What's faith got to do with it? An embattled homeless shelter takes in 'anyone and everyone,' but why?

Tina Turner asked: "What's love got to do with it?"

Here's my question for The New York Times: "What's faith got to do with it?"

Holy ghosts — as we dub 'em here at GetReligion — haunt the Times' 1,300-word story on an embattled St. Louis homeless shelter. 

The top of the story:

ST. LOUIS — The thermometer is barely reaching the driving age on this late February evening, bringing the type of arctic bite to the air here that numbs fingers and toes within minutes, and a grim procession takes place downtown.

One by one, men and women, bundled in ragtag wear of varying thicknesses, shiver into an old, cocoa-brown brick building near a strip of hip bars, restaurants and boutiques. They raise their arms at the door to be patted down, show identification and sign their names on sheets of paper before grabbing flimsy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or dry pastries and having a seat on metal folding chairs. The air is a bit stale, the mood a bit weary. But it is warm. And for the dozens filing in, that seemed to be good enough.

“It’s livable,” said Anthony Lewis, 44, curled under a scarlet blanket on a cot in a spacious but chilly room with about 125 beds on the fifth floor. “It’s a blessing right now.”

This place, the New Life Evangelistic Center, has for decades been a safety net for hundreds of people without a place to lay their head at night. Around here, it is the shelter that is known to take in just about anyone and everyone. Even the police have dropped off the homeless at its front door, which leads into a century-old former YWCA building.

But now that this former garment district is transforming into a hub for urban renewal with new lofts and businesses attracting young, affluent residents, a war has broken out over the center’s future.

That's some nice description up high. It really paints a picture. And it provides the first hint of a religion angle.

Why, I'm curious, might the New Life Evangelistic Shelter believe in taking in "anyone and everyone?"  

Keep reading, and the Times notes that "the Rev. Larry Rice" leads the shelter, which is being ordered to reduce its occupancy to 32 a night, down from up to 300:

“Rich folks moved into the neighborhood, and they considered the homeless a nuisance because they don’t want them around,” Mr. Rice said. Helping the homeless, he added, is part of his church’s beliefs and they need “to have the right to practice our religion.”

The yearslong battle has sparked vigorous debate in this city about how to best treat the homeless and who should shoulder the burden. City officials have said their counterparts in surrounding counties have not provided enough support for the homeless, leading many to decamp in St. Louis.

Rice's quote provides a perfect opening for the Times to dig deeper on the spiritual side, to ask: What does your church believe concerning the care and treatment of homeless people? And, are you trying to feed bodies and souls? If so, how?

Instead, the newspaper immediately brushes aside the religion talk. (Since the story ran, the shelter has revealed plans to seek a federal injunction against the city based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — a development that the Times might have foreseen if not for its seeming tone-deafness on the religion angle.)

At the end of the Times story, the newspaper quotes a shelter client who hints at a spiritual revival:

Steve McMorris, 58, came to the shelter about a year and a half ago after he broke up with his wife, who had supported them on her disability check. What began as a quick fallback quickly evolved into his signing up for a 30-day program in which the shelter employs homeless men and women and helps them with services, including arranging doctors’ visits. Eventually, Mr. McMorris was selected for the shelter’s two-year program, and he now has his own tiny, dormlike room and works as one of the lead producers on its television program.

More important, Mr. McMorris said, he feels a sense of community at the shelter. He recently had to have surgery on a malignant tumor on his jaw, and when he returned from the hospital, the women in the prayer room gave him an ovation. Other regulars have showered him with gifts of food, stacking them in a wheelchair outside his room.

“When I got back from the hospital, I found out what a real family this is to me,” he said, adding that he did not know what he would do if the shelter closed. “I don’t even really want to think about it. I can’t be on the street with this weather and all. I’d freeze to death.”

Might religion play a role in that "sense of community?" Isn't there a chance that the women in the prayer room are, you know, praying? 

The Times seems totally oblivious to such questions — as if it stumbled upon a full-color motion picture but prefers to watch films in black and white.

What's faith got to do with it?

How dare you ask, the Times responds. Let's get back to important stuff like government and business and politics ...

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