Deb Richardson-Moore worked as a journalist in the deep south of the USA for over 27 years. When the newspaper she worked for wanted her to cover religious and faith issues, she decided to study theology. This led her to leave journalism and become Pastor of the Triune Mercy Centre, a church in a desperately poor community in Greenville, South Carolina.
The Weight of Mercy is the story of how this first-time pastor makes sense of ministering to drug addicts, prostitutes and homeless people who make up her congregation.
It is not a book full of either political or theological analysis. Instead, Richardson-Moore displays her journalistic skills by simply allowing her story to do the talking. With deep humanity and good humour she re-counts story after story of the complexities, struggles and heartbreak of ministering among such broken and damaged people. Almost every page includes bitter-sweet experiences of the pain and joy of her daily work.
A good example is when she re-counts the experience of starting up a Women’s Bible study group:
Seven women attended the first class, four of them with severe mental illnesses. Few could sit still. One ran back and forth to the bathroom throughout the 45 minutes. One rambled for 10 minutes about the Holy Spirit lurking in her house in the guise of her dead brother-in-law, flushing toilets and slamming doors.
“Actually I am not sure that’s the picture of the Holy Spirit we get in the Bible,” I said.
The next week another prostitute joined us. She was jittery and wired, talking fast and hardly able to remain in a chair. She talked manically about being ripped off after ‘giving a blow job’ the night before. I stared at her. She took my look to mean I didn’t know a blow job was.
“You know”, she said, miming the act “like a popiscle?”
“Um yes, I do know”
“I was supposed to get $20” she continued “but what really upset me is that after I shared with everybody, I only got a $5 rock out of it.”
“All right, I get that, but this is a Bible study, OK? We are here to look at Scripture.”
“Sure!” she said “I was just saying…”
I thought of my seminary classmates debating the finer parts of Calvinism, and had to laugh.
What makes this a brilliant book is the utter authenticity with which Richardson-Moore recounts the challenges, difficulties and self-doubt which she has had to contend with.
She is very honest about her concerns about the model of helping homeless people which is purely focussed on giving out free clothes and free food to anyone who asks. She comes to see how, especially for those with addictions, this kind of ‘help’ can make their situation worse.
Another sign of authenticity is her willingness to write about the challenges she has faced managing her staff and volunteers. As anyone who has worked in similar charities can testify, hassles with staff are often more stressful than the issues presented by the homeless people themselves. Richardson-Moore is honest about the pain caused by having to dismiss staff who simply could not fulfil their roles adequately.
Laced throughout the book is story after story of those who the Triune Center helps to make slow, painstaking steps forward. Many do crash down and fail again – but many do experience remarkable change as grace of God and his people is at work.
There are few fairy-tale endings because this is a book rooted in the real world. But it is not gloomy – actually it is upbeat and full of hope because many are helped to make steps on the long, hard road of transformation.
So I would strongly recommend The Weight of Mercy if you are reflecting on how the church should welcome, support and share the gospel with those on the margins of society.
And the best thing is that this has been written by someone still leading the front-line work at this centre, day after day. Rather than another best seller from a high-profile Christian celebrity, or academic theology written from comfortable surroundings, this is the kind of authentic story of hope that can inspire us all to put our faith into action.