Compassion on trial: Ohio pastor faces charges for sheltering the homeless

"In times of crisis, it's not just about the letter of the law but the spirit of humanity."

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The arrest and charges against Pastor Chris Avell, who opened his church, Dad’s Place, to homeless individuals during extreme cold weather in Bryan, Ohio, have sparked national attention and debate. Pastor Avell’s decision, driven by compassion, has landed him in a legal quandary, drawing scrutiny over the balance between humanitarian action and legal compliance.

Pastor Chris Avell faces multiple charges for violating zoning codes after he opened Dad’s Place to the homeless amidst freezing temperatures. Avell, pleading not guilty, stands accused of breaking 18 restrictions in the zoning code, a response to his altruistic act of providing shelter to those at risk of freezing to death. This legal action follows his defiance of the Bryan City Zoning Commission’s order last winter, which prohibited the use of the church as a shelter due to its zoning as a central business area.

The issue came to a head when police arrived at Dad’s Place during a New Year’s Eve service, issuing the violations. Avell’s act of kindness, meant to protect the most vulnerable, has now positioned him at the center of a legal battle that raises questions about the role of community spaces in times of crisis.

Dad’s Place, an evangelical church in Bryan, Ohio, became more than a place of worship under Pastor Avell’s leadership. It transformed into a sanctuary for the homeless, especially when the adjacent shelter faced overcrowding. Avell began this initiative out of a deep sense of duty, installing facilities like showers and laundry to accommodate the needs of those who sought refuge in his church.

In an interview with The Village Reporter, Pastor Avell shared, “Some who found this to be a home for them have stuck around.” His actions, driven by a commitment to serve, highlight the church’s role as a critical haven for the unhoused during Ohio’s harsh winters.

The legal actions against Pastor Avell have brought to the forefront a complex interplay of ethical considerations and legal obligations. The city’s enforcement of zoning laws clashes with the moral imperative to protect human life in extreme weather conditions. Jeremy Dys, Avell’s attorney, criticized the city’s prosecution as “unconscionable,” arguing that the legal actions neglect the fundamental needs of the most vulnerable.

“The city would rather kick these folks to the curb in the cold outdoor months than allow the church to remain open 24/7 to those who need it the most,” Dys stated, highlighting the moral dilemma at the heart of this case.

The story of Pastor Avell has resonated widely, sparking a discourse on the nature of religious freedom and state intervention. Ashton Pittman, editor of the Mississippi Free Press, referred to the situation as a rare instance of “actual religious persecution of a Christian by the state.” This sentiment echoes a growing concern among many that the legal actions against Avell represent an overreach into the domain of religious and community service.

Columnist James Causey reflected on the situation, questioning the righteousness of penalizing an act of compassion. His commentary has fueled a broader conversation on the role of faith-based organizations in addressing societal issues like homelessness.

Pastor Avell’s story sheds light on the escalating crisis of homelessness in the United States. In 2023, the homeless population saw a sharp 12% increase, bringing the total to nearly 654,000 without housing. The cold, coupled with a growing unhoused population and a scarcity of shelters, underscores the urgency of Avell’s actions and the necessity for community-based solutions.

Avell’s case serves as a stark reminder of the challenges faced by those without shelter and the crucial role of community centers, like churches, in providing support. As Causey wrote, the charges against Avell raise significant questions about societal responsibilities and the need for compassionate responses to homelessness.

The response, or lack thereof, from local government officials, including Mayor Carrie Schlade, contrasts with the national concern over homelessness and the need for community-based aid. The city’s decision to prosecute Pastor Avell for his humanitarian efforts has not only highlighted the legal complexities involved but also the need for governmental action in addressing the homelessness crisis.

The silence from local officials, juxtaposed with Avell’s proactive approach, underscores a growing gap between government policies and community needs, especially in times of crisis.

The community’s support for Pastor Avell and Dad’s Place exemplifies the vital role local initiatives play in social welfare. Despite the legal challenges, Avell and his congregation have continued their mission to provide shelter and warmth to those in need. This support highlights the importance of community-driven efforts in addressing social issues and filling gaps left by governmental and institutional structures.

The case of Dad’s Place emphasizes the need for community involvement and the potential impact local actions can have on broader societal issues like homelessness.

Looking ahead, the future of Dad’s Place and Pastor Avell remains uncertain. However, their commitment to housing the homeless population this winter remains steadfast. Days after Avell’s arraignment, as more cold weather was expected, Dad’s Place extended an open invitation on Facebook for anyone needing a warm place to stay.

This ongoing dedication, despite legal challenges, signals a continued commitment to community service and may set a precedent for how other religious and community organizations navigate similar situations.

Various voices have weighed in on Pastor Avell’s situation, each offering a unique perspective on the intersection of law, ethics, and community responsibility. Avell himself remains resolute, stating, “If the church isn’t willing to lay down its life for them, then who will? This is what we’re called to do.” His sentiment reflects a deep commitment to serving those in need, irrespective of legal barriers.

Legal experts, community members, and homelessness advocates continue to discuss the implications of Avell’s case, each contributing to a multifaceted understanding of the challenges and responsibilities involved in addressing homelessness.

“In times of crisis, it’s not just about the letter of the law but the spirit of humanity,” says Pastor Avell. “Our actions are guided by a moral compass that prioritizes human life and dignity above all else.”

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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.

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