A new kind of struggle has begun for churches in New York City facing the recent ban on renting school facilities – the struggle to love, says one local pastor.
Following the Supreme Court’s refusal to review an evangelical church’s appeal of a ban on worship services in public schools, Pastor Caleb Clardy says that the church is now being challenged to react with love.
“The Christian church in New York City has a great opportunity right now,” the Trinity Grace Church Brooklyn pastor wrote in Christianity Today. “For years, schools all over the city have graciously hosted us. This has given us a wonderful opportunity. We need to be grateful for that hospitality.”
Clardy’s church was one of the more than 60 churches affected by the court decision made earlier in December in Bronx Household of Faith vs. New York City Department of Education.
TGC had met at William Alexander Middle School on 5th Avenue for the past few years, unable to afford other meeting spaces as a new church with a small budget. The school auditorium was the perfect place for the growing congregation and an “answer to prayer.”
The local church had shared the facility with a Farmers Market and a basketball league on Sunday mornings. They all coexisted peacefully on the school property.
Of the three organizations, however, TGC is now the only group unable to use the property due to the Supreme Court’s decision to allow a lower court’s ruling to stand. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in June that the Department of Education had a right to enforce a ban against religious groups worshipping in school facilities.
“My first thoughts when I heard the news were a jumbled rush of questions,” Clardy recalled. “How many families would this affect? ... Who really was on the other side of this case, pushing for the churches to be removed?”
“Our neighbors had welcomed us. Members of our church bought pickles from the gourmet stand at the farmers market. My son will soon be old enough for the basketball league,” he added. “Why would the Court not hear this case when it has heard similar ones and ruled in favor of religious groups?”
“Did the Justices believe that renting to churches is so patently discriminatory that they didn’t even need to hear the case? With education dollars regularly getting cut, wouldn’t this mean the loss of thousands of dollars in revenue for schools? If the church and the school have a good relationship, shouldn’t the decision be up to the school itself? ... Am I just feeling sorry for myself?”
Candidly describing his thoughts, the pastor shared that his heart began to shift when the group he was with turned to prayer.
“Someone brought up the words of Jesus – things are going to be difficult when you follow him. It helped to think about Jesus. He was regularly asked to leave and chased out of town. He was also pretty stubborn in his love and forgiveness,” Clardy noted.
“The truth is that the schools in our neighborhoods did not make this choice. We have built strong friendships serving them, and them serving us, for years. We must find ways to keep showing them love in this new season as well. This is the way of Jesus.”
The pastor implored churches to show gratitude and the love of Jesus during the final months as tenants.
But he also stressed that it was still possible to “keep a loving posture and still offer a sincere challenge” to the culture, citing that Jesus was not just a gentle savior.
“Our country was founded on the right of its citizenry to make free and informed decisions. Yet it seems that more and more decisions of conscience are being made for us by high-level policymakers and by judicial fiat,” the Brooklyn leader observed.
“Is this what we actually want for our city, and our nation? If MS 51 can choose to host the basketball league and the farmers market and the theatre troupe and the voting stations, why can’t they choose to host the church as well? I haven’t yet heard a compelling answer to that question.”
Regardless of the higher court’s decision, the preacher affirmed that nothing would stop the church from meeting and growing, “certainly not just ruling out one kind of venue for its public meetings.”
“Jesus was pretty clear that nothing will stop the church. It has often thrived in the most challenging conditions,” Clardy concluded. “Yet those of us who elect our representatives, pay our taxes, and support our local pickle stands need to decide how much longer we will allow decisions that used to be ours and our neighbors’ to be made for us.”