Preaching on the levee to reach BR's homeless

Back from a daylong swamp tour, tourists stepped off buses parked on South River Road downtown to board the American Queen, moored on the chocolate brown surface of the Mississippi River.

Groups of tourists, mostly couples who were either holding hands that flashed shimmering wedding rings or clutching cameras, passed three homeless men before boarding their riverboat.

The men were waiting for pastor Keith Richard.

Nobody knew for sure if they were waiting for the food Richard and his outreach program volunteers were bringing or if they just wanted to hear something inspiring from Richard’s brief sermon.

When the clock strikes 5 p.m. on a Thursday, it’s time for church for the homeless in Baton Rouge.

Richard, 43, a Baker native and pastor of the Elevate Church of Baton Rouge, started a homeless outreach program, Church on the Levee, 2½ years ago.

Once a week, Richard brings a portable public address system, a microphone, a singer or two and hot meals to the Riverfront Plaza between the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial & Museum and the Louisiana Art and Science Museum.

Richard said his mission is more than trying to feed the homeless or preach to them.

“Some have gotten a great deal out of it and there can be a transformation in their lives,” Richard said.

Homelessness in Baton Rouge is a huge problem, Richard said.

A conservative estimate of the number of homeless people in the city-parish on a given day is anywhere from 900 to 1,000, said Randy Nichols, executive director of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless.

While many of the homeless of Baton Rouge suffer with substance abuse issues or mental health problems, others have just fallen on hard times, Richard said.

The root of their troubles, Richard said, is hopelessness.

Richard’s short sermons, or “messages of hope” as he calls them, try to hammer at practical solutions for those who attend Church on the Levee.

Preaching to 10 homeless people Thursday, Richard told the men they may be waiting for a job, a place to live or even a spouse, but he also told them they have to act and not just wait.

“Don’t quit, don’t give up hope, don’t stop pushing or pressing. Do all you can and believe God to help out with the rest,” Richard said softly into his microphone.

Ricardo “Rick” James said he got something special from Richard’s message.

James, who has been living in his truck for four years, starting attending Church on the Levee two years ago.

Although he arrived late to Richard’s service Thursday, James had a good reason for his tardiness: Three days earlier, he got a job with Little Caesar’s Pizza.

“I’m a sign dancer, the guy who stands outside and waves the sign,” James said after the service ended.

“I love it out here: the praise, the worship, good friendship and good food,” James said.

James had a little help from Baton Rouge resident Tara Bourgeois, who has volunteered with Richard’s program for a year now.

Bourgeois, who helped James with his résumé, said she was in Thee Heavenly Donut shop one day with her then-8-year-old son, Cole, when he told her, “Mom, God told me we need to help the homeless.”

The owner of that doughnut shop, Catherine Stille Comeaux, introduced Bourgeois and her family to Richard, who first got the idea of feeding the homeless from Comeaux.

“She would go out in town and give the doughnuts she was going to throw away from the shop to the homeless, and I started going out there with her to help,” Richard said.

Bourgeois said there was a time when she worked downtown, spotted someone who was homeless and might have looked away.

“But then you meet these guys and they are great. They are just like us. I mean, but for the grace of God, that could be us,” Bourgeois said.

DeWayne Pollard, 43, is one of the homeless men who has been with Richard since the beginning.

A graduate of the Jimmy Swaggart World Evangelism Bible College, Pollard had trouble finding work after being laid off from a security job.

“Preachers and others in the church will say they care about the homeless. But Pastor Keith is actually out here. He’s here helping us. He will put his hands on people. And he’s always here,” Pollard said.

Robert Carter Jr., 54, has been homeless since last year after losing his job in construction.

Carrying a paper plate with a second helping of white beans poured on jambalaya, Carter said Richard and Church on the Levee have been a blessing.

“It uplifts your spirit. It keeps you encouraged, and he can keep your hope alive,” Carter said.

Rodney Goldsmith, a research analyst with the LSU Foundation, has been volunteering with Church on the Levee since last Christmas when he went out with Richard to visit with the homeless and hand out hats, gloves and jackets.

“They (the homeless) want to be treated like normal people in society,” Goldsmith said. “It’s great to see people get things that most people take for granted.”

Richard said the significance of the location on the levee can be profound.

The visibility sometimes attracts bystanders, he said.

“People drive by and see us and will stop their cars, get out and come and participate,” Richard said.

Richard said Church on the Levee is the fulfillment of what his parents taught him: “My family instilled in me that we need to help others.”

If someone can’t make it on Thursdays, Richard holds a similar program on Saturdays at 5 p.m. inside the gymnasium of the Louisiana New School Academy on North Boulevard.

For information about the program or to volunteer, call (225) 308-9906.