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A Presbyterian congregation’s family housing solution is shut down in Charlotte, North Carolina

Calling it a justice issue, the Rev. Kate Murphy of The Grove Presbyterian Church urges the PC(USA) and other denominations to fight back

by Layton Williams Berkes | Presbyterian News Service

Carl Hart, at left, who had lived in space at The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, until he and his family were reluctantly evicted, helps prepare breakfast at the church. (Contributed photo)

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — For the better part of the past decade, Carl and Rebecca Hart, and eventually their young son, lived at The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. The housing arrangement allowed them the time, energy, and relative financial freedom to serve the church and the surrounding community. This relationship flourished until, in the summer of 2022, an unexpected ruling from the fire inspector forced The Grove to evict the Harts. The Rev. Kate Murphy, pastor at The Grove, says this situation points to a bigger justice issue, and she wants the larger church to fight back.

In the mid-2010s, The Grove Presbyterian Church was struggling. Like many churches, it had declining membership and limited funding, and a large building that seemed more of a burden than a blessing. In light of its steepening decline, the church had entered into a multi-year process of transformation with the Presbytery of Charlotte. The process included analysis and implantation of the systemic changes the church needed to make to rediscover vitality, including changes in worship style, leadership and culture.

Two thirds of The Grove’s congregation had left during the transformation process. Then, the presbytery ended the program, and the roughly 35 remaining members of The Grove were left adrift.

The Rev. Kate Murphy, pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte,  North Carolina, is pictured pre-pandemic at a community dinner. (Contributed photo)

Murphy had come on staff amid the church’s struggle. As she wrestled with how to shepherd The Grove toward new life, her spiritual director, Lisa Koons, pointed out that one big resource the church had was its building. What they needed was actual ministry support. Koons also led a ministry called the 24-7 Prayer and was connected to a lot of people looking for meaningful ways to do mission outreach work in neighborhoods around Charlotte. One of the couples Koons knew through 24-7 Prayer was the Harts.

At the same time The Grove was struggling, the Harts were putting in long hours of shift work that just barely allowed them to make ends meet but left them with little time, energy, or income to serve their community in the ways they felt called to do.

Where these deep needs met, a creative and uncommon mutual solution allowed a new deep gladness to blossom for everyone involved.

The Harts moved onto the church’s property, making use of its facilities for their needs. In return, they kept an eye on the church campus, helped with ministries for youth, women, and men, and tended to the community garden. No longer overly burdened with housing costs, the Harts were free to follow their calling to serve. And with help from the Harts, The Grove had greater capacity to serve its community in meaningful ways.

When The Grove first considered the idea, Murphy could find no one else doing anything like it. “There was no model for it,” she said. She sat down with The Grove’s session and together they looked at city code and the church’s mission statement and values and determined that the only reason they thought they couldn’t do it was because no one else had.

“There was nothing unfaithful about it,” Murphy said. “We thought this might not work, but we were really willing to try, and it ended up being this really generative thing — a key part of the transformation in our community.”

Rebecca Hart is pictured in the family’s living space at The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Contributed photo)

Rebecca Hart said the idea was proposed to her and her husband as a way to lighten their financial load while also benefitting the church. “They didn’t have the bodies or the people with the knowledge to connect with the community and do community building that they envisioned. And that was something both Carl and I had our skillsets in.”

Over the years, how and when the Harts served The Grove and its surrounding community evolved. At first, their jobs meant they were able to serve at the church every other week only. Eventually, Rebecca stopped doing shift work and started her own coaching business, which she also offered free to women at the church. In more recent years, she served as the director of the afterschool program. In addition to helping with youth and the men’s ministry, Carl eventually became manager of the church’s grounds.

“On top of those scheduled things, we were just a presence,” Rebecca said, adding they provided a sense of safety and were also able to answer questions or help those who stopped by.

Through it all though, the arrangement remained a gift to all involved.

Inspections from the fire inspector were an expected part of the circumstances. Murphy, the Harts, and other church leaders knew from their early research that city code allowed for dormitory-style living in churches, which is how the Harts’ living situation was set up. And each time the fire inspector came out to tour the building, the church passed the inspection — until the summer of 2022.

The Harts’ living space at The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, is shown decorated for Christmas. (Contributed photo)

Last summer, Murphy was not present when the inspector came to visit. Another church employee led him through the building, answering his questions. Afterwards, the fire marshal told the church it was in violation of city codes. When Murphy demonstrated that wasn’t the case, the fire marshal pivoted to saying that it was county codes that were being violated.

“It really felt to me like someone was saying, ‘This can’t happen,’ but they didn’t really know why not,” Rebecca said. “So, they weren’t really sure, for months, what to tell the church they had to do to make it work. And that kept shifting.”

Indeed, it turned out that The Grove was subject to both city and county codes. And while city code allowed for dormitory-style living, county code did not. Church leaders were told the building would have to undergo major renovation to meet county code requirements, adding a separate kitchen and bathroom to the Harts’ living space, installing a sprinkler system, and more. Still, the county expressed willingness to work with the church while The Grove made the necessary changes.

An architect drew up plans for the church for free and estimated costs for the changes at around $200,000. It was a staggering number for the 1,000-square-foot space and for the financially struggling congregation. Murphy said the church still would have paid for it if it had had the money because it was an investment that would grow.

In the end, however, the church never got the chance. Despite the county’s willingness to be flexible, fire officials ruled that the changes needed to be made prior to the end of the year or else the Harts would need to be evicted. Failure to comply would lead to heavy fines and having the property disconnected from the power grid. Reluctantly, Murphy informed the Harts they would need to go.

The Harts’ child looks back at the family’s former living quarters at The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Contributed photo)

Rebecca said this was a particularly difficult year for them to lose their housing, as her husband had to stop working and was undergoing treatment for cancer.

The Harts have since moved into an apartment on the campus of another local Presbyterian church which is attempting to address the housing crisis by building affordable housing units on its property. The apartment was offered to them with the stipulation that Rebecca would continue to lead the afterschool program she had been running while living at The Grove. This housing is not free, but the Harts’ limited income qualifies them for subsidized rent.

Murphy said she made the choice to have the Harts move out because she felt it was necessary to protect the church. Since that time, Murphy said she regrets not fighting harder. To her, it’s a matter of freedom of religion and of justice.

“Why can’t churches with sanctuaries do what they want with their own buildings?” she asked.

The day after the Harts moved out, the church became a site for a temporary housing program called Room at the Inn. This program, which offers shelter during winter months for those who are homeless and might freeze to death outside, is not a violation of city or county codes because it’s considered an emergency response.

“If there’s already a housing crisis,” Murphy said, “why can’t we provide shelter that is stable and dignified? Why does the only shelter we offer have to be temporary and chaotic and such that people can’t get a grounding and also can’t offer anything back to their communities?”

Murphy acknowledges that many codes exist for safety reasons but says that others exist largely because builders and insurance companies have lobbied to make their business models more profitable. She also points out that other churches are housing people but are forced to do so in secret because of code requirements, which in turn makes those living situations even more unsafe.

Part of Murphy’s frustration is that the government, the larger church, and the culture in general resist or reject solutions they see as too far outside the status quo, claiming they are either unsafe or unrealistic or both.

“Our solution provided housing — just using what we had to provide shelter,” Murphy said. Later she added, “What makes me mad is that someone is taking one of our resources off the table.”

Murphy says that the limited social capital and financial precariousness of small churches like The Grove make it hard for them to fight back against government policies, bureaucracy and corporate interests. However, she believes national church institutions and denominations, such as the PC(USA), should leverage their much greater social capital to advocate for change.

“It would be helpful to counter pressure to come on local municipalities from the institutions that have the kind of gravitas … of this is not just a ‘dumb little church on the east side,’ but these are people saying, ‘Christians are allowed to use their resources to live out their values.’”

Murphy also points out that the majority of Presbyterians live in places where, like Charlotte, there is a housing crisis. And, she says, the fight for fair housing clearly aligns with the denomination’s Matthew 25 movement — which emphasizes dismantling racism and eradicating poverty as two of its core foci.

“If people can go to the Supreme Court and say, ‘My First Amendment rights mean I get to discriminate against gay people’, and there are denominations which will take that all the way up the chain, then can’t our denomination say, ‘We’re going to go up the chain to say if our churches want to provide shelter so they can provide ministry in their neighborhoods, that’s a freedom of religion issue and we’re going to fight for it?,’” Murphy said. “Why can’t we fight that?”

“There is a conflict between the status quo and what’s seen as respectable in the culture and the call of Christ,” Murphy said, “and we need to line up behind Christ.”

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