Yesterday I stepped foot for the first time into 1411 Locust, a tall five-story brick building in the heart of downtown St. Louis. On the outside of the structure about 3 stories high is a large white cross, a reminder to the residents and patrons of the area that there should be GOD inside those walls. Many times I have passed the massive building, an old YWCA; at any time of day, during any type of weather you are sure to see people gathering outside this “shelter” hoping to seek refuge and get any assistance that is made available. However, it was not until yesterday that I actually was able to see the inside of this so-called holy place of help and ministry. It was what I saw amidst the run down filthy walls of New Life Evangelistic Center [hereafter will be referred to as NLEC] that disturbed my spirit in the most unsettling of ways.
The Back Story
For nearly four decades NLEC has been housed in downtown St. Louis, MO; purchased in 1975 [NLEC was originally founded in 1972 starting out in a 50-foot trailer in Wellston, MO] by Rev. Larry Rice and his wife Penny the center was set to be the headquarters for a Christian television station Rice was planning to orchestrate as well a place for those in need [the poor and homeless] to come for emergency shelter. No sooner than the “church” opened its doors to those in need did the Television Evangelist begin his “mission” to raise money to keep his operation a float. St. Louis residents know all too well of the many fundraising efforts and telethons of the NLEC. A decade old federal filing showed evidence that despite pleas for funds that the organization was not hurting for money at all, in fact they had a net worth of $40 million. Of course Rev. Rice has continued to dispute such facts stating the organization has sold property and or given it away, and also says that his media stock for his television station KNLC has plummeted. [You would never know it by looking at their state of the art studio equipment]. The organization’s 2012 year-end financial statement however showed there to be still $2 million in various funds and millions in assets. [ I tried to locate more recent financial records but had very little luck]. One would be lead to believe that with such an abundance of funds, I mean $40 million [even $2 million] is a lot of money, that this facility should look like something immaculate and grand on the inside. So one would think.
Syrup and Peanut Butter Sandwiches
The large structure is old, that part is evident the moment you lay eyes on it, the raggedy window air conditioning units are a clear indicator that there is no central air. You must knock to enter during the day, the door is opened by an older African-American man who could possibly be the janitor or security? As I stood in the reception area waiting for the assistant to the director of development to come meet with us I surveyed my surroundings. Trying my best not to inhale too much of the strong masked stale odor of funk and Pine Sol, I noticed the “receptionist” was probably not a real receptionist but a patron or possibly a resident. An older gentleman wearing an old t-shirt and dingy jeans, he spoke quietly and looked exhausted. The lobby was full of rows of chairs facing an old large tube television which was of course on channel 24 and showing “Highway to Heaven”. People [residents] were far and few between; those who were peddling about the building I assumed them to be employees. Finally after about ten minutes of waiting we were greeted by the assistant who proceeds to give us a “tour” of this “grand” structure and “holy” place. We see the donation room and the food pantry which is not a pantry at all. The shelves are scarcely stocked with ramen noodles, expired can goods and baby food. There are slates and slates of bread which I can only hope to have been fresh. ” There on that shelf is where we normally keep peanut butter and jelly for the sandwiches we hand out daily. We haven’t had jelly in quite some time so we have been making syrup and peanut butter sandwiches.” Luckily, I was looking in the opposite direction of her and she was unable to see my face.
“This is a church, not a professional service organization. People aren’t clients; they’re guests. Shelter is simply a function of worship. “We have a totally different structure,” Larry says. “We try to have an open faith community.” ~Larry Rice
We continued, the first stop was of course the worship room. A large room that serves multiple purposes, where press conferences, telethons and church service is held. It is also where mother’s with children bunk for the night sleeping on pallets on the floor. Then there was of course “the television studio” where we meet a man who is running the sound board. The equipment appears to be up to date and not at all cheap, the set however is familiar and very outdated. “I have a show starting at the end of the month and I am hoping to get new updated sets and cameras.” she says. Unlike the rest of the interior this room is well-kept, but are you surprised? This is what they want the people to see, the show. We move on, now having to take the steps to the upper levels because according to the sign on the elevator “This elevator is out-of-order and we don’t have the funds to repair it.” The walls of the stairwells are peeling terribly, there are large freestanding furnaces with caution tape wrapped around them. [A hazard I am sure], the stairs and banisters were not very sturdy and I was sure something was going to crawl up my pants leg at any moment. Without taking you floor by floor I will give you an overview of floors 2-4. Women and children who are in the 14 day program sleep in a room called the blue room. A room with some bunks and some regular beds. The organization is working on getting seamless mattresses due to a bed bug problem. The walls in the room are a pasty color, the curtains are hanging on the window merely on a hope and a prayer. The bedding is filthy just from years of people using them over and over. Just the idea of children having to sleep in such trife made me nauseated. There was a dining area, where those living on that floor eat each meal. A couple of old dirty high chairs sat in the corner. There was also a room for women living in their 2 year leadership program. Those women are allowed to live at NLEC for two years; for a price of course. A bay of about eight beds and a kitchen area for dining. It was 90 degrees in the shade yesterday, and I felt every bit of that heat standing in that room. Moving right along, the men’s transitional living floor was not much better aside from the fact that they had dorm style rooms where they only sleep two to a room. Due to the rooms being occupied at the time of our tour we were not able to see those living conditions. However, in the room that was designated “the kitchen” and dining area we did notice a mouse, a mouse so dead it was flat. [are these healthy living conditions for anyone?] The floors were ready to cave in at any moment if you stepped in the wrong spot. These men, like the women are allowed to live for two years, but for a price.
The fifth floor is where I knew that I was not in a place of holy doings, but more like a bay of horrors. Two large rooms were filled with prison style bunks, complete with the prison mattress, some dirty old blankets and pillows so flat and dirty I immediately began to itch. The overhead fixtures were leaking water causing the rooms to smell of mold and mildew. “We are able to house 150 men up here for emergency shelter each night.”. I noticed there was a desk and a chair in the front of the room, one where a security guard might sit. So I asked the question regarding security at night. The response was shocking. “We don’t employ actual security guards. We have residential advisors who are residents in the leadership program. They work for the shelter. In return they get room and board, meals and any assistance they made need such as transportation to dr’s appointments.” I was floored. Throughout the tour I only met and noted about 6 to 8 employees who were probably on payroll. Where is the money? How in all of the world does a program who does not have more than ten paid employees not be able to repair their building? How do they not have the funds to purchase food? Why are they not utilizing the food bank that is available to organizations such as these? Are these forced living conditions acceptable because they are happening under the pretense of “doing the Lord’s work”? For years people have spoken out and against NLEC but it was not until seeing with my own eyes these conditions that I have been able to formulate my own opinion. Forcing people to work for you, not allowing them to get out and obtain a real job for two years or more only to at the end of their stay offer them a $500 stipend paid on an apartment is doing disservice to these people! The fact that these people are homeless and poor does not make them any less human than the Reverend himself. There is no reason or justification for these people to live in such inhumane and disgusting conditions. I have never been so angry in all my life. To take advantage of people’s misfortune because they truly have no place else to go is not Christ like. These people aren’ offered services such as case management or job training to help them once they leave the “church”. Who is that helping? I guess it’s none of our business that the good Reverend lives in a mansion somewhere out in Wildwood, MO. People like the television pastor are clowns.
“The only people Larry could get to staff New Life were people who were homeless,” he says. “That’s the downfall of the place. His management style is such a put-off.” Almost like modern-day slavery for blacks and whites.” ~former “employee” of NLEC
On July 22, 2014 at 1:45pm a decision at City Hall will be made regarding the occupancy permit of NLEC, the residents of downtown are sick of the nuisance that the residents of NLEC have become. Judgement could come forcing Rice to shut his doors. Part of me is rooting for this decision and another part is wondering where will all the people in need turn to if this happens? While I see what a terrible injustice this is, I also see the bigger picture. NLEC takes in everyone, no matter race, creed, disability or religion. Not many shelters in St. Louis do this. Despite what city officials believe there is a homeless problem plaguing downtown St. Louis, and Larry Rice aids in easing that problem, but at what cost to those in need? You decide Prophet or Prison Warden?
“Today, if someone shows up at NLEC’s door looking for emergency shelter, they can stay for 14 days. At the end of that period, they can either find somewhere else to go for 30 days or join one of NLEC’s programs. There’s a 30-day program for men and women, a 90-day program for veterans and women, and a two-year leadership program.
In each case, people exchange labor for room and board. They operate the shelter at night when the pastors go home. They also provide security, do administrative work, cook, clean, and serve as cameramen and producers for Larry’s TV station. They receive no wages. They’re also required to attend daily prayer meetings.
Members of the two-year program are often shipped off to one of Larry’s farms, where they tend to livestock, operate broadcast centers, or turn used vegetable oil into diesel fuel as part of his Missouri Renewable Energy initiative. Their work generates income for NLEC, but still, they receive no wages. In fact, members of the two-year program who collect disability or other benefits are asked to donate 40 percent.” source “ No Shelter written by William Powell for St. Louis Magazine read the full article here.