The red bike squeaks to a halt on the hot asphalt. Marcus Roberts slides off, ready to go to work. Built with a linebacker’s body but with a face that says he’d rather hug you than hit you, Roberts begins stacking boxes of potato chips and cookies and lining up cans of soda and bottles of water across a couple of long lunchroom tables that cast thin, angular shadows over this Mid City parking lot.
He uses his oversized T-shirt, already wet from an arduous ride from Mall City, to wipe the sweat off his face as he keeps at it.
“That sun gonna drain ya,” he says, nodding to the modest bounty of food he is readying for some hungry masses. “It’s good just to get some cold water and something to snack on that’ll hold you through the day.”
Roberts is quick to admit, matter-of-factly, that his is a bad position to be in. The 32-year-old’s first thought every morning is one frightening word. And yet, at some point on most days, Roberts’ mind makes a graceful turn from survival to service, to helping others who are homeless just like he is.
“I’m really trying to do better one day at a time,” he says.
Roberts has been coming to this same parking lot for seven years now to take part in Open Air Ministries, the passion project launched by Pastor Joseph Moore and supported now by more than a dozen local churches and non-profit organizations. Open Air’s mission is to provide spiritual growth and support to the area’s homeless, all the while feeding them, distributing secondhand goods and clothes and offering skills training and work opportunities.
When more than a hundred men and women—and a few small children—line up, some with backpacks, others with crinkled plastic shopping bags, Moore gets their attention.
The pastor raises a hand. He tells those gathered today that he loves them; that God loves them more; and then he prays. There’s an amen—strong and in unison. It sounds like a riot. It sounds like a rebellion against the struggle of their daily lives and the way they know most people look at them as they walk the streets of this city.
Officially, Baton Rouge has 955 known residents without permanent housing. Randy Nichols, executive director of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless (CAAH), knows that figure low-balls the problem. Because U.S. Census survey information is voluntary, an accurate count of the homeless is virtually impossible to determine.
Moore says the real number for Baton Rouge is in the thousands. He’s seen it. He’s lived it. And by now, he’s met most of them.
“A lot of them stay in the woods,” the 65-year-old minister says.
According to CAAH, nearly half of the city’s homeless suffer from substance abuse.
Brian Mumphrey, Moore’s other volunteer at this mid-week outreach, has been to rehab four times. He spends as many hours a day with Pastor Moore as he possibly can. It helps him avoid the temptations that come with returning to his old neighborhood and his old ways.
“You’ve got to change your people, your places and your things,” Mumphrey says, pulling a finger back as he names each example. “If you don’t do that, you can’t expect to be different.”
This is a positive piece of philosophy that Moore often tells Mumphrey. It has struck him, and it has stuck with him. Practical wisdom like this is just one reason the 38-year-old with wounded eyes and a big heart keeps coming back to Open Air.
“This is a chance to redeem myself,” Mumphrey says. “Pastor Moore is a second father to me. He tells us everything that is right. Not like what you hear on the street. Because he’s been there. He’s been where we are.”
Mumphrey means that literally. Moore struggled through his own stretch of homelessness, a lonesome and challenging period in his life he refers to as “a desert place.”
One of five siblings, Moore grew up in North Baton Rouge in a three-room house run by a tough single mother. They had a kitchen and two bedrooms to share, and outside was the toilet.
From an early age, his weekends were spent cutting grass, washing cars and painting anything that needed a fresh coat.
“We were expected to bring in money,” Moore says of his hardscrabble youth. “A lot of physical work, but that built character.”
A fire station stood tall across the street from his dilapidated house. He would watch those men work They became his mentors, his fathers. Sometimes they even brought him to ballgames.
In high school, Moore earned the nickname “preacher” for the booming voice that would erupt whenever he was called to speak in front of the class. “I hated my friends calling me that,” he says. “I was actually quiet and just wanted to dance and have some fun.”
After graduation, Moore served in the Air Force, mostly as a cook, though he finished his service before having to ship out for Vietnam.
In the early 1970s, he settled back in Baton Rouge, got married and joined the fire department. Suddenly he was looked upon as the kind of man he had once admired so much as a child.
“To be a fireman, you give of yourself,” Moore says. “It taught me more about how to give than how to fight fires. It was a community mindset, and that’s what I learned.”
Soon Moore was building a new community. The Lord called him to the ministry in 1977, he says. A few years later, after seminary, he and his wife had three children while he led three small Methodist churches in and around Clinton, Louisiana.
But the tension between his responsibilities to his congregation and those to his family proved too much. Moore and his wife divorced. Feeling like a failure at best and a hypocrite at worst, he voluntarily left the pulpit.
“My life was in such tumult,” Moore says. “My biggest struggle was inside of me. I was going through a shameful moment.”
Without consistent work, financial woes set in, and Moore could never stay in one place very long.
“The IRS and I, we danced a little while together, and they won,” he says. “I had income coming in, but I was taking care of my children, and there wasn’t enough. I walked around like a zombie. Just around in circles.”
He didn’t know at the time that his experience and perspective on homelessness would be such a gift and a bond for the men and women whom he calls his new congregation. But it is. They see themselves in Moore. They see where they want their lives and their faiths to be.
“When you’re homeless, a lack of confidence comes over you from your shame or from the disappointment you have over hurting your family,” Moore says. “But also, a spirit of laziness can creep in. You have to fight through that. As long as people are bringing you things, giving you things, you have to have a mind for doing things for yourself.”
Moore’s chance at redemption came in 2007. He’d been helping assist the homeless with the Community Outreach Program of the A.C. Lewis YMCA. The program’s director, Ginger Ford, wanted to host an Easter Sunday service for the men in the program, and after learning of Moore’s background as a minister, she asked him to speak.
The response was overwhelming, and the next day Ford told him, “Rev, they want you back.”
“That was the moment I realized I was supposed to reach out to the homeless, that I hadn’t let God down. He just had a different purpose for me,” Moore says.
This is his church now, his mission. Not in a chapel or a gymnasium, his sanctuary is out here in a hot parking lot on Florida Boulevard or underneath the North Boulevard overpass. His sandpaper voice rises and rumbles like thunder, climaxing on the theme of every scrap of scripture as he places his hands on people Baton Rouge has forgotten and tells them God hasn’t.
For seven years he’s seen women come to him admitting they were on the verge of suicide before hearing the message of Jesus. He’s seen grown men weeping and crying for salvation and finding it.
Moore wants these people to know spiritual peace, but also to make amends with society, by re-entering it and, one day, flourishing through it.
To that end, Moore manages licensed and bonded lawn care and pressure-washing services crewed by the men he mentors. Other Open Air volunteers are spearheading community garden projects, a burgeoning bike repair service and even a gospel choir for the homeless—with traditional choir robes and all.
Despite all of this activity, Moore considers himself an introvert. His powerful preacher’s baritone springs from somewhere deep down, but it takes a lot out of him, too. After each animated, emotion-filled sermon, he relaxes by listening to old jazz records. He may sip on a small glass of wine, he says, and take a long nap.
Though his task is challenging, his comfort is in holding to the belief that Open Air Ministries has always been God’s project, not his, and that, by design, it has expanded beyond him.
The ministry’s list of supporting churches and volunteer organizers is growing, and Moore says they’ve only just begun. Major players like St. Vincent De Paul CEO Michael Acaldo have now plugged into Open Air. Acaldo serves on Moore’s advisory board.
“Pastor Moore is a fabulous man,” Acaldo says. “He’s dedicated and cares about every person, but he’s all about the hand up, not the handout.”
While Acaldo’s organization is leading the fight against homelessness in Baton Rouge, he says smaller grassroots efforts like Moore’s are not only inspiring, but absolutely essential.
“Over 25 years of doing this, I’ve seen homelessness grow to levels that I really never imagined,” Acaldo says. “Moore’s work is so very important because it takes a lot of collaboration, all of us working together, to make an impact.”