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Tag: City of Bryan Ohio

Is Dad’s Place in Bryan, Ohio a Church?

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Dad’s Place is an Evangelical church in Bryan, Ohio pastored by Chris Avell. I am familiar with the church and its pastor, having had numerous conversations with Avell. I live five miles south of Bryan — my birthplace. I have a thorough understanding of the local political and religious scene.

Avell was recently criminally charged with violating the city of Bryan’s zoning laws. This conflict led to Avell hiring First Liberty Institute to represent him. First Liberty recently sued Bryan on Avell’s behalf. It will be interesting to see how this matter unfolds and is resolved.

This story has received national attention. Avell and First Liberty made the rounds speaking to various conservative news networks. Suggestions that Avell and Dad’s Place are being “persecuted” are absurd, but it seems, at least to me, that the city of Bryan is violating their constitutional rights — zoning issues notwithstanding. Bryan has stepped in it big time, and I suspect it is going to cost them a lot of money to get the proverbial shit off the bottom of their shoes. All the parties involved in this conflict claim to be Christians, so this is not secular government persecuting a church and its pastor. This is, at best, a Christian vs. Christian conflict.

Recently, Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, wrote a scathing post about Chris Avell and Dad’s Place. I disagree with most of what Mehta wrote, but I want to focus on one specific claim made in his post:

“Dad’s Place” isn’t really a church. It’s technically a video arcade called “Crane N Able’s Mini Claw Mania”—clever name!—which is why it was allowed to open up inside a business district. In 2020, Avell requested permission to set up a church inside the building and the city gave it to him with the understanding that he would abide by the city’s zoning laws.

Mehta’s statement is, to put it bluntly, is absurd. Of course, Dad’s Place is a church. It is a legally recognized church, one that meets all the IRS’ requirements for a group to be considered a church for tax purposes. The state of Ohio considers Dad’s Place a church too, as does the City of Bryan. I have never heard a local person say “Dad’s Place is not a ‘real’ Church.” Here’s the thing: the government goes out of its way to avoid defining the word “church.” The general rule is this: a church is a church if it says it is a church. How could it be otherwise? Religious belief and practice are so varied that it is impossible to come up with an exact definition of the word “church.” Regardless, Dad’s Place is a church.

Mehta would have his readers believe that Dad’s Place is really a video arcade. Mehta knows little to nothing about Dad’s Place and its pastor. I suspect he’s never been to Bryan, Ohio, nor physically viewed the building in which Dad’s Place meets. Had he done so, he would have learned that the video arcade is in a small space on the Main St front of the building. This space was previously used by a photography shop, and when I was a boy in the 1960s, it was a barbershop. What Mehta evidently didn’t know is that Dad’s Place meets in the back of the building — a large space that has its own entrance in the alley. This space has been used by other religious groups in the past. In the 1990s, the space was used by a group of Evangelicals for a youth center that featured contemporary Christian music (CCM) and rock.

Further, Mehta seems to lack a working knowledge of what the word “church” means to Evangelicals. The “church” is not a building, it’s the people, the congregation. Buildings are where the “church” meets, and the “church” is a “church” any time two or three people are gathered in the Lord’s name. I was an Evangelical pastor for twenty-five years. I held church services outside, in bowling alleys, roller rinks, canoe liveries, gymnasiums, parking lots, and, yes, actual “church” buildings. Did we stop being the “church” when we met in other than Mehta-approved buildings? Of course not.

Note: As the picture above from 2020 shows, Dad’s Place originally used the front part of the building for its services.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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WWJD?: Local Evangelical Pastor Chris Avell Faces Criminal Charges for Caring for the Homeless

pastor chris avell

By Julia Conley, Common Dreams, Used with Permission

Chris Avell, a pastor in Bryan, Ohio who opened his church to the city’s “vulnerable” residents to give them a place to stay amid freezing winter weather, is suing city officials over what he says is “discrimination” and “harassment” stemming from criminal charges he faced for providing housing for homeless people. 

Avell filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against the city of Bryan, Mayor Carrie Schlade, Police Department Capt. Jamie Mendez, zoning official Andrew Waterson, and Fire Chief Doug Pool.

In court filings, Avell said he hosted an average of eight unhoused people per night at his church, Dad’s Place, “without incident” for several months before the city tried to stop him from keeping the facility open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

As Common Dreams reported last week, city officials told Avell he could no longer house people in the church because it lacked bedrooms and was zoned as a central business, in which Ohio prohibits residential use.

Authorities arrived at the church during a New Year’s Eve service and issued 18 zoning and fire code violations.

Despite Avell’s assertion that welcoming unhoused people into the church, which is located next to a homeless shelter that has experienced overcrowding, has not caused any disruptions in the community, Bryan city officials said in a new release that police saw an increase in reports of “inappropriate activity” at Dad’s Place in May 2023, two months after Avell first opened the church at all hours. 

“It was city police officers who would bring people by,” Avell told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “The local hospital would call and bring people by. Other homeless shelters would call and bring people by.”

He told the outlet that two volunteers have acted as security guards since he began the overnight “Rest and Refresh in the Lord ministry,” and that the church has allowed anyone who needs shelter to stay overnight, only asking them to leave if “there is a biblically valid reason for doing so or if someone at the property poses a danger to himself or others.”

Avell’s lawsuit alleges that the city has moved the “goalposts” in its directives to him regarding safety and zoning codes. Officials ordered him to install a hood over the stove in the church’s kitchen, but after he complied, the city said the hood was not sufficient and required him to have the state inspect it.

“Nothing satisfies the city,” Jeremy Dys, Avell’s attorney, told the AP. “And worse—they go on a smear campaign of innuendo and half-truths.”

Avell accused the city of engaging in a “campaign to harass, intimidate, and shut down Dad’s Place” and said the order to stop housing homeless people was “directly contrary to its religious obligation.”

Represented by a conservative legal group called the First Liberty Institute, Avell alleged that the city has violated his rights under the First Amendment, the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

The court filings included a request for a restraining order against the city as well as damages and attorneys’ fees.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Bruce Gerencser