Pastor Christie Love walks across a field on a freezing January night in Springfield with an unforgiving wind that whips clouds across the moon’s full face.

A campfire’s remnants smolder. Three small tents crowd against the pillars of an overpass. 

“Outreach!” she shouts at the tents.

Nothing happens. No one responds. A vehicle rhythmically clacks overhead.

Can people actually be sleeping here on a night with a single-digit windchill? 

Then, a head pokes from a tent. The man hugs a small dog. He recognizes Love.

“I told you I was going to get a dog,” he tells her.

Love and her friend Holly Madden trek back to their van, parked where the road ended 60 yards away, to retrieve coffee and soup for the four homeless men camped here.

She gives them hand warmers and suggests they put them in their armpits during the night.

“Is there anything else I can do for you guys?” she asks. “Other than make it spring or summer?”

The men are grateful. They stay huddled in their tents for the night.

Springfield’s homeless population doubled in 5 years

Homelessness is a growing problem in Springfield and across the nation, particularly during the pandemic. In 2016, the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness counted 223 people without shelter in Greene County on a single night in January. In 2021, the number was 583. Christie Love focuses her ministry on helping these people.

Love waits for a homeless couple who accepted a ride to their warming center. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

She explains later there was no room for them at any of Springfield’s mostly volunteer-run cold-weather shelters. 

Christie Love, pastor of The Connecting Grounds church, watches over the homeless of Springfield, offering hope to those who sleep in culverts, under bridges and in tents hidden in the woods.

She is witness to their struggles, needs and despair.

It is a daunting task that Love does amid push-back and sometimes anger from those who have grown weary, for example, of homeless people intoxicated in public or illegally squatting in vacant homes.

She is both cursed and praised. 

She had to move from a church location on Commercial Street due to neighborhood resentments over those who gathered there to be fed, clothed and loved.

Love is not shaken or deterred. She turns her faith into action and that action into a love she shares with those living under tarps that most of us don’t even see.

“She is mentally tough because she knows she has a God who is with her in difficult situations,” says her younger brother Kyle Drown, who pastors a church in Iowa. “She has always fought against injustice when she sees it.”

Her mother, Martha Hamilton, of Buffalo, has no fear of harm coming to her daughter as she ministers to those living on the fringe.

“I know God is there protecting her in whatever she does,” Hamilton says.

“I have a stubborn voice,” Love says. “I have a loud voice. My heart is to use my voice for the people who do not have a platform so that they are heard.

“I think there are many people in positions of leadership in this community who view me as a thorn-in-the-side.”

“Does God really love me?”

Videography by Shannon Cay Bowers/Springfield Daily Citizen

Love, 41, grew up in Licking, then lived in Columbia, Bolivar and Buffalo, where she graduated high school in 1999.  

In grade school, Christie Drown was a gym rat because her father, Clifford “Kip” Drown, was a high school basketball coach and at one time coached the women’s team at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar.

As a teenager, Love taught swimming.

“That was a fun last name (Drown) to have as a lifeguard and for teaching swimming to kids,” she says.

Christie and her brother and their sister — the middle child, Cassandra “Cassie” Duckett — were raised in a family that had church at its center.

“I was the quintessential church kid,” Love says. “Dad was a deacon in a Southern Baptist church. I was in youth group, kids’ choir, handbells, vacation bible school. It was my social circle.”

Her world ruptured when her mother and father divorced when she was 12.

“I remember vividly praying that my parents would get back together,” she says.  

The fact they did not, despite her pleas to God, shook her faith.

She says it caused her to wonder: “Does God really love me?”

As a result, she drifted from the church and drifted from her father.

In high school, she tore a rotator cuff playing volleyball and shifted focus from sports, where she was not gifted, to debate, where she was.

“If there is one thing I know about my sister as a debater, it’s that she was always very prepared,” her brother says.

According to Love, “I learned I could argue really well.”

That skill, she says, has served her in advocating for her flock, the unsheltered of Springfield.

Love speaks “uncomfortable truths”

A homeless couple and their two cats find warmth at the Connecting Grounds Church. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Love has a bachelor’s degree in ministry and church leadership. She founded The Connecting Grounds church in an old strip mall at Commercial Street and National Avenue. It opened in September 2018. 

“Our heart was to be a church that was willing to do church different — not to be a country club,” she says. “How can we make a difference? How do we fill gaps? How do we take the church outside the walls?”

Love’s husband Bob — and friends Holly and Scott Madden — were instrumental in the start-up. Holly Madden knew Christie through a nonprofit that Love had started in 2008 called Leadher.

“The idea of Leadher originally was to create a Bible study for women who were feeling they were not being seen or heard by the church,” Love says.

In addition, Christie Love and Holly Madden were both involved in supporting foster children and their biological parents.

Madden is worship leader at The Connecting Grounds, which opened for indoor worship in October at a new location at 4341 W. Chestnut Expressway. Madden is also director of the church’s Family Connections program, which is housed in a building next to the church.

Family Connections is where children in foster care can meet in a safe and free space with their biological parents in an effort to reunite families.

Madden recalls the formation of The Connecting Grounds.

Christie and Bob “came over to our house one evening and asked if we wanted to be part of it. We did not know what it would be, but we wanted to fight for people and love on people, and we did not want religion to stand in the way.”

Love has insisted that there be “no barriers” to the services her church provides. 

What that means is no red tape for those living a life where each day is a struggle.

They don’t need an ID, for example, or proof of residency, to get a free meal or a blanket, she says.

As a result, the church relies almost exclusively on private donations rather than programs funded by government sources that can require paperwork and qualifications.

During winter, Love and other volunteers from her church go out on nights to provide blankets and food to the homeless when temperatures drop below 40 or below 45 with precipitation or extreme windchill.

Pastor Christie Love leads an effort to help the homeless with rides to their shelter, supplies to keep warm and hot food and drink on a sub freezing night. Love stocks their outside distribution area with supplies. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Phil Snider, the pastor of Brentwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), says it’s understandable that there occasionally can be tension between Love and others trying to help the homeless, including city officials and various nonprofits.

That’s because Love’s focus on face-to-face care is unwavering, he says.

Those already trying to help solve homelessness — what can seem an intractable social problem — can be caught off guard when Love proclaims that much more needs to be done. Or when she criticizes a system built almost exclusively on volunteers. Or when she highlights the cruel way the homeless sometimes are treated, according to Snider.

“Christie has a way of shining a light on things that are not being addressed,” Snider says. “It can sometimes lead to some tension and some discomfort. Those are uncomfortable truths.

“She is highlighting some things that we should have been aware of in the first place. … She is heroic in what she does. 

“It’s inspiring and fascinating because The Connecting Grounds is not a large church,” Snider says.

Snider says it was upsetting to some when, for example, Love used Facebook to live stream the clearing of a homeless camp on private property in north Springfield. She did so on Dec. 18, 2020.   

The city had wanted the owner, Lurvey Associates, to clean up the vacant land, which had become the site of a homeless camp. The city and owner were in a legal dispute about who would pay for the clean-up.

The owner hired a third-party contractor to do it. The workers arrived with chainsaws and gave the homeless people still living there 30 minutes to pack up and leave.

In the video, Love says:

“This one was not reported through proper channels and proper procedures are most definitely not being followed. We have got people right now scurrying as fast as they can to collect what little that they can.

“… This is why there has to be some safe place to go because the question we have been asked about a hundred times is: Where do we go now?”

In hindsight, city spokeswoman Cora Scott said the city’s protocol of giving at least a 24-hour notice should have been followed because the city’s Department of Building Development Services was involved in the dispute.

The city primarily addresses homelessness through the Community Partnership of the Ozarks, which created the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness, a collaborative effort of various nonprofits.

“They are trying to solve deeply entrenched problems that are not easy to solve,” Snider says. “They are trying to bridge those gaps. They are trying their best. But there are systems and policies and structures that need to change.”

Love’s brother, Kyle, also a pastor, says he knows of his sister’s battles.

“She can have total frustration with those who often could be potential allies,” he says.

It was Snider who led Love to the new location on West Chestnut Expressway, an abandoned and neglected former church owned by the Disciples of Christ denomination. 

Love leased the building for $1 for a year; it was then given to her. Love’s congregation is now part of the Disciples of Christ.

Heart-breaking encounters

Pastor Christie Love returns to her van after checking for homeless in an area known for a camp. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Love has seen Springfield at its worst.

“We have high hostility in this community,” she says.

“I have seen drivers speed up and swerve at homeless people crossing the street. I have heard drivers scream out the window at homeless people and flip them off.

“‘Get a job you M-F’er. You are lazy. You are no good.'”

She recalls an incident in the summer of 2020, near downtown Springfield, when she was on the sidewalk trying to uplift a homeless man who had lost hope.

“It was heartbreaking to be sitting with a guy who is telling me ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ 

“There were not a lot of options for him at the time. And I’m telling him: ‘I believe that you can.’

“And he tells me: ‘I’m sorry, but I just can’t.’

“And then a white truck came by and somebody yelled at him: ‘You’re a lazy sack of shit!'”

The man just cried, Love says.

Love had run-ins with Springfield police at her former location on Commercial Street. A number of homeless people would come to the church for meals and services.

The Connecting Grounds on Commercial Street also is where the well-known Springfield Street Choir practiced before COVID.

In 2020, the city issued a temporary “stay-at-home” order due to the pandemic. People were not allowed to congregate in public. Yet, some were congregating at Love’s church. 

Love asked the question: How do you stay at home when you don’t have a home?

She says she and others were feeding people in the parking lot during the “stay-at-home” order when police arrived.

 A sergeant told her she was breaking the law and that she needed to clear the sidewalk of people.

Love says her response was this: 

“I am going to feed them first. I would rather that you arrest me than clear these people out.”

She says today: “I did not feel there was an exception to the call of Matthew 25.” 

That part of the Bible says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I  was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Love says, “It doesn’t say, ‘unless it gets too hard.'”

Pastor Christie Love chats with Rebecca Davis (left) and Zachary Breeden outside the community outreach center.  (Photo by Steve Pokin/Springfield Daily Citizen)

She was not arrested, she says, but the officer was prophetic. He told her she would soon be forced to shut down at that location.  

Nearby residents and businesses had complained about the homeless people who congregated in the parking lot, even when nothing was happening at the church.

Love closed the church on Commercial Street, she says, after her landlord told her to either drop her homeless ministry or vacate. 

She says that when she found a new location on the other side of town, she was not received warmly. Tires on church vehicles at the new site were slashed; the door was kicked in.

She also says Phyllis Ferguson, then the councilwoman for Zone 1, which covers much of northwest Springfield, was part of an effort to try to keep her out of the neighborhood. 

That’s not how Ferguson remembers it.

“I was invited to and did attend a meeting that was put on by concerned neighbors and held at Westport Park,” Ferguson said via email. “Attending were several city representatives, a sheriff’s department representative, neighborhood leaders, several not-for-profit organizations, as well as the neighbors and some area business owners.”

Love did not attend because she had been exposed to COVID.

“I had no other contact with Pastor Love regarding the matter of her organization’s move to the West Chestnut location,” Ferguson said.

Snider, the Brentwood pastor, was at that meeting. He says he recalls that residents from Zone 1 were against the church’s planned move, but he cannot recall if Ferguson expressed that view.

In March of 2020, the volunteer cold-weather shelters in the city were closed due to COVID. On a night when the temperature fell to 27 degrees, Love played a big role in hastily arranging for eight locations, six of them churches, to house 62 people.

Yet, Love says, someone from a church not participating called the city that night to report she was acting without authority and violating the stay-at-home order. 

As a result, fire officials went to the churches to inspect them for safety. In the end, citations were issued, but no one was fined.

Love says that her interpretation of the criticism she received for her efforts that day was “Christie has gone rogue.”

Love says she cooperates with the Ozarks Alliance to End Homelessness but has charted a distinct and separate course for her church.

“We have passed the time in this community when we can rely on volunteers,” Love says.

“I think we are capable of better. I think we are capable of coming together for better solutions. I think we are capable of spending money in more efficient ways.”

She believes the city should fund and sponsor a permanent shelter. She believes the city should do more than rely on churches and volunteers to help the homeless survive cold nights.

“We have a difference in approach. We try to do things from a very relational place and from a place of what we see and experience through outreach.

“I think sometimes it is hard and frustrating to see a lot of people who are setting policies and best practices yet are not engaged in that kind of front-line way.

“I am not just talking about the leaders of our city. I’m talking about religious systems and structures, as well. There is a gap between what the church should be and what the church is today.

“To date, our mayor and our current city council members have not reached out to learn what we do at The Connecting Grounds. Nobody has asked for a tour or asked about our outreach program.

“Come out and serve dinner once a month. Invite people into spaces where you are willing to listen to their stories. I have reached out to council members and city leaders and they have not taken me up on the offer.

“It can be small steps. Part of leadership is knowing those you are leading. That just can’t be people who are business owners or homeowners. 

“We were involved with the Community Partnership of the Ozarks when we first launched,” Love says. “We had to make some decisions to step away from that association because there are differences in priorities. 

“There were questions that I raised about the effectiveness of long-standing policies and practices that did not seem to be helping the quality of life on the streets and the quantity of people on the streets in our community.”

Jacob Leach, an employee of The Connecting Grounds, helps someone at the community outreach center on a cold November morning.  (Photo by Steve Pokin/Springfield Daily Citizen)

Two on Springfield City Council respond

For this story, Love’s comments were relayed to Springfield Councilman Andy Lear.

Lear admits he should take Love up on her offer to see The Connecting Ground’s work. But he has not done so, in part, he says, because of COVID.

“But that doesn’t mean that people on the council or with the city are unfamiliar with the issue or unfamiliar with what she does,” he says. 

Lear two years ago helped set up a temporary cold-weather shelter at Brentwood Christian Church. He has spent several nights there as a volunteer. There were other sites, as well.

Last year, Lear and his wife Cindy worked to make it possible for those seeking cold-weather shelter to do so with their pets. Even on nights near zero, some people sleeping outside refuse shelter if it means leaving their pets outside.

“Christie does fabulous work,” Lear says. “She probably is better at outreach than anybody. She finds those folks who have really fallen the furthest, the chronic unsheltered. She reaches those people and she needs to be at the table.”

But in a way, Lear says, Love has left the table.

As a councilman, he says, he looks at the breadth of care that various people and agencies can provide collaboratively to address the broad spectrum of homelessness.

“She kind of operates on her own terms,” Lear says. 

“She operates through private donations and does not take any federal money. I value what she does, but sometimes she throws a lot of rocks and takes everybody out of their comfort zones.”

Yet, Lear adds, “that can be a good thing.”

Lear says he has encouraged Love to apply for federal money through the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act. 

Heather Hardinger, who has been on the City Council since April 2021, was an overnight volunteer at Safe to Sleep, a year-round homeless shelter for women. Hardinger also was on the nonprofit’s advisory board.

Hardinger says that since she has been on the council, she has not been asked by Love to view first-hand what The Connecting Grounds accomplishes in the city.

“I have a lot of respect for what she does,” Hardinger says.

“Sometimes this work can happen in silos,” Hardinger says. “Sometimes information comes to the city’s attention a little too late. There needs to be more connection and relationship with all the entities that are serving homeless people.”

On Jan. 10, Love met with Michelle Garand,  who oversees affordable housing and homeless prevention for the Community Partnership of the Ozarks.

“We have got to find a way to move forward together,” Love says.

Garand was asked for comment for this story but declined.

One topic discussed was Love’s proposal to build a multi-million dollar, large-scale transitional housing site in Springfield called Roots of Community. 

It would include various support services, such as medical respite care for homeless people released from the hospital after surgery.

Would Love take federal money to fund it?

Possibly, she says. 

“We are trying to discern the best way to make that project a reality,” she says.

A call to ministry: “My life was a mess”

The Connecting Grounds Church with Pastor Christie Love had their first service Sat. Oct. 23, 2021 at their new facility on West Chestnut Expressway. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

Love has lived in poverty, but has always had a roof over her head.

After high school, she attended Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, in part because she received free tuition.

Although her father no longer coached or worked there, when he departed the university agreed that it would allow Love and her siblings to attend tuition-free.

Love met her first husband there. She was 19 when they wed. 

Soon, she was pregnant and became ill. Only later was she diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a blood flow disorder. A key characteristic is an increase in heart rate when standing.

The syndrome leads to not enough blood returning to the brain, which can be felt as lightheadedness, brain fog and fatigue. It can cause shakiness and chest pain.

“Cold weather outreach can be a miserable thing for me sometimes,” Love says. “Once I get cold, my body just does not know how to warm up.”  

She dropped out of college and moved to Buffalo with her husband and infant son to be near her mother, who had remarried. Her mother had wed Jim Hamilton, former editor of the Buffalo Reflex newspaper.

Love and her family struggled, she says.

“We massively lived in poverty.”

Her husband landed a job with the state and they moved to Gladstone and then Liberty. They had two more children.

The marriage failed, Love says.

“We were both young. We made a lot of stupid mistakes. We had several things going on that just made marriage really, really difficult.”

They divorced after seven years and what followed was a gut-wrenching and costly custody fight that marked one of the lowest points of Love’s life.

She moved back to Buffalo and lived in a townhouse that needed repairs.

She was a single mom fighting to keep custody of her three children.

One night she was exhausted after putting her kids to bed.

“I was praying to God, saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ 

“And I heard a small voice that said, ‘you don’t have to do this alone.’

“It was in that season that I really felt called to the ministry, which did not make any sense because I was a mess. My life was a mess.” 

She also knew her calling would have to lead to something different. Time and time again during her faith journey, she says, she had hit a wall within the churches she attended. The obstacle, she says, was patriarchy.

“I felt like there were a lot of women like me who were pushed away from the church.”

About that time, her landlord called a handyman to fix things at the townhouse.

That handyman was Bob Love, who also had been married before. He had a daughter.

They fell in love and wed on July 4, 2008, and she took his name. Bob joined her emotionally and financially in the fight to keep full custody of her children.

“Legally, we just put everything we had into fighting for them,” Christie Love says. “We lost our house. We lost our business. We would have been on the streets if not for my sister.”   

Love has no contact with her ex-husband and says she has set boundaries in her relationship with her father and does not talk to him often.

Kip Drown, retired and living in Georgia, says he is not surprised that his daughter Christie has become a minister.

“She has such a loving heart,” he says. “Such a giving heart. She has always cared deeply about people.

“She is a tremendous speaker. I knew God had gifted her with talents like that.

“I am just so proud of her for that and for the impact she is having on the community of Springfield and the homeless mission. It is a tough ministry and a hard ministry.”  

“She is a force of nature”

Love and Holly Madden, Family Connection Director and Worship Leader, check to see if someone was in a homeless camp. No one was there. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

On Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, Shurita Thomas-Tate was one of 15 people at the first indoor service at The Connecting Grounds on West Chestnut Expressway.

The church holds services on Saturdays so staff — including Christie and Bob Love — can have at least one day of the week off: Sundays.

The congregation had been meeting outside the church, weather permitting, while the building was being renovated. 

Love suspects attendance was off on this night because it rained during the day and many of her homeless congregants might not have realized the service was now indoors.

Love says her congregants range from college professors like Thomas-Tate to people down-and-out.

Thomas-Tate is a member of the Springfield Public Schools board of education and a Missouri State University associate professor. She is on the leadership team at the church and occasionally preaches.

“I appreciate Christie as a thoughtful intellectual,” Thomas-Tate says. “I love the  fact that she pursues wisdom and knowledge. She is one of the most well-read people that I know. 

“She is willing to stand in places where it’s not normal for a female pastor to be. I just like that she challenges the status quo.” 

Jerry Scott also was in attendance. He is a retired high school choral director and now the church’s director of operations.

“I’m so impressed with Christie – her passion, her vision, her creativity.

“She is a force of nature.” 

Delana Ellison, 46, sat in the sanctuary. She has not had a stable home in years. 

For about seven months, Ellison says, she had been sleeping in a tent near railroad tracks in a wooded area by an abandoned building in Springfield.

“It is kind of a tent; it kind of collapsed today,” she says. 

Her voice is a whisper scuffed by low-grit sandpaper; she fears she has contracted bronchitis yet again.

She once rented a house in Republic. Her world disintegrated when she lost custody of her child.

“I went through depression,” she says. 

Ellison says Love and church staff members have given her rides in the middle of the night. They have fed her. They have clothed her. They helped her when she was released from prison. 

Ellison whispers in a worn voice:  “Christie is a great voice for the homeless.”

Love preaches for almost an hour. She recaps the history of her church.

Thousands of bags of food have been given away, she says, along with thousands of pieces of clothing.

“And there were times when there was nothing on our shelves. Nothing. We would just literally lay our hands on the shelves and pray. And it never, never failed. I never had to say we ran out of food today.  Why?

“Because God is faithful.” 

Support, sometimes anonymous, has arrived at crucial moments, she says.

The church opened its outreach center at 3000 W. Chestnut Expressway on Nov. 1, 2020. The 6,000-square-foot building, vacant for years, had once been the Frisco Flea and Furniture. 

“We raised $25,000 ourselves,” she says. An unknown donor gave $150,000.

It’s where people come for clothes, shoes, boots, used furniture, food, bicycles and haircuts from stylists-in-training. It’s where they can use a computer to apply for food stamps, search for a job, get a social security card.

Those for whom the church has paid fines or loitering tickets come here to volunteer to work off their debt.

Two retired nurses are among a dozen volunteers at the center this cold morning. One of them tends to a man with a cut finger.

“In the winter, I am sure we will have to treat frostbite and trench foot,” says nurse Bernadette Canales. “Seems like a lot of wound care, or they need something for a cold or for the flu.”

The center has two commercial-size washers and dryers donated by Keller Williams Realty. Volunteers not only visit homeless campsites on cold nights to drop off blankets, they take back other blankets to be cleaned.

Behind the outreach center are two small residences the church has purchased. One is a medical respite center for men. The one next to it is where the caretaker, formerly homeless, will live.

There is a shed that Love says will soon be a repair shop where people can donate bicycles that will be fixed and then given to those without transportation.

Ron Hubbard, 52, was living in the respite home in November when interviewed.

He says he is an alcoholic trying to stay sober and has lived on and off the streets of Springfield for 20 years. He was once a registered nurse.

He is in the respite center because he is being treated at a local hospital for colon cancer.

Is Pastor Love making a difference?

“Yes. Big time. She does it with patience and love. She has seen the worst of the worst.”  

Marcus Whalen, 44, is at the outreach center to help others. He says that the night before, he slept in one of the small, solar-powered teardrop trailers available to the homeless at the Revive 66 Campground at 3839 W. Chestnut Expressway. The trailers are provided by the Gathering Tree, a nonprofit organization.

Whalen has schizophrenia.

“I have had it my whole life,” he says. “I am getting to understand it a little better and live with myself.” 

Is Pastor Love making a difference?

“It is beyond belief what she does,” he says.  

For a moment, he absorbs the activity around him: the faith, the hope and — the greatest of these — the love.

He corrects himself. It is not “beyond belief.”

“You are seeing it, so it’s got to be real — I guess you have to believe it.”

Interested in more reading?

“Homelessness in U.S. Rose for 4th Straight Year, Report Says” — New York Times, March 18, 2021

“Aging on the Streets: Local agencies report rise in elderly homeless people” — Springfield News-Leader,  Sept. 26, 2019

“What I learned spending the night at Safe to Sleep, Springfield’s overnight women’s shelter” — Springfield News-Leader, May 4, 2018

“Pokin Around: What would Jesus do? I imagine it would look pretty much like Christie Love” — Springfield News-Leader, March 25, 2020

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin