Deb Richardson-Moore stood at the pulpit before her tiny congregation at Triune Mercy Center on a recent Sunday, saying goodbye to a church in some ways much like she found it — emptier than it should be.
“Make us doers of the word,” she prayed, her Greenville drawl landing hard and dwelling on the "Rs" before she delivered her penultimate sermon.
The 50 men and women laughing, crying and tapping their feet with her had to do so from a “social distance” scattered about the 100-year-old sanctuary, taking a chapter from the same book of safety protocols amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that was keeping 80% of the soon-to-be-retired pastor’s congregation home that sunny morning.
When Richardson-Moore arrived 15 years earlier, fewer than a dozen worshiped at Triune regularly. The United Methodist church had turned into a nondenominational mission church and was on the precipice of extinction.
That would soon change.
By last winter, Richardson-Moore, a former award-winning journalist turned evangelist, was pulling 250 or more through Triune's doors every Sunday. Then the pandemic hit.
"This is by far the hardest thing we have ever been through," Richardson-Moore told The Post and Courier. This from a woman who had been spat on, shoved, screamed at and, ultimately, loved by the people she served.
Unlike most churches, Triune does not have Wednesday suppers, a youth group or a basketball league. This is a church that employs social workers, serves four free meals a week to anyone who needs them and -- before the pandemic abruptly ended them in March -- hosted 12 alcohol and drug recovery groups every week.
Under Richardson-Moore's leadership, Triune has transformed into a unique Greenville faith presence, one of uncompromising inclusion. It is the moral authority on homeless issues, inspiring people to donate money, donate time and work together across multiple public and private agencies to care for the least of these.
But on this day, Richardson-Moore, 65, who has helmed the church at the corner of Stone Avenue and Rutherford Street since 2005, was saying goodbye. She was also gently urging, despite the strained and sad circumstances around her departure, that the work of her church go on.
On Aug. 2, a new pastor took the pulpit -- Jennifer Fouse Sheorn. Richardson-Moore, for her part, is turning to writing full-time. Her fifth book, and fourth mystery novel, "Murder, Forgotten," is due out in September.
“I pray that Triune will always be the kind of place that will welcome Jesus and his rowdy friends, whether they wear gold rings or dirty clothes,” Richardson-Moore told her parishioners. “I pray that it will always be a church full of people who are living free.”
Jerry Rosemond, A Triune regular who has experienced homelessness, sat alone in the sixth row, nodding with his pastor.
“Everybody goes,” Rosemond said. “They don’t discriminate. That’s the main thing. She says, ‘Everybody go to church.’ Regardless of whether they are homeless or black, white, rich. It don’t matter.”
Richardson-Moore does more than speak, Rosemond said.
“She show,” he said. “She ain’t just talking. She doing.”
Meet them where they are
Greenville Mayor Knox White has known Richardson-Moore since they were both students at Wake Forest University in the 1970s. He describes her as ebullient and ever positive. But also sharp and loath to pulling punches. If anyone has made a difference to the homeless issue in Greenville, he said, "it is Deb."
The mayor keeps 10 copies of her autobiographical book, "The Weight of Mercy" about her early years leading Triune, at his office in City Hall for anyone who wants to understand Greenville. He's read her mysteries, too, and knows who she's writing about even though she's changed all the names.
"She knew all the levers to pull," White said of her work at Triune. "Many who go into this work don't have the knowledge of the business community, the politics, the governmental community that they have to interact with. She did it easily. She already knew who's who."
Richardson-Moore’s departure from Triune has set off shock waves in the intimate circle of those at churches, charities and Greenville City Hall who have within the last two years pulled together public and private resources to create the Greenville Homeless Alliance. A handmade wooden box presented to her at her final Sunday service, July 26, was filled with cards and notices of love offerings and donations to the church in her honor. And more than 160 people defied pandemic fears to offer her a final goodbye.
The Greenville area has no publicly funded homeless shelter, instead relying on a network of faith-based facilities such as Miracle Hill, affordable housing advocates such as Habitat for Humanity and service providers such as the Project Host soup kitchen, among others, to support the community’s itinerant population.
Richardson-Moore found common ground with these other agencies, White said. Greenville does more for the needy, he said, because they don't compete.
"I've been close enough to the issue to see how other cities handle it," White said. "Many of these agencies are at war. That has not been the case in Greenville."
Triune is in the mix, offering meals, post office boxes, a Sunday church home to anyone passing through and a professional staff connecting those who need services with the myriad of government and nonprofit agencies offering them.
Some people visit Triune six times a week for meals, meetings and church. Others drop in twice a year. Richardson-Moore says the church meets them where they are -- addicted, mentally ill, physically or mentally disabled, abused, at the back end of a lot of bad decisions or all of the above.
The stories come out in Richardson-Moore's sermons and books: An ex-con who runs a prison ministry now. A man, 36 years on the streets, who she witnessed "growing and glowing" as Triune helped him get a driver's license. The woman who made fun of her as "the church lady" and later pulled her aside to ask that she pray over her severely ill father.
That is where Richardson-Moore says she saw lives changed.
“As the years went by, if I had one I had probably 100 churches get in touch with us and say we want to do some of the stuff y’all are doing. Where should we start?’” she said. “And I always said, because everybody wants to start with meals or a clothes closet, I’d say that is not really the answer. I would hire a social worker. And don’t try to be everything to everybody. Don’t try to feed everybody one meal a month. Go deep with a few people.”
Susan McLarty is the founding coordinator of the Greenville Homeless Alliance, a post she has held since 2018. Richardson-Moore, she said, was on the steering committee that hired her. The pastor has had a knack, McLarty said, for multiplying efforts by getting the right people talking to each other.
“That’s how we will solve the problem of homelessness,” McLarty said. “To me I see the impact of how she has built this beloved community. It's just woven through so many aspects of people -- those who have had the lived experience of homelessness, policy makers and business folks and service providers. It's really fascinating.”
Sheorn, who took over full-time at Triune on July 27, has worked in prison ministry, was a chaplain at a psychiatric and drug rehabilitation facility in Atlanta and spent nine years as a campus minister at Vanderbilt University. She is Presbyterian by training but said she -- like Richardson-Moore, a Baptist -- welcomes the opportunity of running a nondenominational service in an old Methodist church. Triune is a hybrid. It is a church, and it is also a social ministry.
"This particular ministry, the flavor it is now, Deb has birthed that," Sheorn said. "It's beautiful and challenging work."
Eighty percent of Triune’s regular church attendees are middle class or well-to-do, Richardson-Moore said, but those receiving Triune’s services always participate in worship.
Sunday services, she said, hold the community together; the church's mission one of empathy and inclusion.
“When you came to worship here, you had homeless people handing out the bulletins, taking up the offering, leading the responsive reading, serving communion, singing, just participating in every aspect of worship, and to me that was so critical that they not be shoved aside,” she said. “If you are sitting there, you need to see somebody that looks like you up there.”
Fired the entire staff
In 2005 when Richardson-Moore arrived, Triune was a chaotic place. An armed guard stood by at meals. The campus was strewn with drug paraphernalia and alcohol bottles, people slept on the premises and defecated in the church breezeway. Richardson-Moore said she is pretty sure some were using the church’s phones to cut drug deals. She got pushed and spat on.
She was ready to stay one year. And during that year, she fired the entire staff.
“It was like an insane asylum,” she said. “There were times when I thought, ‘Maybe I should start doing drugs because I seem to be the only one who’s not. Maybe that will help.’”
One early hire was a man named David Gay, who agreed with her that people battling addiction benefited little from free meals, clothes and kerosene. He set up a program and has over the past 15 years helped more than 1,600 people get into rehab, about a third of whom came out clean and sober, she said. It was Gay who suggested they serve meals at tables. Each is set with a vase of fresh cut flowers.
“It was a carrot and stick,” Richardson-Moore said. “If you are going to sit at the table and yell and curse at us, you need to leave. So we just kept raising the bar on behavior and kept doing things to build a safe community.”
After tackling addiction, the staff picked up on widespread mental illness and so hired mental health counselors. The social workers came soon thereafter.
“It was a great mix of helping you set goals, helping you be accountable,” she said. “Practical help and then if you needed to get over to Greenville health for a shot, we can do that, too.”
Writing since she was 7
Richardson-Moore is a Greenville native, a Wade Hampton High School graduate. In her book “The Weight of Mercy,” she describes a typical life of a middle-class white girl in South Carolina: walking to school with her siblings, playing softball, joining Girl Scouts, and, when she was old enough to drive, occasionally chauffeuring the family’s Black housekeeper home.
“I was disturbed by those houses, many of them leaning precariously on cement blocks, their porches slumped under the weight of threadbare sofas and rusting refrigerators,” she wrote in her 2012 book.
Richardson-Moore says she has known since second grade she wanted to write, and her first job after graduating with a degree in political science from Wake Forest University was at The Greenville News. It was 1976. She met her husband, Vince, at The Piedmont, a sister paper in the same downtown building. Their three kids occasionally made an appearance there, too, when one or the other was sick.
“That was Watergate and Woodward and Bernstein, and it was very much seen as a calling and just a very a noble profession,” Richardson-Moore said. “When I think back to the newsroom in those days, it was a magic place. And, of course, just full of diversity.”
Former Greenville News managing editor Chris Weston started at the newspaper the same year as Richardson-Moore. She was well-known across the state when she was a working journalist, Weston said, and that gained her entree into places others couldn't go.
She covered cops, the arts, politics and wrote features. She stepped up to the big stories -- 9/11, the battle over the Confederate flag at the Statehouse and high-profile murder cases.
Empathy, "uncommon intelligence" and a granular knowledge of her hometown informed her questions, which informed the depth of her stories, he said. It also informed her ministry.
"In fact, Deb was the driver behind some of the most-complicated investigative projects we ever published at The Greenville News," Weston said.
So it was when Weston asked Richardson-Moore to cover religion for the newspaper that she asked to take graduate classes in comparative religion. She ended up at Erskine Theological Seminary. That was her modus operandi: read an authors’ books before interviewing them, take art classes to prep for the art beat.
“I certainly didn’t mean … I probably wasn’t looking at a degree in the beginning,” she said. “I was more looking at taking some classes. But the minute I landed in, it was a survey of the New Testament, it was like, ‘Oh whoa, wait a minute. I always wanted to know this stuff.’”
Her religious education previously consisted of Bible stories and church sermons. Now she was learning about where the Bible came from and the concept of Jesus as a radical. For the first time in her life, she said, she started looking at the Gospel writers as reporters.
“I was like, ‘God, are you calling me to be a minister or the religion reporter? Because either way could be a call,” she said.
She found her answer after taking classes part-time for three years. She left the newspaper in 2003 and finished a theology degree two years later.
“That left me with a master’s degree in divinity and being a woman Baptist minister in the South,” she said. “I realized, ‘Wait a minute, I am not going to get a church.’”
A classmate in seminary was working as a student pastor at Triune in 2003 when it was dissolving its affiliation with the United Methodist Church and being reborn as a nondenominational church with an emphasis on serving the homeless. Church membership, once as high as 700, was down to about eight Methodists in their 80s and about 25 homeless people who visited the soup kitchen.
“I applied, and they said, ‘Sure,’” she said. “In retrospect, I say, I think they would have taken Satan himself to get somebody in this pulpit. Because when I got here, it was a mess.”
The success of her programs, the clarity of her vision, her books and the power of her sermons boosted attendance at Triune and raised its reputation nationally. When Triune posted its opening for head pastor this time around, dozens applied, including a couple from overseas.
For all the challenges Richardson-Moore has faced, watching the pandemic gut that work has been the hardest part of saying goodbye, said her successor, Sheorn.
"She in many ways felt she was leaving in her stead what she came to 15 years ago," Sheorn said, "which was an empty sanctuary."
Still, she was ready to go. Richardson-Moore's retirement has been in the works since before the pandemic. She said she and Vince have a "bucket list" of travel destinations, and there's her new book to promote.
"'Ye shall love your neighbor as yourself,' It always goes back to that," she said in that penultimate sermon. "Of course, at Triune this is where we hang our hat. Meeting bodily needs and welcoming into the assembly the poor, the ones with dirty clothes, the addicted, the homeless, the mentally ill, the mentally and physically disabled, the formerly incarcerated, the marginalized. These are the people we want in this place. Why? Because Jesus told us to want them in this place."
Her congregation applauded.