Battle to feed hungry at church goes on

Lawyer brought in at ACLU request seeks quick hearing on McKeesport's variance denial

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McKeesport doesn't want the bad publicity, and Linda Foster doesn't want any publicity at all. It seems the two sides should be able to reach an understanding before a judge does it for them, but it might come to that.

There's a lesson for Allegheny County's other municipalities in their battle, and there's a welcome reminder for the religious faithful that, sometimes, the American Civil Liberties Union works as hard to keep government out of religion as it works to keep religious expression out of, well, everywhere else.

Ms. Foster had been running a Wednesday night meal program in the basement of Trinity Church of God in Christ until shortly before Thanksgiving. With donated money and volunteers, she'd been feeding about 25 needy people, many of them residents of the McKeesport YMCA, once a week for six years without any incident.

When the pastor of another church called her to ask how to launch a similar ministry, Ms. Foster roused a sleeping and apparently ill-willed bureaucracy by following its rules. She called the county Health Department and the McKeesport zoning office to gather information for the pastor, and someone in the zoning office told her she'd been breaking the law herself by running a meal program in a residential neighborhood without a variance.

At the hearing she requested to obtain the variance, two neighbors testified that soup kitchen patrons might pose a threat to public safety if they loitered in the neighborhood's many abandoned buildings. Six people testified in Ms. Foster's behalf, but the variance was denied and the meal program ended.

"Our position is that this soup kitchen is part of the church's mission, and no separate application should be required," lawyer Alan Shuckrow said.

Mr. Shuckrow stepped in to handle Ms. Foster's appeal after the ACLU contacted his law firm. A Republican member of the North Allegheny school board, he's pro bono counsel and a former board member of North Hills Community Outreach, a long-established food pantry which sits on the campus of St. Paul United Methodist Church in McCandless.

Feeding the hungry and clothing the poor are core ministries of any church, Mr. Shuckrow pointed out. Ruling that people can't go to a church to be fed, he said, "is like saying a law firm can't hold a large client meeting."

Around Christmas, Ms. Foster held her "large client meeting" at a restaurant. That's because, within a week of my Dec. 14 column on this travesty, a businessman sent her $300 to take her two dozen regulars out to dinner.

"One guy said he hadn't eaten in three days," she wrote me afterward.

In addition to the calls and e-mail from would-be volunteers and donors, I heard from various McKeesport boosters, at varying decibel levels, chastising me for making their town look bad. My reply, then and now, is that the zoning board is making McKeesport look bad.

This city of 24,000 people launched Renaissance 2005, a three-year plan to recover from the devastation wrought by the end of America's industrial era. A $34 million bond issue earmarked $2 million for tearing down more than 300 abandoned properties. Some have been removed in the vicinity of Ms. Foster's church, but many remain.

I argued previously that social welfare programs, whether they're group homes for the disabled or meal programs for the needy, are a boon to blighted neighborhoods, which this corner of McKeesport is.

But another approach to the issue is that the board's decision stifles the legitimate exercise of religion, thereby harming some of the weakest members of our society. As Mr. Shuckrow put it, "I think this is something that most reasonable people would agree shouldn't have happened."

With the church's appeal to Common Pleas Court, he filed a request for an expedited conference with the judge so the matter wouldn't languish "in a pile of cases where people were denied the fences they want."

Ms. Foster has wracked her memory for any mistakes she had made. When the zoning board asked her about the meal program's relationship to the church, which her father pastors, she remembers saying there was none. "What I meant was, they don't have to [attend] our church to get food." But the program was created and run by church members.

She hopes it's resolved quickly. "I don't want to battle. I don't want to be in the public eye.

"And I especially don't want the city of McKeesport to look bad," she said. "I live here and have utmost respect for the mayor and the officials here. All I want to do is to continue feeding and helping those less fortunate than myself.

"We were only feeding them once a week. That's only four times a month, sometimes five. How could that be a problem?"


Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1733.


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