Church settles dispute over homeless ministryLatest News Monday, June 28th, 2010
A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn
The legal food fight is over.
CrossRoads United Methodist Church in Phoenix has reached an agreement with the city that ends an upcoming federal court battle over the church’s Saturday pancake breakfast for the homeless.
Prodigal’s Home ministry, which partners with the congregation on the feeding program, has decided to relocate its Saturday breakfasts within the next six months to the impoverished neighborhood north of the church, said the Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, the church’s pastor. The ministry, she said, also plans to expand its program to serve meals five or seven days a week.
In the interim, the ministry has agreed to offer the weekly breakfast inside CrossRoads United Methodist Church. The service had been outside.
The church’s commitment will not falter, Escobedo-Frank said.
“CrossRoads will continue supporting the (Prodigal’s Home) ministry, of course, by assisting them in their new location,” she said. “And CrossRoads will begin to look anew at another form of homeless ministry on our own site.”
Scrambled eggs and worship
About 18 months ago, CrossRoads began offering the Saturday morning program, which provides an opportunity to worship and a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, pancakes and bacon for more than 100 people each week.
The dispute started last summer when some neighbors complained that by feeding the homeless on site, the church was in violation of Phoenix’s residential zoning. CrossRoads defended the program, citing the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the First Amendment and statutes protecting religious liberty.
Last fall, a hearing officer ruled that feeding the homeless in a place of worship can by prohibited by city ordinance. A few months later, the city’s Board of Adjustment ruled that the church was operating a “charity dining hall” in violation of zoning regulations.
The church voted to challenge the ruling in U.S. District Court. The Saturday breakfasts have continued throughout the legal process.
The church recently agreed to drop its lawsuit. In exchange, Escobedo-Frank said the church has signed a settlement with the city that will not prevent the church from doing a similar ministry on its property in the future and will recognize the church’s religious freedom.
John Tutelman, deputy city prosecutor, told the Arizona Republic newspaper that the settlement was a “win-win” for everyone.
“Pastor Dottie is really interested in doing the right thing for these people, and so is the city, and so is the neighborhood,” he said.
The aptly named CrossRoads United Methodist Church is located at an intersection between an affluent neighborhood to its south, a middle-income neighborhood and a poor neighborhood to its north, Escobedo-Frank said.
Since its founding 50 years ago, the church has cared for the poor. But the partnership with Prodigal’s Home was the first time the church fed the hungry on its campus. Since the ministry began, 22 homeless people have joined the church.
CrossRoads church offers a video of the breakfast program.
“We have neighbors who are extremely poor and extremely wealthy,” she said. “We’re at one of those places where (the way) to make heaven on earth happen here is to bring the wealthy and the poor together in community. That’s a tough thing to do.”
Escobedo-Frank said the church’s decision to go to court wasn’t unanimous. About 30 percent of the congregation opposed continuing the ministry on site since it bothered the church’s neighbors.
“We had meetings that were from Hades,” she said. “It began with a lot of not-so-nice volleying back and forth. Then we learned how to talk when we disagree. So that has been amazing.”
Escobedo-Frank said the congregation, with a weekly attendance of about 200, has been able to stay together. Fewer than five people have left the church since the dispute began. The church also has received words of support from other neighbors.
“If it can happen here,” the pastor said, “then maybe peace can happen.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.