Food handout in jeopardy
Orchard Church vows to continue meal fellowship and food giveaways
On a recent Sunday evening outside the Chico Municipal Center, 30 to 40 people gathered for a food handout organized by Orchard Church. About 20 boxes of Little Caesars pizza were stacked on a folding table as the gathered listened to church Pastor Jim Culp address them and then lead them in prayer before the pizza was handed out.
After about 45 minutes of munching and conversation, the crowd began to disperse, and was gone 15 minutes later.
For the past five years, the church had held its weekly free-meal program at Chico’s City Plaza. But in July, a park ranger warned the meal organizers that a permit would be needed if they wanted to continue to practice their generosity.
“The ranger told us that the city was tightening up its permitting process and noticing groups that were operating without permits,” said Culp. “They said we were one of them, and needed to look into getting a permit.”
He said that church representatives went to the city’s Park Division office the next day and filled out a permit application. On Aug. 13, they received notice via mail that the application had been approved. About a month later, the matter was placed on a Bidwell Park and Playground Commission meeting agenda for late September.
“We had operated for six weeks thinking that we had an approved permit,” Culp said. “They never called and talked to us about needing to go before the Parks Commission [until the Thursday before their appearance was scheduled]. We were told, ‘Hey, Monday you’re on the Parks Commission agenda.’”
The commission approved the permit, but with a 13-week limit, meaning the church would have to regain permission every three months or so. But conditions changed at an Oct. 15 City Council meeting when Councilman Sean Morgan requested a review of the Planning Commission’s approval of the food giveaway.
In the meantime, Hotel Diamond owner Wayne Cook filed an appeal of the decision, which should be taken up at the Nov. 19 City Council meeting.
Culp said that until the matter of homelessness in Chico became such an obsession with local citizens, the local government and the media, the Orchard Church program was not on the radar.
“Nobody really cared about us before, one way or the other,” he said. “It’s the timing—and so we’re trying to do it the right way and go through the process of meeting the city’s requests.
“We’re happy to do so within reason, and hopeful that the city will follow up on both [its] code and what the Constitution tells us about freedom of assembly, especially as a religious group.”
The food, he said, comes from donations from church members.
“We have a gentleman who hosts pizza once every two months,” Culp said, nodding toward the offering of the night. “Different church members or groups of members cover a week every two months, and it works out well.”
He said the generosity gains the church a lot of trust from those being served, people who otherwise may resist engaging in conversations with those outside the homeless community.
“There are guys here I have seen most every Sunday night for five years, and can sit down with them, and we have conversations about life and where they are going,” Culp said.
As far as those who say that the church’s food giveaway draws transients to town, Culp initially joked, “Well, first, I would say our food’s not that good. We are not the Club Med for homeless people.”
On a serious note, he said the church’s intention is to see people’s lives change. “You can’t see lives change without coming out and meeting people head-on,” he said.
“We want to have a three-question conversation with people,” Culp continued. “We ask, ‘What’s your name?’ That gives value when I care about your name.
“I want to know where [they] are from, and what I find out a lot of times is that most of them are from Chico. They’ve been in Chico longer than I have,” he said. “The third thing, after they tell their story is, ‘How’s that working for ya?’ If they say, ‘It’s hard out here,’ I say, ‘How can we help you pursue something different?’”
Also out on this particular Sunday evening was former Chico Police Chief Mike Maloney, whose wife, Laurie, has been a member of Orchard Church for the past few years.
“I’ve been out here and involved in this just during the time that they have been the focus of what I will characterize as unfair and inappropriate attention,” Maloney said.
“I think this is a classic situation of shooting the gun first and yelling ‘Freeze!’ afterward. It’s disturbing, and every step of the way it has been bungled by the city, which is very disturbing to me because I have an affinity for the city government itself.”
Maloney said he believes the matter is a First Amendment issue, and that the local government is overstepping its bounds.
“We’ve been having all this angst because of who those people are? We can’t do that,” he said. “Right now [the local government officials] are full-speed ahead, disregarding the fact that they can’t target people just because of who they are.”
Matt McReynolds is an attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit, Sacramento-based legal organization that offers advice and counseling to religious groups. He said the institute has been in touch with Orchard Church throughout this ordeal.
“There are a lot of different angles here,” McReynolds said. “The city leaders are frustrated with the homeless in general, and so they take it out on one group that does outreach on Sunday nights. The church is showing an exemplary attitude toward working with the city.”
McReynolds said he’s heard a permit condition will be floated by the city that requires those getting served are only city residents. Such a restriction, he said, would be hard to enforce and is hardly constitutional.
Culp said the program will not stay at the Municipal Center because the city has indicated that if it were to, the 13-week permit-approval process would still be in place; the church would like approval of a permit with a longer life.
Orchard Church’s community-outreach ministry will instead go back to the plaza, though it may not hand out food there on Sunday, Nov. 16. “At this point we are going to defend our rights at the Nov. 19 City Council meeting,” Culp said.
As for the leftover pizza on this particular Sunday night, Culp said it would not go to waste.
“I’ll go under a couple of bridges with it. We know where people are at.”