friendly city?

Brent Finnegan -- December 13th, 2007

A faith group in north Harrisonburg called Early Church wants to open a long-term shelter “for people in transition and difficult life circumstances” at 151 Fifth Street. But the group needed to get it re-zoned in order for that to happen. Last night, they went before the Planning Commission.

According to Early Church, their group “has a close association with the Free Food For All Soup Kitchen and Our Community Place (OCP), a non-profit organization opening a community center that will nurture and provide activities and programs related to personal growth and community well being. ”

In an email, Early Church stated their objectives of having a faith-based, supervised place for men in need of help, and explained that this wouldn’t be a halfway house or a short-term shelter like The Salvation Army:

Through our experience of taking people in, and working at Soup Kitchen and OCP, we have found, time and time again, that one thing missing in the lives of so many people on the margins of society is the possibility of being a productive member of a supportive group. This is where charitable hand outs and the classic us/them mentality fall short with regard to providing vehicles for real change in the lives of distressed individuals.

We are convinced that, as a society, we ignore the poor at our own peril and that the solutions to our collective problems of poverty do not lie in hoping these people will go away or in just giving them money and resources, but in the basic Christian principles of mercy, compassion, and love for those who are troubled and struggling.

Unlike unsupervised week-to-week boarding houses, like those found only a few blocks away, this house will provide men with a real chance to better themselves. Many times we have seen an individual determined to improve himself, forced to seek shelter in one of those houses, where, surrounded by overwhelming negative influences, he is soon pulled back into his old life.

According to today’s DNR, some of the Fifth Street residents are afraid of 151 turning into a magnet for “unsafe” people. At last night’s Planning Commission meeting, neighbors stated that they “don’t feel safe with it,” and asked, “Who would keep them out of my house or my neighborhood?” All valid concerns, but I can’t help but be reminded of when Senator Obenshain called for the Gemeinschaft on Chicago Avenue to shut down.

The Early Church group decided to table the zoning request in light of neighborhood opposition.

24 Responses to “friendly city?”

  1. m says:

    “How do I keep them out of my neighborhood and out of my house?”

    This is so wrong. Isn’t a person who is on the street with no place to go a lot more desperate and dangerous than someone with a place who feels like part of the community?

    Whatever happened to the Christian ideal of: As you did it to the least, you did it to Me?

  2. JGFitzgerald says:


    Many Christians only extend that ideal to people who look like them. Go figure.

  3. Marcus says:

    M & JG,

    There was and is plenty of support for the house and a lot of excitement about it in the cross-denominational Christian community (that I am aware of anyway). As you know the group that came up with the idea and pushed it forward are all Christians. So while there are many who don’t extend the ideal outside of their circle (not just looks but social class as well), there are also many that do. There was a lot of support at the meeting from the community and a few of the neighbors were in support and actually encouraged the idea to begin with.

    I am sympathetic to the fears of husbands and parents and as I am single and do not have children I cannot rightfully say what I would or wouldn’t do in their case. I can only speak into my own situation as a single person. I am all about the house happening whether that neighborhood or another. I hope to be able to help them in anyway that I am able. I think amazing things can happen there. I hope that the fearful neighbors will have a change of heart and see the greater good to our community that could come from it or a new house is found quickly to start moving this project forward.

    A similar house in Broadway helped 104 people get on their feet in one year! They helped them have a place to sleep, build self-respect and many found jobs.

    It will be sad if it doesn’t happen as I think it is a great opportunity for our community to show true Christian love for hurting people, but I think it can only happen if it happens peacefully.

  4. Kyle says:

    “Whatever happened to the Christian ideal of: As you did it to the least, you did it to Me?”
    Christian ideal?? When was the last time you saw a “Christian” act like Christ? In the 1980’s when the evangelicals (and other so-called chrsitians) teamed up with the NEOCONS to take over the republican party they sold their soles to the devil in a self-absorbed, self-righteous attempt to consolidate political and social power.

  5. Karl Magenhofer says:

    “Christian ideal?? When was the last time you saw a “Christian” act like Christ? In the 1980’s when the evangelicals (and other so-called chrsitians) teamed up with the NEOCONS to take over the republican party they sold their soles to the devil in a self-absorbed, self-righteous attempt to consolidate political and social power.”

    What’s the devil doing with all those shoes?

  6. Eli says:

    Christian ideal?? When was the last time you saw a “Christian” act like Christ? In the 1980’s when the evangelicals (and other so-called chrsitians) teamed up with the NEOCONS to take over the republican party they sold their soles to the devil in a self-absorbed, self-righteous attempt to consolidate political and social power.

    The article is a great example of Christians acting like Christ. The problem you describe arises when anyone can claim to be a Christian without actually acting like one.

  7. MAW says:

    Where in the article does it say that the opposers declared their Christianity? Who said they were chistians?

    Are you saying that a christian doesn’t have a right to be concerned about the safety of their family?

  8. finnegan says:

    I think many misconceptions spring from the idea that the U.S. is a “Christian nation.”

    The Christian hears on talk radio that some state government has removed the Ten Commandments from a courthouse and says, “Ha! And this is supposedly a Christian nation.”

    The agnostic looks at the residents of Fifth Street and says, “Psh! And this is supposedly a Christian nation.”

  9. David Miller says:

    My two cents.

    I have read the entire proposal from the Church. I think that it is a wonderful idea. I am a neighbor to this proposed rezoning and support it. I’ll tell you why. Why not, do we think that this home will not do its job? Do we think that this will bring criminals to our homes? I suggest that the city use a small portion of funds to ensure the neighbors that this project will not negatively affect their safety. Use a very small portion of community funds to ensure that this project (which is designed to assist the community and its ability to rehabilitate offenders and persons in need of support) boosts the safety of Harrisonburg. A small portion of funds here can greatly offset the cost of further incarceration and public support for the poor by creating self-sustaining persons that will give back to our community.

  10. Justin says:

    I wonder how many crimes are committed by “people in transition and difficult life circumstances”.

    I’m just asking.

  11. Justin C says:

    I was at the meeting last night and have to say that many good questions were asked. I was in there for support of the Christian organization that is behind the project, but could understand the fear the neighbors had for the unknown.

    All present agreed that it was “a great idea”, but the neighbors felt “it was the wrong place”. What I wonder, given the full purpose of the house, namely the “family oriented” atmosphere they intend to create, where could this be done?

    Is there a group of neighbors in this city who either feel

    1. It is a good idea and/or
    2. It is their Christian responsibility to not only allow this but to maybe even support it
    3. Have a house that is so suited to this purpose empty and rotting

    It is a great idea, but to succeed it seems like it would need a great group of supporting Christians not just in it but around it. We all have every reason to hope that these neighbors and the Early Church can have open discussions and remove their differences.

    If that doesn’t happen I hope anyone who thinks they can help will step up b/c this really is a powerful idea.

  12. John says:

    The simple solution to this problem (and I wonder whether it’ll happen) is to find a location that happens to be in a zoning district that allows this usage. Once they do that, they can begin operating, not have to deal with public hearings and special use permits, and get on with the business of helping people. Heck, I think there is a building right on Court Square owned by 1st Pres. Church that could be retrofitted to this purpose.

    Anyone could have predicted that there would be some opposition to this usage in a single family neighborhood.

  13. Anon says:

    I for one, truly hope that the building is able to be put to use this way. I had a conversation with a man sitting on the sidewalk downtown that was friendly, intelligent, and definitely could work an honest job – but he had 2 problems: he had just gotten out of jail (for theft – he said he stole food because he was homeless after his wife left him and he started drinking and lost his job, etc.), and he was an admitted drunk. He asked me if I had a blanket I could give him because he would be sleeping outside, and it was to be a very cold night. He also asked if I knew of an AA chapter here, and if I knew of a shelter he could look into when he cleaned himself up, and where he might find an entry-level job.

    He also gave me a slice of an aluminum can that he said he kept in case he got hopeless and decided to either kill himself, or hurt himself so he could get out of the cold and into the hospital, but that just by me talking to him, he had some hope and wanted to get rid of the sharp piece of metal he’d been carrying around.

    I went home and looked up the number for AA, but I was suprised that Mercy House and Salvation Army were the only ‘shelters’ listed – and neither provide services for men trying to get on their feet.

    Men, especially those that just got out of jail, often turn to crime when they are down and out. The fact that this man was asking for help and I didn’t know where I could send him here in this ‘friendly city’ really bothered me. I suggested asking a bus driver since they might know the city better than I did.

    When I came back with a blanket, some food, and some quarters for phone calls in a bag, he didn’t look me in the eye or look in the bag (I think he was ashamed that he had to rely on charity to get by), but just put something in my hand and closed my hand and said ‘I want you to have this’. I opened my hand when I got to my car – it was a little cross wrapped in a $1 McDonald’s coupon. It made me cry.

    I’ve looked for him downtown since then and haven’t seen him. I wish I could have helped him more. If this Early Church shelter existed, I could have sent him there.

    I believe there are a lot of people ‘in transition’ that end up in Harrisonburg, and I truly hope we can make space in our hearts and in our town for them. I agree with the commenter that said that welcoming these men into our community will make them LESS likely to be committing crimes, and that our little town with more churches per capita than any other place I’ve lived should make sure we have a place to help those that need it.

  14. beth says:

    I know a lot of the people involved in this project pretty well, including Tom, whose property borders the hospitality house and I can say with 100% confidence that this project would not be a failure or a threat to those who live in that neighborhood. If anyone has ever seen Ron Copeland in action, you know that he an innate wisdom with these people who have seen the worst and they love and respect him.

    And its not about being a good christian, its about being a human being with a heart. These people are not evil, they just were dealt a rough hand and would love to have someone help them out for a change.

    And the government would not put up a portion of their budget to help this project out, because if jails are empty, they aren’t making money and products for slave wages off of their prisoners.

    The poor need to feel more empowered and the farming aspect of this house will let these folks feel a sense of ownership, significance and empowerment. they will learn how to live outside of prison walls or on the streets, and will get their feet on the ground. I think that every human deserves this opportunity, no matter what they have done in the past, if they are willing.

  15. Sam Hottinger says:

    I believe that the group proposing this idea are indeed christians. I think that there proposal is an exceptionally noble one. It is comparable to a proposal that was made about a year or so ago that wanted to move unwed pregnant mothers into a house in the county that was shot down. This proposal was also by a christian organization. I did not see any outrage voiced then in fact I never saw a story in the DNR. The problem was the same however. It was “not in my back yard”. A very common problem. There are groups on both sides of the christian non-christian debate that do a lot of good. The problem is that people refuse to admit that anyone who does not feel as they do can have a legitimate idea. Most christians feel that Bill Clinton was pretty close to the anti-Christ, but he did a lot to make adoption of unwanted children easier.
    Based on the DNR article it doesn’t seem like anyone involved with establishing this house is upset. (They are christians by the way). So why should it be an issue.

  16. Ron Copeland says:

    I’m Ron Copeland, the author of the proposal, and the pastor of the Early Church.

    It’s so great to see people discussing this topic with enthusiasm. Sam is correct that none of us in the Early Church leadership group is upset about the evening at all. In fact, we all agree that it was a very powerful evening.

    In one way, it was an incredible glimpse into a free democracy at its best: A group of neighbors without a lot of education, resources, or political power was able to come together address their concerns to their leaders and be heard. Going into the meeting, the planning staff was recommending approval. The commissioners themselves were patient, attentive, kind, helpful, and wise – the way leaders should be.

    In another sense, it was a good chance for us to hear some correction about our process and ultimately practice love for neighbors by telling our opposition that we care as much about them as the people who might find help in our house. We told them we didn’t think they were crazy for worrying about their families or their property values, and that we thought they were cool for caring about each other and their neighborhood. I personally understood their concerns for the safety of their children – they don’t know us at all, and we look strange to them. And I also understand their concerns for their property values – you get up and go to work every day for 30 years and pay off your mortgage and that’s all you’ve got to leave your kids – for regular working people – kids, a house, grandkids – it’s a lot to lose, really.

    We have no interest in winning or doing anything out of harmony with them.

    I think we were naive about the potential opposition, and didn’t prepare as well as we might have. For almost all of the neighbors, that night was the first time they had seen, heard, or met Brian or me – and in retrospect that seems like a huge mistake. We were kind of in our own little bubble thinking we had just found this wonderful place and that God was smiling on us and were not as conscientious as we should of been about the folks who have been there for generations. A powerful learning experience really.

    We are brainstorming potential approaches for the house itself and for the vision of the Safe House. In no way have we been wronged, and I think, in this matter at least, the city has shown itself to fair and just.

    Peace and Love to you all,

  17. finnegan says:

    Thanks for the comment, Ron. I hope you find a suitable location and work out the issues. Sounds like a worthy cause.

  18. David Miller says:


    Good luck with your project. I love your approach. Keep it up.

    Even though I didn’t participate in this debate as much as I wanted to (Christmas is a killer) I want to say thank you to everyone who helped make this a constructive conversation. I have a warm fuzzy after re-reading the posts. This is what I crave.

  19. Ron Copeland says:

    David Miller

    I would like to talk with you about your idea and about where we are headed with this thing next.

    Will you send me an email at and maybe we can find a time to get together.


  20. Rachel says:

    I work in a homeless hostel here in Northern Ireland. It’s basically a second phase type accommodation for single men & women. Originally operated by a Methodist church with a history of social action, Hosford House receives funding from a social housing organisation. I’ve been involved with the hostel for a while, including taking part in demonstrations related to raise issues related to homelessness. We also provide housing for people coming out of prison.

    SO the point I logged on to make is that a large number of people I meet don’t understand the issue of homelessness. I think if you can help the population understand that homeless people are just that – people – you can bridge the divide between supporter and critic/opposition.

    I think this can be a sensitive issue because often it can denigrate one of the parties. In this case, the neighbourhood felt they were being overlooked. In the case of educating people about homelessness, the dignity of people living on the streets is at stake.

    Perhaps raising awareness of issues related to homelessness in a tactful, sensitive way would be something to consider.

    Just an idea.

    It’s terrific to hear you’re pursuing this idea, Ron. Check out the Hosford House to see what we do.

  21. Annelise says:

    Read your comments into your mirror. “Them?”

  22. Ron Copeland says:


    I am assuming your comments are directed toward me because I cannot find the word “them” anywhere but in my comments. I am also assuming that your comment is a pointed one, but I am sorry to say that I am missing your point. Care to elaborate?

  23. finnegan says:

    It’s being reported that Early Church has withdrawn their rezoning request for the shelter on Fifth Street, because of “neighborhood opposition.”

    I wonder how many of those “opposing neighbors” grew even more concerned after reading Mellott’s original story, which focused on “safety concerns,” and not at all on what the actual intent of the Church, or the purpose of the shelter.

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