This month’s guest writer, Merideth Densford Spriggs, joined the NazToo group for the memes but stayed for the excellent discussion. She graduated from Nazarene Theological Seminary with a MDiv in 2004. She founded and currently is the Chief Kindness Officer at Caridad Las Vegas, a homeless outreach agency. Caridad’s staff of nine help homeless on the streets of downtown Las Vegas. Caridad uses a customer service approach as they provide a concierge service to the homeless, guiding them to resources around Southern Nevada. In October 2015, the City of Las Vegas recognized Merideth and the work of Caridad and awarded her Citizen of the Month. Spriggs is also the federal lead for homeless outreach in Southern Nevada under the federal Built for Zero initiative.
The Nazarene church is such a dichotomy for me. I was adopted before I was born; my brother and I were always taught we were a blessing from God because my parents couldn’t have children of their own. I was raised third-generation Nazarene. I am proud of my heritage. Yet some of the wounds I carry to this day have been inflicted on me by members of the church. I value the teachings of my faith but, I must confess, I remain wounded by its members.
As a child and young adult, the church defined my way of life. I attended services on Sunday, Wednesday, and revivals in between. My father’s parents, the Densfords, helped start their local church in Norwood, Ohio. My grandfather was a leader and Sunday school teacher. He mentored a young Paul M. Bassett. My father and his brothers became leaders and Sunday School teachers in their respective Nazarene Churches. For years, my Aunt Sharon led the choir at PazNaz, including co-directing the Young Minstrels with her good friend Dee Freeborn. She and my uncle, along with Dee and Vi Freeborn brought to Christ and mentored a young Janine Metcalf. On my mother’s side my grandfather started a bus ministry to care for and bring children from the inner city projects to our church. My grandmother was often controversial, as she would host baby showers for women having babies out of wedlock when the church was too ashamed to host one. My parents were youth ministers for years in my church.
Proudly, I used to sit by my grandfather in church. When I visited other Nazarene Churches or attended district events, people knew my family and our reputation for service. That aside, my youth pastor and teens in the youth group would often bully me. After the youth pastor left, my mother told me she had talked to our senior pastor and suggested that the struggle with the youth pastor over bullying was preparation. He told her, “Maybe God is getting Merideth ready for bigger things. Maybe he is calling her to a life of ministry and he is making her stronger because this whole time her faith has never faltered.”
I felt called into ministry. I chose Christian Education as a degree. While attending Olivet, I was encouraged and challenged by my professors. Two of my favorites were David Wine and Craig Keen. I was blessed with an internship and served on staff under the leadership of Dan Boone for three years. David and Dan encouraged me as a woman in ministry. “You’re a real pioneer Merideth. You are blazing a trail,” David would tell me. I would do a secret eye roll in my head. I had no idea what he was talking about. I was after all a third generation Nazarene that was super connected. I believed I could get any job I wanted when I wanted it based on my pedigree and my time on staff at the second largest church in the denomination.
Feeling a call to seminary, I applied and was accepted at Nazarene Theological Seminary (NTS). There are three things I really enjoy in this life: Taco Bell, rap music, and fashion. I prided myself on keeping up with current fashions on a thrift store budget. On the first day of Seminary, I pulled up to the seminary eating Taco Bell, blasting E-40, and wearing a carefully picked outfit similar to a tear sheet from W Magazine. Excited and nervous, I got out of the car and it was as if the record stopped. People scattered from the parking lot to the door. They stopped talking and stared at me. All eyes watched me as I walked up to the doors of the seminary. I said hello and some nodded but most followed me with their eyes and they were not approving eyes.
“What are you doing? You are undoing all the good we have done here for women,” one of the girls at seminary hissed at me.as she pulled me aside with another classmate.
“What are you talking about?” I asked in bewilderment.
“Look at what you are wearing it’s just inviting the guys to see you as a sex object. They can’t stop paying attention to you.” The other girl squinted her eyes looking at my outfit from top to bottom.
“Wait, what? I thought I got here because I qualified to enter the course of study. I don’t want any of these guys to hit on me. I’m here to learn and because God called me to ministry.” I said.
I had a serious boyfriend, one I had known through college student government retreats. I got him into Jürgen Moltmann and introduced him to Outkast. He introduced me to liberation theology and political activism. He also believed in communal living and he invited me to partake in his space and he shared resources with his neighbors. I was so happy. I thought this was the guy for me. He was respected among his peers and had a great reputation in the general church. I was sure we could be an unstoppable ministry team. I had dreams about him being the senior pastor somewhere while I led the youth program. I talked to him and his mom about where I wanted our wedding. However, I started noticing some signs that were disconcerting.
“Where are you?” I asked him over the phone. I called him because he told me to wait for him outside his Sunday School class.
“I’m so sorry, I’m at home. Let me head back and get you.” He went on to say, “I was talking and forgot about you.”
As we pulled up to his driveway he apologized for forgetting me at the church. He put his arms around me and pulled me close to hug and kiss me. However, this wouldn’t be the last time he would forget me. He did this a number of times.
A female seminary colleague called out his name as she popped her head out of the door to his house. He flashed a bright smile and pushed me away as he hurried toward the door which she held open.
“I’m sorry I forgot I had to give Merideth a ride. What were we talking about again when I left?” The door slammed shut and I was on the outside.
Explaining his rude behavior several days later, he said, “You will always be in my life and I love you, but I really respect her for her intellect and I don’t want to hurt her feelings because she has a huge crush on me.” His words stung.
Hurting, but wanting to extend an olive branch, I invited her out so we could do something together. Perhaps a trip to Taco Bell on me would show her that I wanted to be her friend. (For purposes of the story, I will call him Tom.) His friend looked at me and she said, “I don’t like you. I think you are cheap. I hate that Tom likes you and you are an idiot. We will never be friends so please leave me alone and quit trying.” I felt my lip quivering as my friend that had been standing next to me, leaned over and whispered, “We need to pray for her sister.”
Fast forward to my colossal break up with Tom. He moved and was an associate pastor at his home church. I visited him frequently as much as I could afford to.
“This would be easier to do if you weren’t so hot. I thought I loved you but I realized you are just the hottest girl that has ever been into me. I’m sorry, I hope we can still be friends. I also am going to stay at your place when Jürgen Moltmann comes to town next week. I can’t wait.” He held out his hand for me to hold it.
I sat numb in a daze as I realized he was breaking up with me. “Do me a favor. Promise me the next person you date you will think before you speak. What you just said to me was very damaging. I thought you respected me for my intellect. Out of respect for you and both of our careers let’s agree to not discuss this with anyone. I don’t want to be fodder for gossip at seminary.”
He agreed and said, “I don’t want to seem like a bad guy so please just tell people it didn’t work out between us.” He then went in for a kiss. “What, is this not okay? Why can’t we still make out? I love your lips.” He said to me as I smacked him away.
Devastated, I went back to my seminary apartment that I shared with his former roommates. I cried myself to sleep. I listened to my seminary neighbors and roommates speculate downstairs why we broke up. I had barely eaten because my anxiety went through the roof as I anticipated his arrival at my house the following week. He tried to kiss me and hold my hand and I told him we were done and he could never be in that same space with me again.
I wanted to phone and spill my guts to Janet Benefiel. She orchestrated us becoming a couple. I didn’t want her to be mad at him. I confided in my friend and boss at Nazarene Headquarters. I cried to her and told her the truth and begged her to keep my secret. “That jerk, you know that isn’t Christlike behavior,” she reminded me.
A male colleague at seminary said to me, “You need to pray about what you have done. How dare you crush a man of God like Tom. No one will date you now; you know that everyone knows that you are a cheater.” The seminary gossip mill assumed I cheated on Tom. So I was labeled a harlot. I dropped 20 pounds after the break up. I wanted to quit seminary. Roger Hahn listened as I burst into tears explaining I would be withdrawing. He encouraged me to at least finish my Masters. I’m thankful he did. I got my Masters of Divinity and things were now looking better.
I bounced back from the bad breakup, got hired on at Mid America College Church in Olathe. I absolutely loved my time there. I worked under senior pastor JK Warrick and directly with Chris Launius. Chris gave me the freedom to be creative and write lessons, speak up front and create fun events for the entire youth group.
Some of my closest friends became a random group of service industry workers, owners, members of the LGBTQ community, KU cheerleaders, and Chiefs players. I felt overwhelmed by them and their interest. I loved that many of them wanted to hear my sermons or borrow my books from seminary. They loved bragging that they had a pastor friend. I remember sitting in Ed Robinson’s office rambling on and on about how God had just called me to be a youth pastor. He listened and brilliantly responded, “Did you ever think that God has called you to be more than just a youth pastor? Don’t limit yourself and don’t limit God.”
Another set of wise words that forever stuck with me came from Dr. Paul M Basset. I said to him, as I ranted back and forth in his office, “How do you deal with it? You are so smart and people in the churches are so dumb. I can’t believe they want to do a patriotic service.” Paul M Basset did his infamous little giggle, then he settled down and looked me in the eyes, “Miss Merideth, do you think you are saved by grace?” He asked me.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Do you believe you deserved that grace?” He asked his second question.
“No.” I replied.
“Then why don’t you extend that same grace to others? Grace that you were so freely given, grace so undeserved.” He said folding his hands calmly atop a pile of papers.
I joke that I don’t remember how I got out of his office that day. I may have crawled; the floor may have swallowed me up or I just melted into a puddle of humility on the floor. That lesson would help me over the next trials in my life.
“I give up. I’m never getting a job.” I said nearly in tears as I walked into Ed Robinson’s office back in 2004. I was about to graduate from NTS and every interview I had, I was asked if I was about to get married. The next question – was my current boyfriend called into ministry. I was told over and over again that if I was a youth pastor at a church, it might cause men to stumble.
I was so fed up at my last interview when the pastor kept bringing up my appearance. “You are very attractive and single. I see your resume but I think you won’t work for our congregation as we may have people fall into sin because of you and how you dress,” he said to me.
I looked down at my mid-calf length skirt. I had chosen a high collared shirt and a blazer. I’m not sure how much more I could have covered, but after he kept repeating the insult of I wouldn’t work because I was attractive, I blurted out, “Well clearly you are preaching on sexual immorality in your church because you are obsessed with it, but you shouldn’t leave out gluttony. If our bodies are a temple you certainly have let yourself go. Have a good day.” I had said as I stomped out and straight into Ed Robinson’s office.
Having interviewed and been passed over for numerous jobs in favor of my male counterparts, my then boyfriend offered to teach me a trade I could use. He owned numerous bars and restaurants in Kansas City and offered to teach me event planning. The word got out and a new bar and restaurant interviewed me to be their VIP host. You couldn’t have scripted a more bizarre job for a new seminary graduate. But I ended up landing the job, and some of my first celebrity clients I worked with were the Backstreet Boys.
My parents bought a retirement home in San Diego and a pastor friend had moved and offered me a job at his church. Happily, I gave two weeks’ notice to the club and moved across the country to San Diego. After I relocated, I secured a job at Point Loma Nazarene University. I was so happy to be back into the Nazarene fold.
I continued to work some VIP events on the side and returned to my old profession of modeling. I worked all the time and landed jobs doing television and print work. I was happy to pay off my student loans.
The market crashed in 2008 and I lost everything. When I tell you that the bottom fell out on my world – that is an understatement. A pastor I had worked with sent out by email my modeling photos to the University president, my boss, and my boss’s boss. He was the web administrator at our church. He then created an email account in my name and sent emails to the DS telling him my good friend, the senior pastor, was going on job interviews. I got called in about this by my friend and I pointed out that my name was spelled incorrectly each time. Ten years later I found out it was him that created all those emails and sent them out.
Simultaneously my cousins and sister-in-law emailed me telling me they would send my modeling photos to my mother and tell her I was hooking if I didn’t come clean to her. They said in the email, they knew I was lying about why I was going to Las Vegas and were sick of me putting on a front of being a good Christian.
“No need to tell my mother anything,” I wrote back in my email. “I have included her here on this email chain. She can see my photo; I will save you the trouble. As for my Las Vegas trips, I was a VIP host, I won’t bother explaining what that involved. You wouldn’t understand, and it’s not my fault that you are too fat, mean and never have done anything nice for anyone in your life so no one wants to do anything for you.” I signed off the email annoyed that I had written such horrible things.
Soon after, I got a call from my mother, “You are a disgrace. You lied to us and you embarrassed your family. What would your grandpa do if he were alive? How can I even show my face in public? You were working at bars! I wish we would never have adopted you, then none of this would have happened.” She hung up on me and I had to later deal with my father telling me my mother was suicidal because of me.
I was fired from PLNU over the photos. I called my Aunt and Uncle, my godparents, hoping for some sort of comfort but my Aunt said, “We agree with the decision honey you shouldn’t have modeled.”
I was at a youth event and my friend from Seminary came up to me to hug me. I cried to her and she consoled me telling me she was there for me. After she left me, 30 minutes later, I received a call from a seminary girlfriend upset that I had done nude modeling. I was stunned and explained I had never done anything of the sort. She explained the friend who had just comforted me was calling all of our friends asking them to remember me in prayer because I had been fired over nude modeling photos.
PLNU took me to court and took away my unemployment. I was devastated and broke in San Diego. I worked part time at a coffee shop and in retail. I couldn’t pay my rent so I got kicked out of my place and lived in my car. I felt I could trust no one.
Barely hanging on by a thread I went to my ministerial renewal for my district license. I was anxious and afraid of what they would say because of what had passed through the rumor mill. I was happy to see a female pastor and what I thought was a friend in the room. Any hope for understanding soon disappeared when she opened her mouth.
“You are in a bit of scandal are you not?” She went in hard. She explained that I could cause men to stumble and said I needed to have an accountability partner, go to counseling, and stop modeling. I agreed but left that day feeling shame and lost.
I sat and stared over the cliffs at Point Loma as I revved my car. The two things that were my entire world, family and the Nazarene Church had been stripped from me. I was no one and no one cared about me I thought. I floored the gas pedal and my hands began to sweat as I tried to work up the nerve to switch the car to drive so I would plunge off the cliffs to my death. A funny thing happened, the radio came on. I know I didn’t touch it, but it came on and it was loud. The song by the David Crowder Band, “How he loves” played. In that moment I took my foot off the gas pedal, turned my car off and sobbed bitterly. I felt so foolish. I realized that God had me in his arms the entire time and that’s all I needed.
One night while my homeless friends and I were sitting together on the sidewalk, a group from Point Loma came by. I knew the professor; it was his wife that had grilled me in our district interview. The students were passing out sandwiches. The group was the 5th of the night to come by with food. I didn’t want any and I can’t eat sandwiches because of an allergy. I told the student politely, “No thank you.”
He kept insisting and said that I wasn’t being grateful for turning down food that was given to me. My homeless buddy took the sandwich and said, “I’ll take it. Thanks and God bless you!”
“See he gets it. You need to take a lesson from your friend and be more grateful.” He said.
My friend turned to me and said, “Do you get it? This isn’t about you. All the people that come out and give us food don’t care about us. They are just doing it to feel good about themselves. Just take it and you can throw it away when they leave. Say ‘God bless you’ and they are happy and will leave you alone. All they want is to feel good about themselves.”
I was disgusted, “I’m going to start a charity,” I said, as we sat on the sidewalk that night. “I will do it if I get back on my feet. I want to tell our stories. I want to humanize the homeless. You know, fact versus fiction. It won’t be one of those sad charities where it’s an old guy looking pathetic. I’m going to do it.” I promised them.
A year to the day of losing my job I got a call with a job offer at the San Diego Rescue Mission. I called my bartender friend immediately after.
“Congrats Mer,” he said…
“Wait what?” I replied.
“You call it God; I call it the universe. Whatever it is the world told me today that the job you just got will change you and be what you do for the rest of your life. So tell me what it is.” He said happily.
The job at the San Diego Rescue Mission was just the beginning. Over the next few years I created my charity, Caridad. I got hired by another agency to be a director. I also met my future husband. Caridad and my volunteer team helped hundreds of homeless. I created advocacy and awareness through videos, educational panels and events. Caridad did a yearly sock and underwear drive for shelters, and when I reached out to PLNU, I got turned down as a potential partner. My professor friend told me, “I don’t see how our students would benefit from doing a sock and underwear drive.” Caridad was so much more but I realized God was using me and the organization and would do great things with or without PLNU.
I heard that the same female pastor was going to recommend that my license not be renewed at the district credentials review. I prayed and went in confident that day that God had me no matter what would happen.
“How did you save 746 people this past year?” she asked as she looked over my paper and at me.”
“Let’s see 73 people were placed in permanent housing, 150 put into transitional beds, 36 were detoxed from alcohol, 15 from heroin…” I started flatly explaining.
“This interview is not a joke,” another pastor stated.
“I’m quite sure that those homeless I helped didn’t think it was a joke either. I saved their lives.” I said firmly.
“This has gone on long enough. We can’t keep letting you slide by without doing fulltime ministry in the church of the Nazarene.” She said, “You need to decide – do you want to work at a church fulltime or keep working on Caridad?” She went on, “And didn’t you do some modeling before. Don’t you have some nude photos out there?” She smirked and looked around.
“I do not nor have I ever had nudes. And I have asked for forgiveness for modeling. I didn’t think that grace was a constant yearly thing you had to ask for if you have already been forgiven of something,” I replied.
“Well, you aren’t doing full-time church work,” another pastor said.
“You know every church in San Diego is partners with Caridad but the Nazarene Church. I have strippers and bartenders that are now plugged into churches because they came to as volunteers but wanted a purpose in their lives. They don’t go to Nazarene churches because they wouldn’t be accepted. So I don’t need a little piece of paper to tell me I have been doing ministry. God has called me to Caridad and is blessing my ministry and he is bigger than all of you, this district, and even the Nazarene church. So thank you for your time. Have a good day.” I walked out of the room head held high.
I moved to Las Vegas in 2013. Caridad was given a $40,000 donation by a good friend to get started in Las Vegas. We secured a contract matching that amount from the City of Las Vegas and later another from the Fremont Street Experience. I was the lead on a federal initiative for our community and we helped end Veteran homelessness. I have pounded on tables and camped outside of lawmakers’ doors till they would listen to me.
A year later I got an email from my old church. “People that don’t go to church here keep coming on the campus. They want to volunteer or help out in some way. Can you please tell them Caridad is no longer in San Diego?” she said in her email.
“I’m sorry,” I wrote. “I can’t believe people that don’t go to the church and aren’t involved in any way are coming and wanting to help or get involved in something. That must be so annoying and distracting. I will make sure they quit coming to the church,” I sarcastically wrote to her.
I literally laughed out loud when she replied back, “Oh thank you so much for understanding. It will help us so much if they quit coming to our church.”
In September 2017, another call and email would change my life for another reason. I had been nominated and was one of three finalists for the American Heroes Red Bandana Everyday Hero Award. My story was featured in People Magazine on October 18, 2017. The American Heroes Channel filmed me and ran a special about my homeless journey and the creation of Caridad. As painful as it was I shared how I almost committed suicide and how without a doubt I knew that God had saved my life and led me to my ministry Caridad.
I smiled to myself when I was recognized by the general church and NTS. I saw what they wrote as it said, “Nazarene Pastor, Merideth Spriggs.” I thought, oh my how God has a sense of humor.
My story is one of ups and downs. I’m thankful for the Nazarene church, if it weren’t for the church, I wouldn’t have been homeless. If I had not been homeless I wouldn’t have Caridad. I’m so thankful God uses me. God continues to bless me and the work of my 9-person team at Caridad. It is truly because of God that I am anything and so I pray daily, “God help me to go where you lead, to lead with love, to listen to a hurting world around me and to extend grace to those around me. Grace that was so freely given to me although I didn’t deserve it.”