trying to turn it around is so complicated and so messy. There is a lot of learning to be done there – how we can help empower and not just enable addictions or bad behavior.
Do you have a mentor?
The one I have gone to for advice most often is Reid Lehman, who is head of Miracle Hill. He has been very generous with his advice. Beth Templeton [of Our Eyes Were Opened] I’ve asked for advice a lot, and I’m good friends with Tony McDade of GAIHN [Greenville Area Interfaith Hospitality Network]. A lot of us share experiences and just exchange counsel a lot.
How do you motivate people?
We try a lot of different things. We hang artwork on every surface, trying to show people what they can do. We use a piece by the pulpit every Sunday. We are saying, “We understand you may live in a tent in the woods, but you’re an artist.” Same with our music program. It’s a mix of housed and homeless. You may be living outside, but what a voice you have to share. We invite anybody, homeless or not homeless, to volunteer, greeting, taking up the offering, serving lunch afterward, pruning the flowers. Whatever it takes to make them feel part of the community. That’s our goal. You may be marginalized by society, but you are welcome here, and we would be the poorer from your absence.
Is Triune a true socioeconomic mix, and are you trying to create a certain mix?
When we started out, it was all homeless. Then other people started coming. We had more than 300 in worship today, and a quarter were literally street dwellers. Maybe another quarter were working poor, and about half were middle class and wealthy. People ask, “What if the middle class people overtake your congregation?” But you can’t say who’s going to come to church. We just take whoever God brings here.
What is your idea of work-life balance?
I’m real careful here, not only for myself but for my whole staff. I try to give everybody two complete, full days off, and I just think it’s critical. Another thing I do to create balance, and everybody makes fun of me for this, but I write my sermon 12 days before it will be delivered. I was a deadline reporter for 27 years, so I know what working under deadline is like, and I don’t want to do that again for a sermon.
Is there a person outside your circle who has the most influence on you?
I would say my writer’s group. I have a circle of four women friends – we were all journalists. They are people whose writing I always really admired. Now that I’m writing some fiction, I really appreciate their opinion.
Describe a time when you were sure you would fail.
My first year here, absolutely. I’d go into the restroom and there would be crack pipes, liquor bottles were all over the property, the fighting, the cursing, the ripping phones out of the wall. It was sort of Wild West. I was sure I was not going to be able to make it here. And I felt very strongly that if I could not succeed in this pastorate, if I couldn’t love the people here, I did not deserve to go to another church. I just felt very much a failure every day coming in here.
Clearly, you did not fail. How did things change?
I hired a 6-foot-2-inch former paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne, and a British engineer from Fluor, and the three of us just began a nebulous, fuzzy plan to offer all of those people eating in our soup kitchen a way to get off drugs and alcohol. I felt like if we did not offer them a way out of addiction and homelessness and mental challenges when possible, then we weren’t living up to what we should be doing. Hot food and coats weren’t going to change anybody’s life.
Was it a lengthy process, turning things around?
Boy, was it slow and it was painstaking and messy, and in some cases it was putting people out. We started raising the bar on behavior. It was a long, slow tedious process, but it started changing. Then, people started taking ownership: “This is our church, and we don’t act like that here.”
Have you ever been afraid in this job?
Fear was never part of it. I was angry, I was mad, I was sad, but I was never afraid. My father always told us not to be afraid of people. Are there people out there who want to hurt you? Yes. But if you live your whole life as if they are coming around the corner, they’ve already won. Also, the robe carries you a long way.
What’s a common assumption people make about you?
A lot of people read the book and they say, “I thought you were going to be 300 pounds.” I have no idea why, but I get that all the time. The other thing, I think people are expecting me to be more pious and churchly, and I’m just not.
How does your work affect the Upstate business community?
I’ve heard people say, though I don’t know if it’s true, that if we [area homeless service providers] didn’t do the work we do, Greenville would experience a crime wave like it never knew. But welcoming people, feeding people – we’re just trying to respond to human needs, and I think that translates to the kind of community that people want to live in; one where we care for all of our citizens, not just the ones that are able to make it in high-paying jobs.
How can the business community engage in what you’re doing here?
Just come on over. We have three lawyers who come in every Wednesday and give free advice. If you’ve reached a point where it’s not about the money anymore and you’re wanting to give back and help your fellow man, this is a place for you. We have Support Circles, and that’s a good place. If people are capable and ready to change their life, we will encircle them with four trained community volunteers who agree to walk with them for a whole year. The business community can take part in that, and they’ll go out and talk among their friends about what they’ve learned about being homeless, what the issues are. That will ripple out through our community.
What do you think of being labeled an innovator?
The label humbles me. I think what you do is hire good people and let them do their jobs. We’re willing to try anything here. If somebody comes in with an idea, our default decision is, why not? I don’t think I’m an innovator, but I think I’m open to innovation and trying things and letting people use their gifts.