Before he became a preacher and theologian, Tex Sample worked in oil fields and drove taxis.
At 63, he’s still a trash-talking Southerner deep down in his soul.
His affinity for the “hard-livin”’ folk that surrounded him early in life has driven his research, even as a professor at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.
Sample is in Spokane today to talk about Christian churches and the ups and downs of caring for the poor.
He’s as entertaining as, well, a theologian named Tex.
Every word out of his mouth melts into a melodic drawl, even the expletives he finds necessary to explain his theory of ministry.
“A lot of people think working with poor folks is charitable activity,” Sample said. “It’s justice.”
The reason Christians should reach out to these people, Sample said, is because that’s what Jesus did. He surrounded himself with the disreputable.
Sample grew up as a Southern Methodist in Mississippi. His family owned a four-cab taxi company. He started working there as a dispatcher at 12, a driver at 16. Although he labored in oil fields throughout the South, he’s never been to Texas.
He was named for his daddy’s wet nurse, a former slave named Texanna Gillam.
“My daddy loved her,” he said. “Daddy also thought that Will Rogers was the greatest philosopher that lived.”
Sample was a happy bachelor when “God goosed me” into a life of preaching. He explains that everywhere he turned, there were signs from God.
“The last thing in hell I wanted to be was a preacher,” he said. “But God just literally bugged the hell out of me.”
Sample said he never thought much about preaching to hard-living people until he watched his son struggle with alcoholism.
After 10 years of a rough-and-tumble life, his boy finally got sober - only to die after his motorcycle was hit by a car whose driver ran a stop sign.
In coming to terms with his son’s life and death, Sample decided to devote the rest of his career to researching how to minister to the less fortunate.
“I just realized how much I really like hard-livin’ people,” he said. “They can be capable of genuine compassion.”
Sample defines the “hard-living” as people who struggle with addiction, violence and unemployment on a daily basis. “You know, the ‘disreputable poor.’ They can even be working-class folks who sometimes live on the wild side of life.”
In 1992, Sample sent 23 students to detox centers, homeless shelters, low-income apartments and “honky-tonks.” They asked hundreds of people to tell their stories, including their views on religion.
What Sample found was that hard-living folks believe in an all-powerful God who has an impact on their world on a daily basis. Everything that happens in the slums is a result of God’s will.
“Now, some people would call that a narcotic religion, but it’s not,” he said. “If God’s in control, then there is some reason to have hope. It’s a strange kind of hope. But it helps a lot of people cope and survive.”
Sample also found that despite their deep faith in God, this crowd distrusts organized religion. Many assume they will be rejected, should they show up for church. And, for the most part, they are right.
“If you walk into most first churches that look like the national bank after a night of hard drinking, without taking a shower or changing your clothes, you are not going to feel welcome,” he said.
But Christian churches in poor neighborhoods and urban settings are obligated to invite them in, Sample contends.
It’s not easy, said the Rev. Rich Lang of Central United Methodist Church in Spokane.
After taking over the downtown church two years ago, Lang began inviting hard-living people to his services. He even changed worship services to make them feel more comfortable.
But the changes rankled some of the middle-class members of his congregation who were paying his salary. Ultimately, Lang pioneered a weekly meal that now serves several hundred. Central United Methodist also incorporates other services to the poor, including a coffeehouse for teens and a parish nurse for nearby residents.
It’s one of the few successful ministries to the poor in the country, says Sample, who has found only 40 in three years of searching. There are many, many failures.
The key is giving up control, he said. Serving the poor with the hope of getting them off welfare, curing their addictions or simply making them more like the “respectable” middle class won’t work.
“You can have some rules. You can say, ‘Look, if you want to fight, take it outside, and no (urinating) on the floor,”’ he said. “But much more than that and they will run for the door.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Coming up Tex Sample will lead an informal discussion about the church and “hard-living people” from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. today at Central United Methodist Church, 518 W. Third. He will give a lecture on the topic at 7:30 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.