Homeless Ministry Sparks Battle in Oregon Town

The Rev. Bernie Lindley, vicar of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Brookings, Oregon, speaks with Laura, a client of the church’s homeless ministry. Machell Carroll photo via Episcopal News Service

By Neva Rae Fox

In a coastal corner of Oregon, a local municipality has instituted new laws designed to drastically reduce the outreach and ministry of an Episcopal church.

This clash has attracted the attention of the congregation, the diocese, townspeople, and the media, prompted by the small church’s ministry, which grew tremendously as a result of expanded needs during the pandemic.

St. Timothy’s in Brookings started a soup kitchen in 2009, working in ecumenical collaboration with other local churches. The food pantry expanded to include other humane services for the homeless: free haircuts during the soup kitchen; availability of restrooms and showers during church office hours.

St. Timothy’s is not a large church, with 100 members, “but lately we have far less in attendance because of the pandemic,” said the Rev. Bernie Lindley, a bivocational priest serving as part-time vicar. The church’s annual operating budget is $65,000. The annual cost to operate St. Timothy’s feeding ministry is $7,000.

St. Timothy’s also maintained a parking-lot ministry for those living in their vehicles. “We had three cars in the parking lot,” Lindley said, quickly adding, “with a permit from the city.” In the summer of 2020, the municipality started to throw roadblocks in the way of St. Timothy’s homeless ministry.

Founded in 1951, Brookings, Oregon, is a small town, at 3.8 square miles, located in southern Oregon, six miles north of the California state line. The current population is about 6,500, living in approximately 3,200 residential households. Tourism plays a significant role in the town’s economy.

Lindley describes strong ties to Brookings and St. Timothy’s. He was baptized at the church, grew up in the congregation, and served as an acolyte. Last May, Lindley was honored as grand marshal of a Brookings community parade. Shortly after, troubles began.

What changed? Lindley had trouble finding the words.

A petition objecting to St. Timothy’s ministry was presented to the city council in March 2021 with 29 signatures. The petition asked the city to“reconsider allowing vagrants to continue to live and congregate at St. Timothy’s Church with no supervision for matters concerning public safety and personal expenses of homeowners living next to the church.

“In the past six months alone, vagrants have caused significant problems in the community including but not limited to, criminal trespassing, theft, harassment, possession of drugs, littering (trash and drug paraphernalia), disorderly conduct, physical altercation, and even child neglect. These types of hostile individual should not be allowed to camp in a community for concerns of safety and the wellbeing of other citizens.”

Lindley has questions about the details of the petition. “We have addressed the issues,” he said. “We have homeless members of the church.” He believes neighbors “equate homeless with criminals. They don’t feel safe.”

Accompanying letters presented concerns about nearby Azalea Park. Calling the soup kitchen at St. Timothy’s “a free-for-all most of the time,” one correspondent wanted to “save our kids and community” from transients.

St. Timothy’s was the central discussion at the June 7 city council meeting. A report included various points: in 2009 St. Timothy’s opened a health care and dental clinic in the basement on Tuesdays for four hours; currently the church is operating a COVID vaccination clinic; meals are available to the homeless, working poor, those on fixed incomes, individuals and families, about 60-70 per session; some homeless list St. Timothy’s as their address to receive much-needed mail.

The report noted that since the soup kitchen’s opening in 2009, there was a “significant increase in calls for service” to the police department dispatch. In 2010 there were eight; ten years later, the number jumped to 154.

While a permit was issued in 2010 for up to three car campers in the church’s parking lot, the report noted there were sometimes more than three. Under the recently approved ordinance, a permit is required to operate a soup kitchen with a limit at two days a week, slashing in half from the original four days.

Bishop Diana Akiyama has visited the church, presented positive reports, and issued supportive messages. The diocesan convention on November 6 approved a motion: “The churches of the Diocese of Oregon are encouraged to support St. Timothy’s Brookings in their efforts to feed the hungry by letter of protest to the City of Brookings, and/or letter of encouragement, financial contribution, or food donation to St. Timothy’s Brookings.”

Lindley remains perplexed. “Why are they going after our feeding ministry?” he asked. “They want to move the people — out of sight, out of mind.” St. Timothy’s continues to abide by the new laws while concurrently striving to feed the hungry and clothe the homeless. Lindley offered an update: “Four churches have applied for the feeding permit, including the Roman Catholic church.”

He said The New York Times remained interested in the situation at St. Timothy’s.

Lindley has concerns about the homeless with wintry weather coming in. He reported that the town was provided, and declined, an opportunity to operate a much-needed homeless shelter. “They said ‘no,’” he said. “Now with Christmas coming, there is no room at the inn.”

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