The church houses homeless men but it is caught in a bureaucratic battle with Philadelphia's Licenses and Inspections division that could trigger police action. The issue is fire safety for the homeless people who sleep in the church overnight.
A coalition of ministers has embraced the embattled pastor of Hope Outreach United Church of Christ in Kensington Tuesday afternoon. The church helps the neighborhood through multiple services for the poor including overnight shelter for roughly 2 dozen homeless men recovering from addictions.
Rev. Deborah Savage's church has been ordered to cease the charity operations because of zoning and fire code violations in its 114-year-old building. Officials say it's not safe to be used as a boarding house.
"To call this a boarding house is just an utter violation of the truth that this is a ministry," said Rev. Dennis Hartman of Solomon's United Church.
"These are men that are working very hard on their recovery and move toward more stability in their lives," Rev. Linda Nooman of the Chestnut Hill United Church said, "and this creates a deep disruption for them."
The Outreach church is pleading with L&I to give them time to get the building into compliance and to change the zoning.
"L and I has no intention of offering a forbearance or even giving the church an opportunity to address this matter in a reasonable time frame," said Bishop Dwayne Royster of the Ministers for Justice.
Tuesday church officials and their lawyers met with L&I Commissioner Fran Burns who told them she will enforce the cease operations order sometime today, with police on hand to force the shutdown order.
The clergy and their lawyers have come up with a plan they hope will stop L&I in its tracks, by holding overnight prayer services in the church from 10 p.m. until 8 a.m., with the homeless men in attendance, since they are church members.
"There will not be people sleeping on mats in the building at all," said Rev. Deborah Savage of the Hope Outreach Church. "We are going to be in service, we are going to be in worship, we are going to be in prayer."
"If we're praying and worshipping, then we're within the zoning and there's nothing they can do about that," said Bishop Royster.
L&I Commissioner Burns has said she will "move to cease the rooming of individuals through the night, but will help relocate those homeless men to alternative shelters if they want it."
The American Civil Liberties Union is considering filing a lawsuit on behalf of Outreach Ministries.
Anthony Fenell is one of the men who comes to the church nightly. He says, "most shelters, they have like people in there that are not really on the right track. They're still doing things that they're not supposed to do. This place encourages you to do the right thing."