After 15 years at the helm of the nondenominational mission church Triune Mercy Center, Deb Richardson-Moore is stepping away from the pulpit at the end of July. The reason behind her retirement is a combination of age and wanting to start a new chapter, she said.
“It just seemed like a perfect time,” the community leader, 65, said. Her husband, Vince Moore, already retired from his position as Furman University’s director of news and media relations last year.
The retirement is a major one for the Greenville community, as Richardson-Moore’s fingerprints can be found on initiatives ranging from combating human trafficking to working to set up the Greenville Homeless Alliance. Triune offers services for those experiencing homelessness and those with substance use disorders.
Now, a decade and a half after stepping into Triune and working with her staff to make it a place of comfort, solace and worship, she’s setting off to write a new chapter in her life — quite literally.
She is already the author of four books; her fifth, “Murder Forgotten,” comes out Sept. 18. She’s previously published an account of her first years at Triune titled “The Weight of Mercy” and a series of mystery books.
After two careers, she’s ready for her “third chapter,” she said.
Her first chapter found her as a journalist for about 20 years. Eventually, her editors wanted her on the religion beat. To help understand her subject, Richardson-Moore ended up in divinity school at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West. While for years she loathed the idea of preaching, it was in her last semester — and in her fifth year in the program — that she felt called to preach at age 50, something that surprised even herself.
“Lo and behold, preaching is writing. I always thought it was theater, and it’s not. A good sermon is in the writing,” Richardson-Moore said.
Initial days at Triune
She found herself at Triune, where she saw both the older worshipers of the church and the homeless individuals who would come for a meal after services. At one point, Richardson-Moore said, she looked around and realized that each person in the dining hall looked addicted.
“Why aren’t we trying to treat the addiction?” she asked. “And so that was my first step.” Triune has sent more than 1,600 people for treatment, Richardson-Moore estimated.
“The issue was not just the poverty. [What] we were seeing was not simply a lack of physical goods,” Richardson-Moore said. “What people were missing was all the building blocks.”
It was in these early years that Richardson-Moore had a conversation that has been a cornerstone of her approach to social justice issues since. She recalled that one day a homeless man said to her, “Pastor, do you know the worst thing about being homeless? It’s not being cold or wet or hungry. The worst thing about being homeless is being looked right through.”
Since then, Triune and Richardson-Moore have attempted to make each person they assist visible. Not only has this approach allowed for better cooperation with clients at Triune, but it’s given advocates a deeper understanding of the real concerns people have. For example, Richardson-Moore said, if someone has been living on the streets for over a decade, there might be some issues with them moving into an apartment, such as the isolation that comes from living alone or having to get used to paying bills.
The church boasted about 250 worshippers on Sundays before the pandemic — a mixture of homeless individuals in need of assistance and other people from the local community.
For Richardson-Moore, the most challenging thing throughout the years at Triune is the realization that not everybody wants help.
A legend in her own right
That’s never stopped Richardson-Moore from supporting those who seek shelter at Triune. If you ask her team to describe her, they’ll call Richardson-Moore “humble” and a “legend” who has helped thousands.
“She has made sure that everybody that she comes in contact with feels like they’ve been seen,” said James Garrison, who chairs on Triune’s board.
Others agree. “I don’t think Deb is aware of the impact that she makes on people,” said Triune’s associate director, Pat Parker. She said that Richardson-Moore will never take credit for herself and always credits the entire Triune team. “She’s just genuine,” Parker said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Robert Gage, a member of the Triune Endowment Board, who said in an email, “Deb’s body of work at Triune is phenomenal.
“Deb led the transition from helping people continue being needy, to empowering people to become self-sufficient. Deb’s most powerful accomplishment is building a church where everyone can feel welcome. I think that the secret that Deb discovered is that, no matter what your station in life is, the Gospel applies equally,” he added.
“When Deb announced her pending retirement, we received applications from all over the country and one from India,” Gage said.
Overall, maybe the best way to describe the impact of Richardson-Moore is a ripple, said David Gay, Triune’s rehab specialist — “a ripple in our community of love and health for people, and that ripple will be still going out.”
“For many years, she has been instrumental in touching thousands of lives, literally thousands of lives directly, but certainly indirectly,” Gay said.
Even while her days at the pulpit and leading projects at Triune may be done, her commitment to the community isn’t fading. Her books, Richardson-Moore said, emphasize these elements of empathy and community action even if in small, indirect ways.
In fact, one of her characters in her mystery novels is based on Don Austin, facilities manager at Triune, who’s worked at the center for a decade. Richardson-Moore drove Austin to Columbia for a hearing to apply for a pardon for a past criminal offense. Richardson-Moore testified on behalf of Austin, something he says he will never forget.
“She is the kind of lady that would get out of bed on a cold morning and take someone to Columbia to speak for them,” Austin, who received the pardon, said. Richardson-Moore isn’t just his pastor or employer, but “someone to look up to.”
The next chapters
Now, though, it’s time for a break. While she can’t go on a planned trip to Oregon with college friends like she had been planning before the pandemic, she’s looking forward to some trips to see her children as soon as she and her husband can.
The new minister stepping into the role, Jennifer Fouse Sheorn, hopes for the best for Richardson-Moore. While she understands she has some big shoes to fill, Sheorn said she’s excited to join Triune: “I want to say a big, huge gratitude to [Richardson-Moore] for leaving such a legacy, but also for being such a wonderful advocate for the poor.”
Sheorn started in the role on July 20.
Richardson-Moore’s parting wish for the staff at Triune is for them to use their imagination: “I would encourage the staff and the new minister that once they can get beyond this coronavirus, which I know is 2 centimeters from their face, is to think big. Think creatively.”