Media botches story on church 'forcing relocation' of foodline for homeless

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni)A man eats an early Thanksgiving meal served to the homeless by the Los Angeles Mission on Thanksgiving 2015. A British newspaper reported that a Merced, California, church was uncomfortable with the foodline for the homeless at a mission next to its campus and forced it to move. There was, however, more to the story.

MERCED, California (Christian Examiner) – A British newspaper that claimed a Christian church in Merced, California, worked to boot a homeless shelter from its block has misreported the story, the leaders of the church have claimed in a statement.

On Oct. 10, The Independent ran with the story that a flood of complaints from the members of Central Presbyterian Church in Merced led the Merced County Rescue Mission to stop its distribution of meals "for more than a week this month, leaving hundreds of homeless people to look elsewhere."

The story, which stemmed from an Oct. 5 interview with a local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate, has since been reprinted in numerous locations, including Christian publications. Worse, a torrent of comments on social media have cast the church as uncaring and hypocritical.

Bruce Metcalf, the mission's executive director, reportedly told the paper that complaints about the mission's feeding program were not different than before, but he believed the people "simply got tired of having it close by them and were anxious for us to find a new location."

"It's true that anywhere, in any city, people aren't interested in having homeless services next to them," Metcalf said.

That is only one side of the story – the published, edited side – which has left the church in the uneasy position of being misrepresented as inattentive to the needs of the homeless. The other side, even an atheist publication noted, means the story isn't "as simple as Christian hypocrisy."

At present, the program is not a typical Rescue Mission food provision setting where folks can sit down, get a hot meal, and interact with caring volunteers. It’s a window that they pass food out of and folks congregate in the alleyways and on the street – at times publicly urinating, defecating, or even fully undressing on the sidewalks. We have had numerous instances of having to clean up human feces around our property on a regular basis. In addition, food and trash gets strewn about the streets of downtown Merced as recipients of the food wantonly discard the stuff they don’t wish to eat.
- Statement from Central Presbyterian of Merced

"If things were actually as they're being reported in the press then, yes, we would be hypocrites worthy of the criticism we're receiving – much of it from those who have little to no first-hand knowledge of the particulars of the context," the statement from the church said.

"However, the situation is FAR MORE complex and nuanced than that 'Some of the people that attend there with their young children are simply uncomfortable with some of the guests that we serve.'"

Central Presbyterian's leadership said in the statement that it has enjoyed a "long and fruitful relationship" with the Merced Rescue Mission, its members serve on the mission's board, and it continues to provide "significant financial support" every year.

In addition, the church said it owns the building the mission is housed in and makes it available to them "at no cost (we originally acquired it by paying off a sizeable debt the Mission owed on the property to relieve them of their oppressive financial burden)."

"[O]ur members have helped to staff the winter warming tent, we host Bible studies and recovery programs for the Mission's residents, and are involved/committed in a host of other ways the people of Central Presbyterian Church are passionate about. What's more, for the past 25 years we have had a highly committed relationship with the Salvation Army's feeding ministry in Merced."

"Several of CPC's members give generously of their time to pick up donated food from area grocery stores that they deliver both to the Salvation Army and to the Merced Area Rescue Mission. For the press and comment posters to insinuate that the people of Central Presbyterian Church are little more than self-absorbed, self-centered and uncaring is nowhere near the truth," the statement said.

What is true is that the church recently had a team meet with the mission's board of directors to ask it to relocate its feeding operation, which was done from a window at the mission.

There was no dining facility, which left people congregating in the alleys and on the streets – "at times publicly urinating, defecating, or even fully undressing on the sidewalks. We have had numerous instances of having to clean up human feces around our property on a regular basis. In addition, food and trash gets strewn about the streets of downtown Merced as recipients of the food wantonly discard the stuff they don't wish to eat."

"Let's be clear," the statement said. "Central Presbyterian Church in no way would want ANYONE to go hungry."

The church said it looked for other feeding options, including preparing the meals in the mission's kitchen and then trucking them to locations were the homeless congregate. That plan had financial support from the mission's board and volunteer support from the church, but the city would not allow the use of church vans for the distribution without them meeting health department standards for food trucks.

The feeding program recently resumed at Calvary Temple, a local Assembly of God congregation, which has facilities where the homeless can eat indoors. However, Central Presbyterian is still involved in the mission of feeding the homeless.

The church said it issued its statement to make sure the public was aware of the complete story.

"Poorly informed criticism does little to advance the cause of feeding those who have fallen on hard times. Well thought out, well-managed programs, however, do!" The statement from the church said.