On Wednesdays, late in the afternoon, Darryl takes the bus from downtown San Diego to the Pacific Beach United Methodist Church where, for the past 14 years, the church has served a free meal, open to all comers. Roughly 120 people show up each week to eat, pray if they wish to and take advantage of medical, dental and acupuncture treatment provided by UC San Diego's medical school and the Pacific School of Oriental Medicine.
Darryl, who declined to give his last name, sat alone at the empty end of one of the church hall's huge banquet tables. In front of him sat a plate of spaghetti, salad and bread, prepared and served by volunteers from the software company Intuit; behind him, at a piano, a small crowd had gathered to sing Christmas carols.
“I like the atmosphere,” he said, reluctantly adding that some of the downtown free-meal programs he frequents attract folks who aren't as civil as PBUMC's patrons.
Apparently, some of the church's neighbors don't share Darryl's take. Two months ago, an inspector with the city of San Diego's Neighborhood Code Compliance Department showed up at the church—located on Ingraham Street just one block south of Grand Avenue—unannounced, and told Pastor April Herron that she'd received an anonymous complaint about the Wednesday-night service. Herron gave the inspector a tour and answered her questions. Almost a month passed before Herron learned from the inspector that her church was being investigated for violating city zoning laws—the inspector wouldn't say which laws the church was breaking, only that Herron would receive a notice of violation in the mail and that the notice would order the church to stop the meal service or seek a permit for it. There was no appeal process, Herron was told, and if she didn't comply, the case would be referred to the City Attorney's office. The inspector recommended that Herron consult with a lawyer.
Two months after the inspection, Herron's still waiting for that letter. She doesn't know who complained; she's heard nothing from the church's neighbors. In the past, there'd been some problems with folks loitering in the alley behind the church, but, Herron said, “we haven't had that complaint in ages.” Volunteers who work the meal service police the church's perimeter to make sure everyone stays on the property.
Bob Vacchi, head of the city's Code Compliance Department, told CityBeat that the matter was still under investigation. “We're not sure if a violation exists or not,” he said. He didn't know the exact number of complaints but said there'd been more than one.
“Essentially, the services that the church is providing tends to attract the homeless,” Vacchi said. “The complaints are that they are sleeping in people's front yards and using their yards as bathrooms, and the church doesn't do anything to alleviate those problems. That's what they're alleging.” Since the church is in a residential zone, land-use restrictions are tighter than they'd be in other zones, he added.
Based on the inspector's advice, Herron hired attorney Scott Dreher. Last year, Dreher, along with attorney Tim Cohelan, successfully fought to bar San Diego police officers from issuing tickets to anyone sleeping on public property between 9 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. Even though the notice of violation hasn't been issued, Dreher filed a lawsuit against the city on PBUMC's behalf. In it, he argues that the meal service is an integral part of the church's overall mission. The court document reads, at times, like scriptural study. But that's the point. Dreher will have to prove that, to put it simply, the church has a mandate from God to serve the poor. It's the same argument that worked for Christian Sonrise Fellowship Church more than two decades ago.
In 1983, the church, then located on Sixth Avenue in Bankers Hill was, like PBUMC, holding a Wednesday-night community meal and prayer service that was open to the public. Attendees comprised mostly the poor and homeless, and neighbors started complaining. The county sent the church a notice saying it would need to obtain a food-service permit (PBUMC has one of those), and the city sent a notice informing the church's pastor, Don Shuman, that “feeding large amounts of people on a regular basis” was “not a church use.” Shuman hired attorney Milt Silverman, who filed a lawsuit against the city in federal court and won. The judge in the case ruled that: “The ‘common meal' is a religious practice entitled to protection under the First Amendment,” and neither the city nor the county could take any steps that would hamper religious expression.
Despite what Herron was told by the inspector, Vacchi said the church would have a chance to appeal a notice of violation. He's not yet sure what kind of permit the church would be ordered to obtain—if it comes to that point—or if PBUMC would be told to cease the meal service altogether. Herron and Dreher fear that the process of obtaining a permit could be costly—the church could be required to pay for a study of the impact the meal service has on the neighborhood—and turn political. Then there's the issue of whether other churches that hold similar services would be required to obtain permits, as well.
Rosemary Johnston, director of the Interfaith Shelter Network, a coalition of churches and social-service providers that reach out to the homeless, said that, as far as she knows, it's something churches haven't been asked to do in the past.
“None of the [churches] I know about have a permit from anyone other than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” she said.