Pa. ministries cited for violating city's definition of 'church' with outreaches to the poor

Unsplash/Jon Tyson
Unsplash/Jon Tyson

In the suburbs of Philadelphia with a rising affordable housing crisis, two church-affiliated ministries have been warned that they could incur penalties for breaking the community's zoning code's definition of a "church" by running charitable outreaches to feed and help the poor. 

Officials in Pottstown Borough in Montgomery County have issued citations to High Street-based ministries Mission First, an outreach program affiliated with Cedarville United Methodist Church, and Christ Episcopal Church, The Mercury reported Monday. 

Both organizations have until Sunday to appeal the citation to the city zoning hearing board. 

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Both ministries were issued warnings in letters noting concerns about ongoing activities at their locations that were beyond the scope of what those buildings have been approved for. 

One letter shared by WHYY News takes issue with a mental health service providing free counseling and help for families, which the town would consider to be a "social service provider." The letter also took issue with a program handing out canned food, toiletries and phone chargers to those in need and another program providing free buffet-style meals for the public. 

"It is the opinion of this office that the use of the property has changed and, by definition, is more than that of a church," the letter concludes.

Both churches have been cited as having not submitted applications for a zoning variance to be approved or denied by the Pottstown Borough Zoning Hearing Board. If approved, the two can provide services to those in need. 

The Pottstown Borough Zoning Hearing Board defines a church as "a building wherein persons assemble regularly for religious worship and that is used only for such purposes and for those accessory activities as are customarily associated therewith." 

"It's a sad state of affairs," Clare Schilling, the director of Mission First, told WHYY News. "Everything we do is what a church should be doing. … We're feeding the needy. … We're helping the community."

The Rev. Dennis Coleman, the deacon of Christ Church, told Episcopal News Service the church doesn't plan to halt its programs or apply for a variance and will work with its attorneys to determine the appropriate course of action.

Pennsylvania Episcopal Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez said in a statement shared by the Episcopal News Service that "This is the very definition of our faith — to embody Jesus and serve all people, especially the poor."

Mission First Church has offered a community closet, a 24/7 pantry, a weekly free meal for those in need, and a charging station, an outside bench with a phone charger plugged in, according to WHYY News. 

Schilling claims the food pantry and refrigerator were previously approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Department of Health. 

Schilling stated that roughly 80  to 120 people receive the free meal services weekly, and the fridge serves about 100 people daily.

"There's many people that come to us and say, 'We don't know what we would do without you here,'" Schilling was quoted as saying. 

Schilling said Mission First will not submit an application for a variance and is weighing the possibility of taking the city to court. 

"We're not going to back down. We're not going to stop doing what we do because that's just what the Church does. That's what we do. We help people," she said, believing the borough would not approve of a zoning appeal. 

"If we do it for this, then we would have to do it for every other little ministry. … You shouldn't have to do that. ... What if we were having a new Bible class? Do we have to go to get approval for that?"

Although other houses of worship offer similar services and didn't receive citations, Schilling believes her ministry was cited because it's on High Street, and the city wants to keep the homeless population away. 

"They don't want them to be seen. … It is very disheartening that I live in a town that does that to the needy," she said.

Al's Heartwarming Center, the only single adult shelter in the Pottstown area, was denied a yearlong extension in the fall of 2021. As a result, the singles shelter had no other option but to shut down on May 1.

On June 30 in Norristown, the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center, Montgomery County's only 24/7 emergency housing service, which served about 50 single adults, shut its doors

There has been a 118% increase in homelessness across Montgomery County from 2021 to 2022, according to the county's 2022 Point-in-Time Count.

The county says at least 568 people spent nights sleeping at one of the county's emergency shelters, which includes public-funded hotel rooms and transitional housing projects, or outside. 

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