A modern-day David-meets-Goliath is playing out in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia and, to date, David – in the form of a UCC church known for its compassionate outreach among poor and homeless persons – is holding his own.
Although city officials are trying to close down Hope Outreach Ministries United Church of Christ's Men's Overnight Ministry – an overnight homeless shelter – church members are finding ways, with legal help from the ACLU, to keep the shelter open.
The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspection ordered the shelter shut down Aug. 10, citing building, zoning and fire code violations. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, local zoning laws allow the church to operate 24 hours a day, but do not allow sleeping inside its walls.
The church responded to the order by holding an all-night prayer vigil in the sanctuary where 15-to-25 men have slept each night since September 2009. When inspectors arrived Wednesday, Aug. 11, the sleeping mats were gone, so the church was given the OK to continue operating its shelter. The city told reporters that the inspectors will continue to make unannounced checks to insure that homeless men in the shelter are not asleep.
The Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU is representing the church as it negotiates with the city.
Hope's pastor, the Rev. Deborah Savage, told reporters that the church would continue to hold the overnight prayer vigils through the end of the month.
"The commitment and tenacity of Hope Outreach Ministries to serve the needs of its homeless neighbors is evidence of Christ's presence among them," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president. "I know that many of Hope's sister congregations across the United Church of Christ are offering prayers of support and encouragement as the congregation works with the ACLU and the city to resolve the legal matters at hand so that Hope's ministries of compassion among the poor in their neighborhood will continue uninterrupted."
Hope UCC began in May 2009 with 12 members and today has an average Sunday worship attendance of 80. It began its outreach homeless ministry in September 2009.
According to the Rev. Linda Noonan, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, a UCC/United Methodist congregation in Philadelphia, Hope's ministries extend well beyond the men's shelter:
- Hope's Wednesday morning program has served more than 1,700 people with emergency food and clothing
- It's Mother's Soup Kitchen, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, has served more than 1,800 meals.
- More then 2,900 people have been fed at Hope's Sunday Morning Overcomers Breakfast Program.
- Area senior citizens receive monthly food boxes
- A clinic is available twice a month for medical assessment, resources and workshops.
In 2009, Hope also provided 4,800 lunches and snacks to neighborhood children, and 65 children received book bags and school supplies.
The church –– with the support of local UCC clergy from the Philadelphia Association, Pennsylvania Southeast Conference, UCC and ecumenical partners across the region and the newly-formed Philadelphia Chapter of UCC Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice –– has begun building safety improvements, continued their vital ministries and moved to holding all-night prayer vigils at the church led by local UCC congregations as a way of continuing the worship life and ministry of the church.
Church website: http://hopeministriesucc.org/