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Church challenges ruling banning homeless ministry

There is joy in the ministry at CrossRoads United Methodist Church in
Phoenix. UMNS photos courtesy of the Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank.

By Valerie K. Maravolo*
Nov. 18, 2009 | PHOENIX (UMNS)

A United Methodist church ordered to stop feeding the homeless on Saturday mornings is not giving up.

Members of CrossRoads United Methodist Church on Nov. 15 decided to appeal a ruling earlier in November from retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice Robert Corcoran that the ministry violated city zoning codes.

The church understands community concerns about the homeless ministry, but decided it needed to continue to work for justice, leaders said.

“We must stand together with those of us who are suffering and for other ministries and churches on whom this decision will have a great impact,” said the Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, senior pastor. “We just can’t stop caring for and feeding those who need us most.”

The ministry, which provides a pancake breakfast and an opportunity to worship for more than 100 people each week, will continue as the church appeals the ruling before the city’s Board of Adjustments. A Dec. 14 hearing is set.

A deep faith

City officials began looking into the ministry providing services outside on the church’s property after some area residents complained that it led to homeless people hanging around, bringing crime and trash to the neighborhood.

The city found the ministry to be in violation of its zoning ordinance as the church was operating as a “charity dining hall.” Since the church is located in a residential zone, and charity dining halls can only be located in commercial or industrial zones, the city served the church with a cease-and-desist order.

The pancake breakfast and worship
service serves area homeless and
poor every Saturday.

CrossRoads appealed the order, arguing that they were a church and as such, they were a ministry, not a charity dining hall. The city allowed CrossRoads to continue its program pending the outcome of an Oct. 22 hearing.

While some residents expressed concerns about vandalism, public intoxication and crime related to the ministry, United Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño said church members were acting out of a deep faith.

“In the words of Scripture, we are committed to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting and helping those who are sick or in prison,” she said. “We serve out of love for God which inspires within us a love for neighbor.”

Wider implications

On Nov. 9, Corcoran ruled CrossRoad’s ministry was functioning as a charity dining hall and therefore was in violation of city zoning codes.

Escobedo-Frank was saddened by the news.

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“As a people of God, we are asked to follow the way of Jesus. When a zoning ordinance interferes with a core belief of our faith, the implication is wide and deep,” she said.

Religious leaders also are concerned about the wider implications of the decision on ministries to the poor.

“This decision affects all faith communities, and ultimately, it changes the nature of our society. … If we don’t feed them, who will?” asked Escobedo-Frank.

*Maravolo is communications assistant/editor of the Desert Southwest Conference.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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