No good deed …

Orchard Church’s meals for the homeless are in limbo

A few things stood out during the last regular City Council meeting (on Oct. 15). First, the most interesting item on the agenda turned out to be the controversy over a church whose leadership has quietly been ministering—and providing dinner to—the needy at City Plaza each Sunday for years.

Five years. Literally across the street from the City Council chambers. And now, suddenly, this is a problem.

In July, a park ranger busted Orchard Church for not having the proper permit to give out food. To be able to continue breaking bread with folks at the plaza as part of its “Church on the Street” ministry, Pastor Jim Culp had to pay $731 in city fees and get certification through the Butte County Health Department.

When the permit application came before the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission, it received approval for three months’ time, rather than the 52 weeks the church had been seeking.

As it stands, now that a formal appeal has been filed by a downtown business owner, the City Council holds the authority to allow or deny the meal-providing fellowship. A decision is going to happen sometime in November. In the meantime, Culp and company are continuing Orchard Church’s ministry at the plaza, as they have a right to do in this public space.

The local pastor told me he’s complied with a letter from the city ordering the church to stop feeding people. However, it didn’t stop others from showing up independent of the church to pass out sack lunches this past Sunday.

Also notable: Some heavy hitters—including former Chico Police Chief Mike Maloney and his wife, Laurie—are standing up for the church. The Maloneys have long volunteered at the Jesus Center and with the local homeless and transient population the organization serves. As they point out in a letter of support, in the last year alone, the church has successfully helped transition three people out of homelessness, helped three addicts into rehabilitation, and helped three others reunite with their loved ones. “Chico hasn’t heard about any of this because the church is not doing it to get attention or credit,” reads part of the letter.

The problem for Orchard Church is timing. Its ministry came to light during the peak in talks about the problems associated with homelessness. But that doesn’t mean they’re part of the problem (see Editorial, page 4).

Another interesting point: Councilman Sean Morgan seemed shocked by the permitting process at the commission level and implied that its members had done something wrong by not informing the City Council about the church’s application. I thought that odd considering the commission is subject to the provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state open-meeting law, and thus its agendas must be posted prior to meetings.

I asked Commissioner Mark Herrera about that during Tuesday’s meeting, and he said all of the documentation was indeed posted on the city website. I checked. It was. Just a few links above that of the City Council agendas. Morgan, a council newbie, ought to familiarize himself with the Brown Act.