Patapsco United Methodist Church is in Dundalk, Maryland, not far from Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay. Sometimes, at night, homeless people with nowhere else to go will sleep on church grounds, taking advantage of the promise of safety that a church often represents.
But in the future, those people may have to find another place to sleep, because the church may be fined out of existence by local government.
According to Yahoo News, Rev. Katie Grover found a $12,000 citation attached to a church door when she went to the church one morning recently.
The citation said that the church had violated a county regulation that prohibits "non-permitted rooming and boarding" and that the church failed to "cease exterior use of property as housing units." An inspector's comments noted that "People (were) still living in (the) rear of (the) property under tarped area."
"We feel, we here as a church, that it's scriptural mandate, that it's an imperative to care for the least, the last, the lost, the poor, the hungry," Grover told WMAR.
Failure to evict the homeless people from the area would require the church to pay the $12,000 county fine, straining the small congregation's budget, Yahoo reported. The fine grows by $200 each day the church doesn't comply.
"I'm not trying to be adversarial with anyone. We're just trying to do what a church is called to do, and that's to love people," Grover told Yahoo. "In Scripture, it talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick. Whatever we've done to the least of these, it's as if we've done it to Christ himself."
Authorities were made aware of the homeless people using the area to sleep after a neighbor who owns a fruit stand business next door complained to the county. The neighbor, Chester Bartko, is unhappy because he said some of the homeless people have urinated on his apple tree, causing it to stop producing the fruit. Bartko said his business has been affected in other ways, too.
"We have a greenhouse, and we sell flowers and shrubbery, and the homeless started camping right next to our retail sales area," Bartko told WMAR.
Representatives of Patapsco were scheduled to appear in court Wednesday to fight the county's order.
If the congregation puts up a "no trespassing" sign, it can escape the fine.
"Who, then, is welcome to the church?" Grover said. "Mary and Joseph gave birth to the Messiah in a stable because there wasn't any room for them anywhere else. Here we are in this Christmas season where we celebrate the coming of Christ, and we're battling whether a person can sleep outside on a bench."
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