If there’s one person in all Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, who knows what it’s like to be out there in the streets at night, cold and hungry, that’s Pastor Joseph Moore. He personally experienced homelessness when he retired from the fire department and went through a divorce: “That’s how it got started with me, I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, but that’s how I got that particular calling.” Pastor Moore now leads the Open Air Ministries, reaching out a hand for those in need, especially the homeless, clothing and feeding them literally in the open air, a parking lot. His volunteer job involves massive coordination and organization combined with preaching, caring and devotion.
Before he was out in the streets looking for people in need, handing them blankets, scarves or gloves, he was a fireman and pastored 3 Methodist churches at the same time. In both jobs he was familiar with helping people to a certain degree but not like this right now, this one-on-one approach. “It was more of a calling, because in ministry there’s not a lot of pay, so you don’t do it for the pay, you do it for love. My salary was maybe $800 a month for pastoring the 3 churches, but in doing the Lord’s work there’s no dollar sand that you can attach to”, he remembers and shares with us in his southern African American English accent which is sometimes very hard for us to understand.
A couple of years ago, he started as a volunteer at the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association)working with Ginger Ford in a program where she helped the homeless, going out and giving them clothing, food, shoes, toiletries, etc. “I went there and preached and they asked me to come back, so now we have been holding this Sunday Worship service for 8 years, as well as reaching out to them on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. And sometimes at night if it’s too cold I might go around looking for people in need, I already know where to find them, my job is to pastor them, find them and meet their needs, get them gloves, blankets, coats, socks, anything that can keep them warm.” It sounds real simple, but surely it’s not, otherwise, we would have lots of Pastors Moore around the corner. And as Pastor Whitney reminds us: “You sure don’t want to be out there at night, he carries no guns but Jesus.”
In a country with such religious diversity, we are amazed at how they join efforts in order to reach more people. P.Moore coordinates the help he gets from different Churches: Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, St. Vincent de Paul which embrace the project and encourage their parishioners to reach out a hand. Each Church has the responsibility or cooking or donating food one Sunday a month, which can sometimes be making toiletry bags, care bags, gumbo lunches, sandwiches, or clothes.
As a volunteer for the YMCA, he also picks up clothes that people donate at the YMCA centers (gym, childcare, fitness center) in a van given for that purpose. Food donations from the Baton Rouge Food Bank are also being picked up three times a week, happily fulfilling what they preach ‘The link between hunger and hope’. We were able to take a grasp of this huge organization watching several trucks and vans being filled up with oranges, apples, cookies, snacks, sodas, bananas, etc. He makes sure everything gets to the right hands, and gives generously.
Once the van is packed with food and clothes, we are ready to squeeze in and get everything ready in the parking lot before the crowd arrives. Pastor Moore also gets the chance to work with people who have to fulfil hours of community service. He surely makes them work but, like a caring father, is always ready to lend them a hand, as well as trying to heal their hearts. Alex*, who has been doing community service for some time now, told us the first time he met Pastor Moore he was struck when he heard him preach, how he got people to listen and how he touched their hearts. Today there are 6 men and one woman ready to help in order to fulfil the hours they are missing, and 2 volunteers. Pastor Moore divides chores in 2 seconds, and each one heads to their places. Clothes are spread throughout the parking lot and food is placed on a long table where each of them hands out one item.
Pastor Moore welcomes everybody and gathers them to say a prayer before they make a line to get their food and clothes. He’s loving but strict at the same time, dealing with them devotedly. They surely remind him every time of what it was like being homeless, “It was God training me for this particular ministry, but I didn’t know it at that time. It was a painful time, but it was a learning experience. Then I began working as a volunteer and I began to understand the calling, I could relate to a certain degree to what the homeless were going through because I’d experienced much of that myself, that was the ministry God had chosen for me. But I had to go through that process to finally get it.”
On Sundays, almost 300 homeless gather in the parking lot to attend the Worship Service, which is a no denominational church, as Whitney recalls: “He just preaches to whoever shows up, led by the Holy Spirit, everybody in Baton Rouge knows him.” Pastor Moore tells us that it is on these occasions when “Maybe 10 people rededicated their life to the Lord, and maybe 10 accepted Christ for the 1st time, but since we’ve been out there, over 2000 have given their lives to the Lord. There’s a certain amount of inner peace when you do that, that certainly changes you; but at the same time, it’s helping somebody else, and embracing somebody else! So that when I’m pastoring them, I’m not looking down on them, but embracing them and letting them know that God loves them, that we love them, that this is who I am, that I am there for them. I’m not called to judge them but I am called to love them, that’s our primary goal, let them have the assurance that they won’t be homeless anymore. It’s not just preaching the Word, it’s doing the Word. Sometimes it’s difficult, but He told me not to see them as they are, or how they smell, but as they were first born, before they got contaminated with the world, like when their mothers first conceived them. When I preach, I don’t see them, I see Jesus. It takes away everything else.”
You can actually tell he is doing this from the bottom of his heart, as he puts it into words: “I love doing this, being a volunteer and living with my retirement cheque, I lead a simple life, I don’t care for fancy stuff. I’ll be 65 in May, I know there comes a time when you have to gracefully step aside and let a new generation step in. I want to travel but still preach and minister the homeless wherever I go. Right now I wouldn’t trade it for anything, I love it.”