Pennsylvania borough takes on downtown ministries

A June ‘nastygram’ from Pottstown, Pennsylvania left Deacon Dennis Coleman and other ministers of the Episcopal Church of Christ upset. The borough cited the historic downtown church, which had provided free packaged food, necessities, counseling and hot meals to hundreds of people in need each week for years, for zoning violations.

If confirmed, the quotes could weigh down Episcopal Christ and a neighboring United Methodist ministry, mission first, with daily fines of $500 and court costs. Asking for an unsecured opportunity to continue ministries could result in a fee of $1,500. In a state bolstered by William Penn’s tenets of religious freedom more than three centuries ago, current civil action has been somewhat baffling.

“If they want to impose fines, we’re just going to fight that,” said Coleman, whose role as an ordained deacon deals primarily with outward missions. “I know the bishop of our diocese has made it clear that he will do whatever he needs to do to support the church and fight all of this. It’s not just a question of morality. It’s a Christian thing.

For Pottstown, a borough of 23,000 people an hour northwest of Philadelphia, the issue surfaced with a June 10 quote from zoning/planning administrator Winter Stokes. The borough says there are no zoning approval records for the following activities: family counseling by social services partner, Hopeworx Inc.; a “Last Week of the Month” program distributing free soap, toiletries, phone chargers and non-perishable food; a free hot lunch to go on Mondays; and a free on-the-go Wednesday breakfast.

Stokes confirmed the Pottstown case was unsolved but declined to comment. She referred questions to Borough Director Justin Keller, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The case of Pottstown is not unique. As cities grapple with growing homeless populations, churches find themselves caught between ministries seeking to serve the homeless and residents concerned about the safety and changing character of their neighborhoods.

Oregon’s coastal town of Brookings took a bolder step than Pottstown. Brookings passed an ordinance requiring churches to obtain a special permit for benevolent meal service operating no more than twice a week. St. Timothy Episcopal Church sued the city, citing a violation of federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as First Amendment protection for the free exercise of religion and 14th Amendment protection against denial of life, liberty, or property, without due process. Brookings Church Attributes Contested City Ordinance to April 2021 Citizen Petition chastise “the congregation of wanderers and undesirables” at St. Timothy’s Episcopal.

In Pottstown, Coleman admits people seeking help sometimes linger on the church steps. The Episcopal Christ advises against strolling, he says, but the borough has removed all benches from downtown. One block away in the inner city district is the nine-storey Sydney Pollock House with 180 units of subsidized social housing for the elderly and disabled, some of which rely on High Street churches for food and essential products.

“I think every city should take care of its own citizens; that’s all we’re trying to do,” said Coleman, who estimates that 10% of his mission’s clients are homeless. Christ Episcopal has prepared a zoning citation appeal, and the church will not consider moving services out of downtown Pottstown. “We are the church where we are, and the church will do what it does where we are,” the deacon said.

Efforts to reach Mission First, also cited for zoning violations, were unsuccessful. This downtown ministry is housed in the former United Methodist First Church, which merged with suburban Cedarville United Methodist Church in 2020. Mission First offers Wednesday meals, “hope baskets” for people moving into a first home, a monthly help with laundry, a clothes closet. open four mornings a week, a phone charging station and a self-service pantry.

Less than half of Pottstown residents own their homes. The borough’s median household income is $50,130, 26% below the US Census Bureau’s national standard, while the poverty rate of 15.3% exceeds national rates (11.1%) and Pennsylvania (9.7%).

About Rodney Fletcher

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