Devil’s in the details

On the other end of Oregon, in a small coastal town, a deceptively important vote is taking place tonight.

The COVID age has brought out the best and the worst in people. As I’ve described countless times, I live in an unusually generous town, McMinnville, a city united in its commitment to helping others. Here, churches spanning the spectrum from conservative to progressive host numerous ministries offering clothing, firewood, pantry items, meals and more to anyone in need. When I moved to McMinnville over 25 years ago, I noted the community’s generosity right away. It’s evident everywhere.

For over a decade, I have been involved in the feeding ministry my own church sponsors. Five days a week, the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas provides hot, healthy and delicious meals to anyone who is hungry, no questions asked. For over 30 years, the soup kitchen has fed the hungry of Yamhill County. The soup kitchen ordinarily serves restaurant-style but COVID has temporarily required the ministry to switch to a carry-out-only format.

Being closely involved in a feeding ministry means I am familiar with the issues that accompany such an endeavor. While people frequently associate a soup kitchen with homelessness, it’s important to note that most of the guests served at St. Barnabas are not homeless — they’re working families or individuals. A few guests come for fellowship as much as food. Of course, local homeless folks also come but they’re neither the focus of nor the major part of the ministry.

Unfortunately, many people assume the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas is a ministry for the homeless. This incorrect assumption leads to a series of additional assumptions in which the ministry takes on a false front — then people start to see “evidence” of menace and even criminal behavior, usually greatly exaggerated from what’s actually occurring.

This is not to say there is no impact from living near a feeding ministry — I should know — in addition to being involved in the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas, I live next door to it. I’ve lived adjacent for over 25 years so you could probably consider me an expert on living next door to a popular and very heavily-used ministry to feed the hungry.

This is why I am distressed to see the city of Brookings, Oregon considering legislation that could hobble their local feeding ministries.

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church hosts a ministry very much like the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas. In fact, St. Timothy’s and St. Barnabas are both part of the same diocese, subject to the same oversight. Complaints by neighbors of St. Tim’s seemed to reach a head when COVID forced the closure of every feeding ministry in town except St. Tim’s. Last June, Fr. Bernie Lindley, rector at St. Timothy, asked other churches to step up — two did. Currently, three Brookings churches provide free meals.

The Episcopal Bishop of Oregon, the Rt. Rev. Diana Akiyama, is worried enough she paid a visit to St. Timothy last week. She described the feeding ministry as “highly organized, well-staffed, and attentive to detail.” Akiyama said the volunteers at St. Timothy serve with a heartfelt commitment to those in need.

“From the nurses giving vaccines, to the folks cooking in the kitchen, to volunteers swabbing for COVID tests,” said Akiyama. “Each and every person is clearly serving because they want to participate in the way in which Christ’s body is being made known to the community.” Akiyama said volunteers care about helping others because many were once on the receiving end of the same services. “Their gratitude is an endless source of fuel to become part of the love extended in feeding, vaccinating, and testing,” she said.

The Brookings City Planning Commission has voted to recommend that the city council pass an ordinance requiring churches to obtain a “benevolent meal” permit in order to continue serving meals to the hungry and homeless. The city council will vote on the ordinance tonight.

The benevolent meal permit is effectively a conditional use permit, costing $3,014 each. The city is discussing waiving all or part of the fee for the churches.

But as with so many things, the devil is in the details. The ordinance also limits each church to serving a maximum of two days per week — currently, the need is such that St. Tim’s is serving seven days per week. Additionally, the ordinance requires churches to essentially meet restaurant standards of service which, if commercial-grade kitchens are mandated, will be prohibitively expensive.

Further, off-street parking with adequate noise screening will be required, along with other undefined measures to combat undefined impacts. The measure requires buildings to meet all structural and fire codes which is likely the least impactful part since, as houses of worship, the buildings probably already are in compliance.

Finally, each church will be required to meet the definition of a charitable organization under the 501(c)(3) section of the Internal Revenue Code. Added to all the other mandates, this creates an onerous burden for churches that just want to feed hungry people.

Seriously, constraining meal service to just two days effectively hobbles St. Timothy’s efforts to feed the hungry. Akiyama is urging the faithful to pray today. “Let’s all remind St. Timothy’s, the city of Brookings and each other of the wondrous work revealed when we awaken to the truth that what we ‘do to the least of these, you do to me,’” she said.

Having been closely involved with the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas and having lived next door to it for 25 years, as I said, I am intimately familiar with the impact a feeding ministry has on neighbors. Given that McMinnville has a population significantly larger than that of Brookings — 34,000 versus 24,000 — I can’t help but think St. Timothy’s neighbors are suffering from a bad case of NIMBY (not in my backyard). Sure, there are a handful of minor annoyances from time to time but the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas accomplishes so much good — the benefits outweigh the tiny inconveniences by far.

Worse, I’m guessing neighbors have adopted the demonstrably false position that hordes of homeless people are descending on Brookings just to take advantage of all the free food. I would wager the vast bulk of guests served at St. Tim’s are local working families and individuals whose income is tight. I would bet most of them — even the actual homeless guests — are local folks, not expats from far off cities.

The efforts underway in Brookings are decidedly uncharitable, in my opinion. The Rev. Betty McWhorter, rector at St. Barnabas in McMinnville, agrees. She asked her parishioners to pray for the council vote in Brookings tonight. “We’re deeply concerned about the situation in Brookings,” said McWhorter. “It’s difficult to imagine St. Timothy being able to feed the hungry in Curry County if the constraints proposed in Brookings are suddenly imposed.”

The Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas beat its own COVID record for meals served last Friday — the need is real in these trying times.

It’s unfortunate neighbors of St. Timothy chose to take their case to the city council instead of conducting a vigorous and honest effort to work out their differences with the ministry. I know what goes on when your house sits next to a soup kitchen — I know with certainty the problems could’ve been worked out with effort and patience as opposed to oppressive legislation.

I am grateful for my generous community. I am thankful the Soup Kitchen at St. Barnabas gets along well with its neighbors. I am worried about the hungry in Brookings. I am worried an uncharitable group in another city might find inspiration in Brookings’ lead and enact crippling mandates on feeding ministries.

Like I said before, the COVID age seems to bring out the best and the worst in people.

Photograph © Ella Olsson via Unsplash

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