Ministry — for a church, it’s an important aspect of practicing faith as well as serving the community. It comes in various forms — feeding the hungry, providing clothing to those in need, sheltering the homeless.
But what happens when a church’s dedication to giving out help in a specific way drives it headlong into a collision with city zoning ordinances? That’s the question bubbling up under what, on the surface, is a simple zoning issue involving the Green Street Church of Christ off Hermitage
Since early spring, the church has allowed homeless individuals to camp in the churchyard, pitching tents on the lawn. In late spring, the Metro Department of Codes and Building Safety notified the church that zoning regulations prevented such camping, but leaders of the church decided their mission, serving the poor, took precedence.
After a while, that form of civil disobedience drew an abatement letter from Metro Codes and a hearing date in environmental court. Earlier this month, that hearing was postponed to Jan. 9. Now, with the city zoning ordinances not likely to change before then, it appears the parties may be at an impasse.
Tripp Hunt, attorney for the church, says that short of an agreement his client is willing to take the issue to federal court on a claim that allowing the tents for the homeless is a part of its mission as a church and protected by the First Amendment rights.
“They feel it is their duty under the Bible to allow homeless people to stay on their property and to minister unto them,” said Hunt. He also stated that his client will not accept an agreement that forces the relocation of the homeless camp.
On another side of the argument is Bobby Joslin, the well-established owner of Joslin & Sons Signs — and the church’s neighbor — who owns about a half-dozen properties on the street, including on both sides of the church.
“They feel like they’re doing God’s work, and I commend them for that,” Joslin said. “The bottom line is you just cannot decide to have a campsite anywhere you decide to put it.”
Joslin calls the camp an eyesore and a threat to property values in the surrounding area, which is zoned industrial. Joslin likened the issue to challenges he faces over zoning every day with his sign business. If a church wanted him to put up a sign against zoning regulations, “I wouldn’t say, ‘Well we’re going to put up a sign anyway because we’re a church and you’re violating our First Amendment rights.’ I would have to abide by the local zoning for that property.”
At-Large Councilwoman Megan Barry has previously met with both sides on the issue trying to reach consensus.
“You’ve got people of goodwill on both sides of the issue,” Barry said. “You’ve got a church community that believes in doing outreach for the homeless, and you have business owners who understand that the value of their property is impacted when you have a homeless tent camp next door. The ideal [outcome] is to work through to a solution where both sides can ultimately get what they want. Getting there is our challenge.”
For now, headed toward the scheduled January court hearing and the threat of a federal lawsuit, it appears that challenge won’t be met.