Defining the Rev. Larry Rice: Different takes from supporters, opponents

Sunday, May 31, 2009
Reverend Larry Rice welcomes women and children to a hot dinner Tuesday, May 19, 2009, at New Life Evangeslistic Center in Cape Girardeau. (Kit Doyle)

ST. LOUIS -- The methods, message and means the Rev. Larry Rice uses to sustain his ministry to the homeless defines him as a disciple to some and a demon to others.

Familiar to many in Missouri, his personality is being introduced to Cape Girardeau. City leaders have aligned politicians, church leaders, community groups and veterans organizations in opposition to his plan to use the Broadway federal building to aid the homeless. Rice fights back by attacking the motives of those who oppose him, accusing them of blindness to job losses, evictions and foreclosures.

A longtime fixture on the Missouri social welfare scene, Rice's New Life Evangelistic Center has a statewide network that includes nine shelters, 19 broadcast stations and 11 "free stores."

Few who have worked with him over the years doubt he has a sincere concern for the poor and homeless. Many he has helped sing his praises. Ralph Case, former police chief of Times Beach, Mo., heaps praise on Rice as recalls the aid delivered during a 1982 flood. Case now runs the New Life free store and shelter in Van Buren, Mo.

Case is devoted to Rice and his mission. "He gets jumped on for doing what everybody should do," Case said. "You are supposed to help your brother."

ABOVE: Larry and Deborah Rice eat dinner May 19 on the women and children's floor of the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis.

But those who clash with Rice see him as a hindrance to progress by the poor. They question his go-it-alone approach, which they call outdated. In Cape Girardeau, many say the community is already working to meet the needs of the homeless and that the federal building is much too big to meet those needs that aren't met.

Bill Seidhoff, director of human services for St. Louis, said Rice has never participated in the city's Homeless Services Network. The network wants to limit the use of emergency shelters and favors moving people quickly into individual residences where clients receive intensive professional help to recover.

"He has just continued to resist any cooperative type ventures or coordinated approach in dealing with the homelessness problem," Seidhoff said. "That is a real limitation on our ability to address the homelessness problem here in the city of St. Louis."

That lack of cooperation has been noted in Cape Girardeau, where some homeless advocates say they were misrepresented or misquoted in Rice's application for the old federal building. Others are disappointed he didn't have more interaction with those in Cape Girardeau who are trying to meet the needs of the homeless. For instance, Thursday was the first time Rice had face-to-face interaction with the Cape Girardeau ministerial alliance.

Rice, these critics say, covets the publicity he finds in being controversial. "As far as my personal opinion is concerned, he is a megalomaniac," said Andy Martello, who lives a block from New Life's headquarters shelter at 1411 Locust St. in St. Louis. "Personally I think he is in it for himself to agitate and shake up the apple cart, if you will, because that is what he likes to do."

Larry Rice waits for dinner Tuesday, May 19, 2009, at New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis. (Kit Doyle)

Now the whirlwind focuses on Southeast Missouri. From it, Rice hopes to reap a presence in an area he has yet to successfully penetrate. His plan for the Broadway federal building calls for an emergency shelter, transitional housing center and a free store along a street city leaders hope will become a booming corridor of commerce as part of the state-led DREAM Initiative, a communitywide effort to improve the downtown district.

"It would impact the ability for us to feel comfortable and for investors and developers to feel comfortable with the area surrounding that," said Marla Mills, executive director of Old Town Cape.

Even if the worst fears about a homeless shelter on Broadway aren't realized, the mere presence of one will set back the DREAM plans, she said. "If we are all wrong and it would not have a negative image, it would take several years to know."

Rice's beginnings

Larry Rice says he felt his calling to aid the poor as a young Lutheran seminarian in the early 1970s. That theology didn't fit with his Gospel view. His search for a new way took him to an interdenominational school, then to the streets of St. Louis. With his wife, Penny, he began the work in a humble manner.

RIGHT: Tom Branham edits video May 19 for Channel 24 KNLC at the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis. Branham, who came to the position through a job training course, has been with KNLC for 13 years. (KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com)

"We started out in a 50-foot trailer, taking our needs to God," Rice said. "My purpose is to serve God. To minister means to serve. Who can you serve more than the homeless?"

Penny Rice died in 2007. He remarried in February.

Rice opened his first shelter when he converted a YWCA in a deteriorating warehouse and office district. To the dismay of politicians, in the 1980s he took homeless people to camp on the lawn at city hall and to the steps of the Missouri State Capitol.

Rice still has a shelter in that converted YWCA, only now he is surrounded by buildings converted into luxury apartments. His building shows signs of heavy use. Men seeking emergency shelter sleep in a fourth-floor room crowded with steel bunk beds where the lights never go out because of security concerns.

Quarters there are better for women and children: bright colors, and sleeping areas with more comfortable beds.

Men in longer-term programs have small single or double rooms where they may keep personal belongings behind a door they can lock.

"I am very much aware, probably as much or more so than anyone, that what is involved is two things," Rice said. "You have to build credibility among the people who are homeless and you do that by being there with winter patrols. Be there with sandwiches when they are not ready to come into the shelter or blankets or anything else they need.

"And you always have programs available they can get into, like our 90-day and six-month program, our two-year program for the women, our veterans program for the men."

Looking long-term

His longer-term programs focus on two areas -- New Life's broadcast network of television and radio stations and a not-for-profit business called Missouri Renewable Energy. In each enterprise, Rice recruits the homeless, who volunteer to work for up to two years on the promise they will finish the training with a skill that can give them a job.

Reverend Larry Rice, right, chats with Tom Branham, who came through Rice's career television training program at New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis. Branham has now been working with Channel 24 KNLC for 13 years. (Kit Doyle)

"What is my goal when I leave this place? I intend to get into some job pertaining to renewable energy," said James Williams, who lives on a New Life complex near New Bloomfield, Mo. On a recent Saturday, Williams was at the Missouri Renewable Energy outpost in Marshfield, Mo., to demonstrate how to make biodiesel out of used cooking oil.

Working with a blender, Williams mixed oil, a lye solution and methanol. "There is a lot of opportunities out there for people skilled in this area. You can make you some money, so to speak."

Williams estimated that he makes 20 gallons of biodiesel weekly, fuel that is consumed in New Life vehicles. He does not receive a paycheck but has no complaints, he said.

Rice deflects criticism of his programs use of volunteer labor by calling it a fair trade -- he provides room, board and training in exchange for a long-term commitment from the homeless person. At broadcast stations, for example, "they are training with an engineer who goes out there, training and developing skills. It is a choice they have made. They don't have to do that, of course," Rice said.

Rice uses his television stations to seek donations, generate advertising revenue and raise his profile. He devotes air time to conditions in Missouri prisons. He ran for lieutenant governor in 1992 and governor in 2000.

The Rev. Larry Rice is seen at the New Life Evangelistic Center in St. Louis, one of many operations he runs in Missouri. (Kit Doyle)

According to a financial statement issued by New Life for 2007, the ministry held net assets worth $5.3 million. The ministry expenses, $4.6 million, exceeded income of $3.7 million.

A $40 million value assigned to ministry assets in court papers filed by New Life attorneys in 2004 was based on the likely sale price of its broadcast stations, the financial statement said, and was probably excessive.

His ministry does not seek government grants.

When the Better Business Bureau evaluated Rice's operations in 2007, New Life did not meet nine of the 20 standards for accountability. Among other things, it lacked a budget, had board members who were also employees and did not evaluate its programs or Rice on a regular basis.

"After 37 years we don't have a budget because we don't know what needs we are going to encounter," Rice said. "We have a general budget, but we don't have one as precise and tight as they would like. As a living, viable functioning organization as opposed to a traditional, dry, dead one that you get pledges for, we have an organization that has operated by faith for many years."

Neighborhood effect

Larry Rice's good works aren't what create his most vehement opponents. And his business methods, which raise questions, also don't make him implacable enemies.

The people with the most intense dislike of New Life's operations are those who live, work or have interests nearby.

Andy Martello lives in a loft that costs $1,500 a month. From the rooftop patio area, complete with swimming pool, Martello can see the alley behind Rice's headquarters shelter. He recalls seeing people sleeping on mattresses under the fire escape, couples going into the portable toilets apparently for sexual encounters.

Martello records his experiences on a blog, martello.org. He posts pictures of the park where he cleaned up beer cans, liquor bottles and worse left by the homeless. During the day, when the shelter is not open, the homeless are nearby, some in the park. He and his neighbors have painted the benches, planted flowers and created a fenced dog run.

"I just want a nice, clean, safe neighborhood," Martello said as he led a walking tour. He shows visitors where the homeless sun themselves, use a nearby library bathroom to wash their socks and themselves and linger on hot days.

"If you had a neighbor with a broken window, wouldn't you ask him to fix it?" Martello said. "I can't imagine if you were living in a small town and your neighbors had the cops, fire trucks and ambulances there every single day that you wouldn't have an issue with that."

Roger Wood was sitting on a bench in Lucas Park the day Martello showed visitors around. He said he was on the streets for the first time since 1993. "I just had a bad situation this month," Wood said. "I got to learn how to survive out here again."

Wood obviously knows the system. He can stay with Rice for 14 days, then must not return for 30. At 58, he said it would be rough on the streets without New Life's ministry.

He claimed a disability, losing his job due to injury. He spends his days, he said, in the park. "What I really need is a bus pass to get around."

Wood doesn't blame anyone for his plight. "I'm grown. I got myself in this s---. I ain't gonna say I don't need help, but I got a lot of pride."

Over the past 15 months, big incidents at the shelter near Martello's apartment were a fatal stabbing and a savage beating of a woman who has worked for New Life for five years. Smaller incidents happen often, making it a top location for police calls in the city. Martello said he was mugged last week, punched twice.

The homeless that Rice attracts, Martello said, "flaunt society and live by their own rules. Fostering and enabling that kind of behavior is just socially unacceptable. You are always going to have that in a big city, but to enable it, to promote it and kind of glorify in it isn't conducive to a neighborhood. And that is what this is, a neighborhood."

The woman hospitalized after the beating said she's committed to Rice and his work. Virginia Shelly, 67, coordinator of the ladies and babies program at the shelter, said she takes guidance from chapter 58 of Isaiah, which tells the faithful to share their food with the hungry, provide shelter to wanderers and clothe the naked.

"I lived a luxurious life," Shelly said. "God asked me to live as they do."

Shelly, who has worked for Rice for five years, said she prays for her attacker. "I am sure she has had a lot of emotional trauma."

Level of services

In Springfield, Mo., Mary Byrne has five three-ring binders filled with material on Rice and New Life Evangelistic Center. Byrne is a member of the site council at Springfield Central High School. The school is adjacent to Rice's newest operation, a homeless outreach center in a former Social Security building given to Rice last year.

She, too, focuses on violence and potential for violence among the homeless Rice attracts. But she also opposes Rice because she feels his programs are designed to sustain the ministry. New Life has not gone through training with the state for certification as a religious-based counseling service, nor does it employ licensed social workers, Byrne has learned. The former homeless helping the current homeless can only provide so much in the way of effective help, she said.

"I understand Rev. Rice's argument that it is better to keep people off the street," she said of his long-term programs. "But the real question is, what is the quality of the services provided and what is the risk factor involved? The answer is that the services are not on par with organizations that provide professional services. Even if they are public services, they have to be qualified professionals."

The Social Security building is a horrible place to have regular visits from large numbers of homeless, Byrne said. The high school doors must remain unlocked due to fire codes. Springfield has also seen severe violent crime in a facility operated by New Life. The former manager of the free store that was being used as an unauthorized shelter was recently convicted of a brutal rape.

"That a man who was a man of the cloth, understanding the vulnerability of children and the high-risk nature of the population he is serving, would unduly put children at risk, I don't understand."

Poor vs. professional

Rice defends his programs as effective. He said the people serving the homeless, many formerly homeless themselves, are more dedicated than degreed professionals.

"It is the open and creative solution," Rice said. "Instead of seeing them as clients and having ourselves on a pedestal here, they become one. This thing really works. They have an empathy, a compassion, a caringness that you don't see in the 9-to-5 operator who is often in it only for the money."

But Rice's refusal to take part in homelessness strategy sessions is a troubling aspect of his ministry and one that should make Cape Girardeau take notice, Seidhoff said.

"Is he really providing those things that are going to remedy the homelessness problem or is it just perpetuating a certain lifestyle or a certain existence that is detrimental to individuals and the community?" Seidhoff said.

New methods and new programs make it easier to get off the streets, he said. Quick exits from emergency shelters, transitional housing with intense counseling, what is known as permanent supportive housing, is the city's plan, he said.

In fact, it is the size and effectiveness of those programs that Rice said led him to drop a bid for a federal building in St. Louis. And, Rice added, he wants to model his Cape Girardeau program on the effective St. Louis effort. He said he's willing to cooperate with other providers but won't compromise on the federal building.

It is his ace. As long as he provides services for 30 years, Uncle Sam won't let any local opposition drive him out, he said.

Rice briefly operated a shelter in Cape Girardeau in the early 1990s. He left, he said, because he felt driven away. The way he was treated then, Rice said, is the way the city treats homeless individuals now, drumming them out of town.

"You go in as a private agency and people don't want you there. Then there is a subconscious pressure to always try to drive you out of town and get you out of town," Rice said. "You have a federal building, they can't take it away from you by eminent domain. You are there under the auspices of the federal government."

In the 1980s, Rice could be seen in the corridors of the Missouri Capitol Building in ill-fitting suits that came from his donations. The vehicles he drove were tired station wagons, also donations.

Today his clothes are a little nicer and his car is a newer Volkswagen. His holdings are larger, and he has a firmer base than those years as he was building the ministry.

But Rice carries on. And he makes the homeless and the poor both his sword and shield.

"The war on poverty has become a war on the impoverished," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

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Pertinent addresses:

339 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

1411 Locust St., St. Louis, MO

806 N. Jefferson Ave., Springfield, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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