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Pennsylvania borough battles downtown ministries

Pottstown claims charitable work violates zoning

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Pennsylvania borough battles downtown ministries

A June “nastygram” from Pottstown, Pa., leaders upset Deacon Dennis Coleman and fellow Christ Episcopal Church ministers. The borough cited the historic downtown church, which had offered free packaged food, pantry essentials, counseling, and hot meals to hundreds of needy people each week for years, for zoning violations.

If upheld, citations could burden Christ Episcopal and a neighboring United Methodist ministry, Mission First, with daily penalties of $500 and court costs. Applying for an unguaranteed opportunity to continue the ministries could bring a $1,500 fee. In a state bolstered by William Penn’s principles of religious freedom over three centuries ago, the current civil action has some flummoxed.

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

For Pottstown, a borough of 23,000 people one hour northwest of Philadelphia, the issue surfaced with a June 10 citation from Zoning/Planning Administrator Winter Stokes. The borough claims no zoning approval records exist 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 nonperishable food; a free Monday “grab-and-go” hot lunch; and a free Wednesday “grab-and-go” breakfast.

Stokes confirmed the Pottstown case is unresolved but declined comment. She referred questions to Borough Manager Justin Keller, who didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Pottstown case isn’t unique. As cities grapple with growing homeless populations, churches find themselves caught between ministries that seek to serve the homeless and residents concerned over safety and the changing character of their neighborhoods.

The Oregon coastal city of Brookings took a bolder step than Pottstown. Brookings passed an ordinance requiring churches to secure a special permit for benevolent meal service operating no more than twice weekly. St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church sued the city, citing a violation of the 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 the denial of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. The Brookings church attributes the contested city ordinance to an April 2021 citizens’ petition chastising “the congregation of vagrants and undesirables” at St. Timothy’s Episcopal.

In Pottstown, Coleman admits that people seeking help sometimes linger at the church steps. Christ Episcopal discourages loitering, he said, but the borough has removed all benches downtown. One block away in the downtown district stands the nine-story Sydney Pollock House with 180 units of rent-subsidized public housing for the elderly and disabled, some of whom rely on the High Street churches for food and essentials.

“I think every town should be taking care of its own citizens; that’s all we’re trying to do,” said Coleman, who estimates 10 percent of his mission patrons are homeless. Christ Episcopal has prepared an appeal of the zoning citation, and the church won’t consider moving services out of downtown Pottstown. “We’re the church where we are, and the church will be doing what it does, where we are,” the deacon said.

Efforts to reach Mission First, also cited for zoning violations, were unsuccessful. That downtown ministry is housed in the former First United Methodist Church, which merged with suburban Cedarville United Methodist Church in 2020. Mission First offers Wednesday meals, “Baskets of Hope” for people moving into a first home, monthly laundry assistance, a Clothing Closet open four mornings a week, a phone charging station, and a self-serve food pantry.

Fewer than half of Pottstown residents own their home. The borough’s median household income is $50,130 — 26 percent below the U.S. Census Bureau’s national norm—while the poverty rate of 15.3 percent exceeds the national (11.1 percent) and Pennsylvania (9.7 percent) rates.

Gary Perilloux

Gary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute midcareer course.


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