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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2007 02:34 pm

Shelter force

Scott Payne’s ministry led him to an unexpected place

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PHOTO BY LAWRENCE CROSSETT
Untitled Document The Inner City Mission first opened in 1984, in a house on North Fifth Street, the result of an ambitious plan by eight Springfield area churches to provide for the city’s homeless population. In 1987, the shelter moved from that house into the current, larger location on South Seventh. In its 23-year history, the mission has provided 145,000 nights of housing to displaced people, served more than 470,000 meals, and given out 50,000 articles of clothing. For the past 14 years, Scott Payne has served as the mission’s executive director. He’s a family man and an affable pastor who has done for the mission’s residents something not evident from a glance at the statistics — he has taken them into his heart. Granted, Payne’s is a tough heart. It has to be. Homeless folk are apt to strike out in anger and fear. “If you want to work with the homeless,” Payne says, “you can’t be so sensitive that not getting the response you want will crush you.”
Payne and his staff stand toe to toe not just with the surface issues of homelessness (housing, food, finances) but also with the murky, underlying patterns of behavior that tend to result in homelessness. He is committed to exposing those to the light of day — for the ultimate good of the residents. Faith Sanderson, homeless-education coordinator for Sangamon County, describes how Payne relates to his clientele: “Scott’s approach to homelessness is unique. He and his family embrace those being served by Inner City as extended family. His approach is fatherly and faith-based. He loves all those that stay at the shelter . . . and attempts to get them to make better choices, while working to achieve self-sufficiency.”
As Sanderson says, it is a family affair. Payne’s wife, parents, siblings, and children are either employees or volunteers at the ICM. “Nepotism,” Payne jokes, “is alive and well at Inner City Mission.”
But there is more to the family connection than that. “We encourage all the staff to get their family involved,” Payne says. “We’re trying to teach people how to relate to their families. We have to be an example of that.”
A product of San Jose, Ill., Payne is the only son of retired Caterpillar worker and lay minister, Allen Payne, and his wife, Deletta. Payne has three sisters. He is a pastor, as his parents had hoped, but his ministry is nothing like he thought it would be when he was a young and cocky 18-year-old. “I can remember a nighttime prayer I said when I was a senior in high school,” Payne recalls. “I thanked God for all he had given me and pledged to live my life according to His will, rather than mine — but a few hours later, I woke up in a sweat, thinking, ‘What if God doesn’t want what I want? What if he doesn’t want me to preach at a megachurch? What if he doesn’t want me to get married?’ I can remember specifically thinking, ‘What if God wants me to work with the homeless . . . ?’
“I decided then that if I was going to work for God, I’d better handle the details myself.”

A long journey was required to transform that overly self-assured teenager into the man Payne is now, at 48. The journey began with a rocky start at Lincoln Christian College in 1977. “I was arrogant going in,” he says, “because I thought I had all the answers. Then I got there and found out I wasn’t the latest, greatest, best of everything. There were others as good at preaching, speaking.”
Those first, tough years provided what Payne now admits was a much-needed lesson in humility as he wrestled with his concept of self, and of God. Not that every aspect of college life was tough. It was there that he met Connie Gillespie of Monticello, his future wife. They were married in January 1981, when he still had a year left to go at school (“I crammed a four-year degree into five years,” Payne says, laughing). The first of their six children, Rachel, was born not long after his graduation. Payne supported the family while studying for the ministry by working at Wal-Mart — a job he enjoyed and proved good at. A few months shy of finishing his degree, he was offered the opportunity to step into management. It was a good opportunity, and he was seriously considering it. That week, at church, he was asked to sit in for a sick teacher in the Sunday night youth group. “I gave an impromptu lesson. It went well. It reminded me of what I had trained for.”
He discussed his dilemma with Connie — good money to support a family versus the traditionally low-paying option of ministry. They decided to pursue the ministry. “There are a lot of managers in the world,” Payne reasons. “I felt I had the ability to make the Bible come alive, and not a lot of people can do that.” He gave notice at Wal-Mart and determined to take the first ministry job he was offered. That turned out to be the Shawnee Nursing Home, in Herrin, Ill. The facility needed a chaplain.  “I learned a lot about the fragility of life at the nursing home,” Payne recalls. “I saw beauty and tenderness of children for their parents — and the hostility $1,000 could cause as children squabbled over their parents’ deathbed. I saw the frailty of life — pictures of a beauty queen who’d lost her outer beauty and the simple faith of those whose next stop was the mortuary.”
Six months after Payne assumed the role of chaplain, the nursing home’s administrator became ill and left the job. Payne was offered, and accepted, that position. He was 25.
Showing some of the same talent he had displayed at Wal-Mart, Payne was able to take the nursing home from a state of perpetual red ink to breaking even, all while remodeling and adding on. “Any position like that requires the courage to make decisions and take responsibility for outcomes,” Payne says. “The insight is to know when to push, and when to back off — with individuals and with organizations.”
In 1989, the nursing home was doing well. The Paynes now had four children — Rachel, Joshua, Caleb, and Sarah — and Payne was feeling pulled to preach again. He left the nursing home and took a position with the Chicago Evangelical Association. That group needed a minister for a small church that had only about 35 people. “They were close to disbanding. They had no preacher or building, and they were tired of trying.”
“I was with them for four years,” Payne recalls. “We lived in Oswego, south of Naperville. For the first five months I stayed in a 15-foot trailer in the back yard of one of the church elders while my family stayed with my parents.”
 During Payne’s tenure, the congregation grew to about 90 people. At the end of the four years, they were fortunate enough to locate a beautiful building that could be purchased inexpensively and had everything the congregation needed.
“Connie and I had to decide if we were going to stay and help the church grow or accept another challenge. The Central Illinois Evangelical Association — in the Peoria area — was making an offer that sounded intriguing. They wanted me to move south and help plant churches. We decided to do that.”
Payne turned the church over to another pastor, and the Payne family moved south again, to Emden. It didn’t take long to realize that the new job wasn’t going to work out. A board member who had not been present when Payne was hired didn’t like his methods. He wanted to take the group in another direction. Soon Payne felt pressured to resign. “I’d had so much success in my work life,” he says. “I’d gotten arrogant again. But within four months of getting my dream job I was jobless.
“I spent a month in bed. Four kids, and what was I going to do? I was not so much depressed as confused — like falling and having the wind knocked out of you. I wondered, what did God want me to do — what was the plan?”

While the debacle at CIEA was still going on, Payne became acquainted with Pastor Frank Bush, from Lincoln. Bush had been hired as a consultant by the board of the Inner City Mission, which was struggling with management issues. “Frank helped support me through my leaving the Central Illinois Evangelical Association. He asked if I’d be interested in working with the homeless and introduced me to the mission,” Payne says. The ICM had been through two executive directors who hadn’t worked out. Bush was experimenting with a “triune” approach to management. He had Payne in mind as one of three directors sharing responsibility. “My first thought when he mentioned the mission was that prayer when I was 18, not wanting to work with the homeless. Also, the mission was small compared to some of the things I’d done. But it was exciting and interesting — the frontline of Christianity. I thought, if the truths of God can work here, they can work anywhere.”
Complicating Payne’s decision was a call from one of his suppliers from his nursing-home days, offering him a chance to get into sales of durable medical supplies. Because of his contacts as a member of the Illinois Healthcare Association, he stood to make $80,000 a year. Once more, the pull toward ministry won out.
Payne started at the ICM as a lodge supervisor, at $5 an hour, while he pored over the bylaws and organization. The idea was that at the end of two months, he and the board would decide whether he should be a director. It wasn’t long before the place took hold of him.
“I’d been working at the mission for about two weeks,” Payne says. “Driving home, I found myself crying. “Initially I thought it was sympathy for the residents — people like Amy, a girl who showed up at the door at 7 am. one morning, dripping wet, in tears, afraid . . .  
“Amy’s parents were both white. She was half white, half African-American. When her father saw her for the first time at the hospital, and realized she was not his, he told Amy’s mother, ‘If you want to stay with me, you’re going to have to get rid of the baby.’ Amy was sent to her biological father, who ran a tavern. She grew up among drunks, going from relationship to relationship and working as a stripper before she found the ICM. “But I finally realized I wasn’t crying because of the residents. It was because I was coming to realize how blessed I’d been as a child to have what they didn’t — parents willing to sacrifice and work hard to keep me and my sisters safe and well fed and to raise us right. There was always an adult to listen, encourage, direct me in my life.”
From those profound feelings of gratitude arose the desire to help. He knew he would be taking the job at the mission. “We moved again,” Payne says. “Rachel asked, ‘Daddy, am I always going to be the new girl in school?’
“I promised her that even if I had to dig ditches, we would stay in that school district,” Payne says. “I believe ministry is more important than money, but I also believe family is more important than ministry.”
There would be no ditch-digging. Payne put the administrative skills he had honed throughout his job history to use at the ICM. Soon he had put together a plan that provided better services and employee retention and would allow the mission to operate at a lower cost than what was currently had in place. “The first thing I wanted to do was get away from 8-hour shifts,” Payne recalls. “A situation would arise with a resident at 9 o’clock in the morning. The resident would leave for work, and when they returned, still upset, a different staff person would be on duty and have to deal with it. I wanted 24-hour shifts for some continuity.”
The board approved Payne’s ideas. That was the start of a transformation at the ICM. Within two years the board had dropped the triune structure and installed him as the executive director — but he still had a lot to learn.
One day, Payne’s 11-year-old son Joshua was playing basketball with a resident of the same age, and the two boys got into an argument. The other boy came into the office. “Are you Joshua’s dad?” he asked Payne. “Are you the dad of all his brothers and sisters? And your wife is the mother of all his brothers and sisters?” 
Payne said yes to all that. The boy dropped his head and walked away. “I asked Joshua what that was about,” Payne says. “Joshua said the boy had never heard of that before. For me, it led to a transformation of thought. “Homelessness is not about the lack of a home. My initial impression of working with the homeless was that I was there to take away their excuses — you know, ‘I can’t do it because I don’t have a car, because I’m sick, because I didn’t go to school,’ etc. I thought my job was to clear up these excuses; then they’d find jobs and move forward quickly.”
It took 10 years of talking to, living with, crying with 500 or 600 homeless families for Payne to get past that idea. “Homelessness is about a lack of values and ethics in a person’s upbringing, which alienates them from themselves, their families, the community — and leaves them to seek support from strangers. What we do at ICM is create an environment that gives people the opportunity and sometimes the desire to change themselves and move past that alienation. My hope is that people will come to the mission and see others living in such a way that it changes their lives.”
As resources have increased at the ICM, Payne’s role has changed. He spends less time as a lodge supervisor and more time looking at the wider picture. He sees some uncomfortable trends in homelessness. “When I started at the mission, in February of ’93, we had six family units full out of the 12 units available. We always had a room open if a need came up. “In the mid-to-late ’90s, welfare reform came. I think welfare reform is a wonderful thing, but it brought an increase in homelessness. In ’98 we started turning people away — about 50 families over the course of that year. Last year, 2006, we turned away over 500 families.”
In 2001, Payne first talked to the board about these trends, asking, ‘Do we want to expand?’ They did, if it could be done effectively.
What Payne and the board agreed on was that a comprehensive view of the homeless population was needed. Payne spent two years putting together a plan — nine strategies to reduce the future need for homeless programs. He presented that to the board. “Shattered to Shalom” — a detailed plan to help people move from homelessness to independence, joy and peace — was implemented in March 2006. “We need another year to 18 months to gather data,” Payne says, “but the first 10 months have been very positive. When we’ve assimilated everything, we hope to expand — maybe move our transitional housing off-site, and open up more rooms.”

Payne’s long tenure at the Inner City Mission makes him an elder in the local social-services community, which tends to burn its workers out early. He and Connie have had two more children — Jacob and Isaac. The boy who once was afraid that God would ask him to work with the homeless is now thankful for the opportunity. “God gives us what we need, not what we want,” Payne reflects. “I’ve always been overwhelmed by the wonder and knowledge of our God, who knows better than us what we need
and doesn’t force us to stay forever in our
ignorance.”


Freelance writer Lawrence Crossett’s profile of   Mason City’s John Means, “Dr. Gonzo comes home,” appeared in the Nov. 30 edition of Illinois Times.
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