We all have them on our lists: people who have everything. Anything you buy them will probably get put in a closet or on a shelf, and never be seen again. Wouldn’t it be great to give people a really meaningful gift? How about a gift in their name to a group of people who are doing what we should all be doing: helping the poor. If we don’t think of following Jesus’ command to help others less fortunate than us at Christmas time, when will we?
Normally I write about subjects of national and international significance. The nature of our work is such that normally state and local issues are not appropriate. But sometimes the Lord puts something on my heart to write about that doesn’t fit my mold, and I must obey. Westgate Tabernacle Church is strongly on my heart today.
Westgate Tabernacle was founded in 1929, and has been helping people ever since. In 1998, God led this church to do what churches used to do: minister to the poor, the hungry and the homeless. Some churches around the nation are still involved in this type of ministry, but by and large churches today have bought into the “Let the Government do it” mentality.
The problem is that in Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the richest counties in the nation, the government has abdicated its responsibilities. Westgate Tabernacle is doing what the people of the county think their tax dollars are paying for. The government does next to nothing for the homeless, but it spends time and money persecuting the only homeless shelter in the area that will accept anyone in need.
The County has levied over $45,000 in fines against this small church that ministers to hundreds every day, and interest continues to mount. Often the fines have been ones that increase every day that the church does not “comply.”
One wonders what regulations the church should “comply” with. Should they comply with Jesus’ command to feed the hungry and clothe the poor? Or should they comply with zoning regulations that don’t recognize the church as a regular homeless shelter? It really comes down to an issue of religious freedom.
Should the government be allowed to restrict the freedom of a church to follow the commandments of the Bible in cases where safety is not an issue? Should a rich county that has thousands of employees, but is not willing to devote resources to the poor and homeless, be allowed to persecute the only group that is willing to help. Should the government, whose police officers drop homeless people off at Westgate Tabernacle because there is no place else to take them, be spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars suing and threatening the people who accept the people that government employees leave on their doorstep? (When homeless people call the Palm Beach County crisis hotline, they are referred to Westgate Tabernacle for shelter!)
And what ever happened to the centuries-old concept, honored by every civilized nation on earth, of churches as places of sanctuary? The one place where everyone should feel safe is in a church. The government constantly talks about “separation of church and state”, as if there were some danger of the church taking over the government. But the fact is that our founding documents only describe protecting the free exercise of religion FROM the state. Where is that protection from government interference in religion for Westgate Tabernacle?
In addition to the persecution and harassment the ministry receives from the government, the church also faces a huge financial operating burden. During a recent cold spell 150 people a night slept there. According to an article in the Palm Beach Post (see LINK below), “Westgate provides help with clothing, prescriptions, spirituality, hygiene and even serves three meals a day.” The cost for all this averages $18,000 per month. As a pastor of a small church myself, I know that the members of the church cannot give that kind of money.
So it’s up to people who care about people, people who want to obey Christ’s commands, to take up the slack. One way to do so would be to go to the web and make a donation (see LINK below: “Make a Donation to Westgate Tabernacle”). Another would be to mail a check to Westgate Tabernacle Church, 1722 Suwanee Drive, West Palm Beach, Florida 33409. Or you may want to call the pastors, Avis and Sherry Hill at 561-471-9309 and ask about other ways you can help. If you don’t have money, you might have skills or abilities that would be valuable.
I have met Pastors Avis and SherryHill at local pastors’ meetings, and can vouch for the fact that any money you give will be used to help feed, clothe, shelter and care for homeless people, and to minister to their spiritual needs.
Once again I quote from the Palm Beach Post article: “Westgate is already embroiled in a legal fight with the county over its ministry. The church's overnight population breaks about every county zoning code known to man, although it would be hard to shut down the one place in the county that's truly a homeless shelter. Other than Westgate, there is no other place that will take everyone and anyone. It's just that simple. But it's not equipped for all these people sleeping and showering and sharing their meals.”
One interesting aspect of this ministry is that, although the church is a non-denominational Christian ministry, the lawyer who has ably defended the church against the draconian attacks of county officials is a rabbi. Boca Raton attorney and Jewish Rabbi Barry Silver was forced to stop playing defense and go on the offense with a lawsuit in December, 2005, because the county refused to negotiate the huge fines they had levied against the church.
In his motion Silver stated, “The record evidence is undisputed that Westgate Tabernacle, Avis Hill and Sherry Hill are acting in furtherance of their belief in Christianity in housing and assisting the homeless, and that their ability to freely practice their religion is being unreasonably burdened by the Defendant in violation of RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) and 42 U.S.C. 1983, and that as a result of these violations of their civil rights, the Plaintiffs and the public has been harmed.”
One item I found on the website of Westgate Tabernacle (see LINK below) particularly moved me. Entitled “SHAME ON PALM BEACH COUNTY”, it featured a picture of a tiny coffin, accompanied by these words: “Little Marcellus was buried on November 9th, 2006. He only lived for 5 minutes. This child did not have to die. His death was caused by a county and a social service system that is underfunded, overtaxed, and indifferent. His mother and father were both homeless, suffering from mental illness and substance addiction. Both had been in and out of mental health facilities and discharged with no real follow-up plan. They did not show up for his funeral.”
My nine-year-old, Sarah, always begs me to stop and give money to every person holding a “Homeless” sign on a piece of cardboard. I have explained to her (as many of you have to your children) that some people who ask for money like this are doing it to get money for drugs or alcohol. We teach her that we need to listen to the Lord to know which people we should give to, and which we should not.
Many people think that this applies to ALL homeless people. “Why should I give my hard-earned dollars to a homeless ministry, when the only reason most people are homeless is that they are drunks or addicts?” On the webpage I have titled “The Mission of Westgate Tabernacle” (see LINK below), I found an interesting list of some of the people the church serves:
Homeless US Military Veterans.
An 18 year old honor student, suffering from sickle cell anemia, the mother of a beautiful 1 year old girl. She was brought to us by police because her home was unsafe due to her mother’s drug dealing.
A 19 year old girl who spent the first 18 years of her life in state institutions and then was dumped out at age 18, with no place to go, no skills, diabetes, mental illness, and no funds to care for herself.
A pregnant mother with a 2 and a 4 year old whose husband was a missing person.
A family of 5 (boys 4, 2, 1) whose father was the victim of identity theft. His pay was levied on by the IRS in error because of the ID theft.
Many men and women discharged to us from area hospitals that have no place to go when they are released.
Mobile home residents whose homes have been storm damaged.
Pregnant Homeless Women – we claim to be a pro-life county, but the other programs won’t take pregnant women, because they can’t work and pay them rent, or they are afraid of the liability.
Men and Women who have gone through other programs for addiction or homelessness and been put out, that have no second chance policies.
Victims of domestic violence with children who are pregnant.
Mentally challenged citizens with no place else to go.
You can see that the stereotypes that most people have about the homeless are just that – stereotypes. Putting people in pigeonholes with negative labels lets us ignore their plight, because we can deem them “not worthy” of our help.
But “There but for the grace of God go I” comes really close to home when you consider the real homeless. Many people reading this are in such precarious financial condition that the loss of a job and going without pay for a month or two could put them on the streets. Others, who think they are financially secure, could have their finances devastated by a serious illness (even if they have health insurance), and become homeless. I have met people who have experienced what I have just described.
Are there some who scam the system? Of course. But wouldn’t you rather have some of your money go to feed an alcoholic who could work but chooses not to, in order to ensure that innocent children don’t go to sleep hungry on a park bench?
As I close, I would like to recommend to you an October, 2002 article by Conservative Truth author and friend John Schmidt, which can be found on his personal website (see LINK below). With his permission, I would also like to quote from the article, entitled “Permits More Important than People”:
“Westgate and Palm Beach County have an opportunity to show a compassionate side. Property values, and the efforts of community leaders over the years to clean up the area are valid reasons to be concerned. But in their quest to build a better place to live, is it possible they might produce the very opposite result: a community where people won’t lift a finger to help others in need? The only thing colder than a closed and gated community is a closed and gated heart.”
Dr. Tom Barrett has been an ordained minister for 30 years. He has written for local and national publications for most of his life, and has authored several non-fiction books. He has been interviewed on many TV and radio programs, and speaks at seminars nationwide. Tom is the editor and publisher of Conservative Truth, an email newsletter read by over fifty thousand weekly which focuses on moral and political issues from a Biblical viewpoint.