Book Club Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions for The Weight of Mercy

  1. How did Deb’s dreams illuminate what was happening in her life? Did the bookended dreams in the prologue and epilogue provide insight into her state of mind? How might you have handled Triune’s early personnel issues differently?
  2. Was there a time in your life when you felt as inadequate and overwhelmed as Deb did in her early months at Triune? How did you react? How would you have reacted if you’d been hired as pastor at Triune?
  3. How did the glimpses into Deb’s family let you see what allowed her to persevere?
  4. Deb says that she stayed the first year because, as a Baptist clergywoman in the South, she had nowhere else to go. Was that all there was to it?
  5. Deb contends that the core identity of Triune is a place where housed and homeless, rich, middle class and poor, come together in worship and honest relationship. What’s so good about that?
  6. Were you disturbed by the instances of people taking advantage of the church? How do you think Christians should respond?
  7. A homeless man once said to Deb, “Pastor, do you know the worst thing about being homeless? It isn’t being cold or wet or hungry. The worst thing about being homeless is being looked right through.” How does Triune address that concern? How do you?
  8. Triune does not allow panhandling. Why do you think that is? How do you react when a person who appears to be homeless asks you for money?
  9. What is the difference between enabling and empowering? Does the Bible differentiate? Should we?
  10. What steps did Triune Mercy take to move from enabling to empowering people? Has it gone far enough in that direction?
  11. In chapter 18, Deb talks about love as behavior and quotes John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Is that your understanding of love – behavior that can be seen?
  12. In chapter 28, Deb says it was her parenting – more than her journalism or theology training – that best prepared her for Triune. Is that true in your life?
  13. What do you think about Deb’s philosophy that behavior rises with the beauty of one’s surroundings? Does that work when a criminal element is present?
  14. Deb uses two stories about interacting with her dad – one in chapter one, one in the epilogue – to illustrate something about her personality. Did these stories give you insight into her thinking?
  15. How does Triune’s use of art, music, gardening and improvisational theater reach people in poverty? Is there value in doing things that don’t directly impact income and housing?
  16. David Gay and Triune’s mental health worker estimate that 80 to 90 percent of the church’s homeless parishioners have been sexually abused and/or show symptoms of mental illness. Why are these people on our streets?

Discussion Questions for The Cantaloupe Thief

  1. Early in the novel, Branigan recalls a quote from a homeless man that Pastor Liam shared. It turned out to be from Malachi, who said, “The worst part of being homeless isn’t being cold or wet or hungry. The worst part is being looked right through.”  How does that remark set up the storyline?
  2. Do you know any people who are or who have been homeless? Are any of them like the characters in this book?
  3. Branigan grieves the decline in newspapers. Ironically, the terrible story she finds herself writing recalls their glory years. Would she have started this story if she’d known where it would lead?
  4. Many of the characters — Malachi, Rita, Max, Vesuvius, the residents of Tent City, even Dontegan — are what we term “chronically homeless,” meaning they have lived outdoors or in shelters for years. Does it surprise you that such a class exists in this country?
  5. Who is The Cantaloupe Thief? Is the author commenting on his casual thievery or is the nickname tongue-in-cheek?
  6. What do you think of Malachi’s insistence on not begging or panhandling?
  7. Confederate flags still fly in parts of northeast Georgia — as well as other parts of the Deep South. Is racial discrimination different there than elsewhere in the country? Is homelessness?
  8. In an early scene, a man spills a dangerous personal secret right in front of Malachi. Rita is confident that Davison and Branigan would never recognize her from working in the mall. Why are some people invisible? What does that mean for the rest of us?
  9. What do we mean when we say that addiction is the great equalizer? How does Davison’s addiction illustrate the truism?
  10. Branigan and her parents have learned the language of recovery, of “empowering recovery” rather than “enabling addiction.” Do they live it out?
  11. Can Branigan and Malachi have a true friendship when their differences are so great?  

Discussion Questions for The Cover Story

  1. In this story, the scenes boomerang between the upscale Rutherford Lee campus and a homeless encampment. Why do you think the author set up such a dichotomy?
  2. News stories about college campus hazing deaths are becoming increasingly common. Are you as surprised as Branigan when we learn that students have been able to keep secrets about a crime for a long time?
  3. The author returns to the theme of The Cantaloupe Thief with this sentence from page 224: “Most days, as a homeless man, invisibility came (Malachi’s) way unwanted, unsought. Today he was counting on it.” Why do you think our homeless citizens are invisible? And similarly, maintenance workers?
  4. In chapter 9, the author talks about the unnecessary things that people donate to a homeless encampment. Why do you think that is? What would it take to create a dialogue between housed and homeless people?
  5. Were you surprised to learn that Maylene had been a college student? Did it upset your stereotypes?
  6. Many readers tell the author that Malachi is their favorite character. How likely is it that real people such as Malachi are living in homelessness?
  7. On page 73, Branigan tries to interview a man about being homeless at Christmas and he refuses to cooperate. How can journalists and homeless service providers protect the dignity of homeless citizens while getting needed information to the public?
  8. What did you think of Branigan and Liam referring to a fraternity’s beating of a homeless man as an “upscale” gang initiation? Is there any difference between college fraternity hazing and street gang initiations?
  9. Branigan is horrified at Anna Hester’s cavalier view of lying to get a story for the college newspaper. Are a lot of people similarly skeptical of journalists? What does that mean for a free press?
  10. A pivotal scene in the book occurs when Branigan takes Malachi into a downtown diner. She has forgotten the societal distinctions but Malachi has not. How might it feel to live with that constant feeling of being looked down upon?


Discussion Questions for Death of a Jester

1. In this third book in the series, we finally glimpse the reason for Malachi’s homelessness. Why do you think he blames himself for the Bedouin boy’s death?
2. What did you think of the townspeople’s insistence on giving money to the Arnesons despite Liam’s misgivings? Does that occur in your town? Why do we want to address the symptoms rather than dig deeper into the causes of homelessness?
3. Have you given much thought to the difference between empowering and enabling? How does that play out in the case of an unscrupulous character such as Oren Arneson?
4. Why did Flora stay with her husband?
5. Branigan sees a different side to Malachi in this book. How do you think he was able to hide his excessive drinking from her for so long?
6. “Creepy clown” sightings have popped up all over the nation. What do you think is behind them?
7. Branigan’s cousin Jimmie Jean behaved badly in the past, and hurt Branigan deeply. Do you think either woman changed? Who has the more promising future?
8. Why did the staff and board of Theater on the Square put up with Reggie’s behavior?
9. At the book’s end, Malachi shows no inclination to stop drinking or end his homelessness. Were you rooting for him to do so? Why do you suppose the author chooses not to have him change?
10. The authorities and reporters nearly got the murder wrong. What would’ve happened if the Arneson family had not attended preview night of “Annie Get Your Gun”?