Religious Discrimination…Racism…or Both?

By Sharon Thiel

“Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” Ephesians 6:13 NASB

“The price of freedom of religion, or of speech, or of the press, is that we must put up with, and even pay for, a good deal of rubbish.”  Justice Robert Jefferson (1892-1954) U. S. Supreme Court

Were he alive today, Justice Jefferson would doubtless believe he had unknowingly been a prophet, and question whether the word ‘rubbish’ might not have been strong enough.

We are about to enter the year 2016, yet I find myself wondering if we have somehow traveled backward in time. Back to a time in America when people of color were not recognized as equal when applying the laws of the land intended to represent and protect the right of every person to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. To a time that pre-dates the existence of Amendment 1 to the United States Constitution, which ironically was adopted 224 years ago on the very date I began writing this for TGNT, and which was intended to preserve our freedoms to gather and worship.

REligious Discrimination - PastorChrisAbhulimeAllow me to refresh your memory about the contents of Amendment 1. It prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peacefully assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a government redress of grievances.

For 224 years, this single Amendment to our Constitution has been the rallying cry of every challenged party on any of these subjects. Sometimes, as Justice Jefferson made clear, this Amendment has been used to defend and protect positions, platforms and even personal behaviors the Framers of the Constitution never intended….and in fact, the nature of which they had likely never even conceived the possibility. It is largely in these instances that Justice Jefferson’s assertion has made its truth known.

Today, however, I want to make you aware of a battle for these First Amendment rights that is anything but frivolous, and taking place right here in the State of Rhode Island, namely in the Town of Johnston, with (according to the 2010 Census) a population of 28,769 people, where members of the Town Council seem to believe that Local Laws trump Federal when it comes to churches and their ownership, operation, and use by people of color!

Pastor Chris Abhulime of The King’s Tabernacle, a Christian fellowship of believers based in Providence, RI, was kind enough to share with me the details of how his church’s desire to plant an additional church in another community within RI has turned into a nightmare of bureaucratic obstacles, racial slurs and disrespect, and infringement of property owner’s rights. It is a story that should give every American pause. It should also, I believe, bring every Christian to his or her knees: First, in prayerful support of this church’s need for just resolution to these challenges; Second, to seek the Lord’s revealed response to the, perhaps greater, question of, ‘How are followers of Christ called to deal with these challenges?’

There has been detailed secular media coverage of this situation, and that material is readily available, so I’ll provide an overview of events, but mainly hope to share the heart of the King’s Tabernacle body of believers, and their desire to serve the community of Johnston in this well-established house of faith so deeply involved in this dispute. I’ll ask you to ponder the Christian perspective on the spiritual dimension of this conflict, as well.

The King’s Tabernacle has been located on Veazie Street in the north end of Providence, RI since 2004. A body of believers who love to worship the Lord, to reach out to their neighboring community in the sharing of the Gospel, and present a wonderful annual concert event, King’s High Praise. In early 2015 the congregation began to think about expansion, and with a strong commitment to prayer they began to explore potential locations for a church plant in other parts of Rhode Island.

After deciding a Cranston site unworkable, they learned of the 124 year old Belknap Church at 500 Greenville Avenue in Johnston. Its aging congregation had dwindled to a handful of faithful, and they and the 95 year old Pastor had held their closing service on Mother’s Day in 2014. It was their desire to sell the property only to another church to carry on the legacy, so it had been on the market for nearly a year when Divine intervention connected Belknap and King’s Tabernacle.

Pastor Chris Abhulime’s wife is a visiting nurse. After they became aware of the Belknap Church property, but before having moved forward to purchase it, Mrs. Abhulime was sent as a part of her job to a home very near the church location, so she asked what they knew about the church. It turned out that the family she was visiting as a nurse were the owners of the property! They had been awaiting the right buyer, and were thrilled to discover another congregation was interested in the Belknap Church property.  Encouraged that such a serendipitous meeting was confirmation of God’s design, King’s Tabernacle made their offer for the property, and it was accepted in April, 2015.

While awaiting the closing on the sale, plans began for repairs and improvements that would be needed at this 124 year old property. Though they were not going to change the building, just restore and update it as needed, Pastor Chris was informed by the town that he would need a Special Use Permit from  the Zoning Board to be able to use the property as a church ‘because the zoning for the location did not automatically allow churches’.

The church had been purchased based on the logical assumption that a building that had been operating as a church for more than 120 years would have no issues with the town to remain a church.  As Pastor Chris explained to me, “There was virtually no difference between the previous owner/operators as a church and King’s Tabernacle as owner/operators as a church, except the fact that we are an African-American congregation. Both are Christian churches. No change in use from what had been so for over a century.”

Pastor Chris and the congregation complied with the need to appear before the Zoning Board of Review, but had no real expectation of a problem.  Their Real Estate Attorney and a surveyor accompanied Pastor Chris to the hearing on June 25, 2015. As the publicly available Minutes of that meeting clearly show, other than a brief presentation of the repairs and improvements King’s Tabernacle were prepared to perform on the building, no dialogue, testimony or statement was permitted. Nor were questions presented for answer by Pastor, Attorney or Surveyor. Within a matter of minutes, the hearing of their application was closed. It seemed to the Pastor and his companions that the decision had perhaps been made even before the hearing, and approval was not going to be given.

In a letter addressed to their attorney on July 23, 2015, one week after the July 16th formal Closing on the purchase of the property, the King’s Tabernacle congregation was informed that their application for use of the building as a church had been unanimously denied. No opportunity had been given to address issues they’d had no reason to expect existed for a church property Grandfathered in use as a church for over 124 years, so they now owned a well located church building and property they could not, at this point at least, use as a church.  Pastor Abhulime has entered an appeal to this denial to RI Superior Court. A court date has not yet been set.

After the hearing before the Zoning Board, prior to their receipt of the denial letter, the congregation of King’s Tabernacle desired to visit the property on which their hopes rested for bringing their new church to Johnston. After services in Providence on July 19th, a few of the Elders and congregants drove to the church property on Greenville Avenue; perhaps 7 or 8 adults and a few children, in 4 or 5 cars. They walked around the property, discussed work that needed doing, and left after about 15 minutes. In that period of time, some cars, apparently belonging to neighbors of the property, slowed and their occupants stared at them. Some people stopped and actually took photos, which caused unease amongst the adults because of their children playing around the yard.

The following morning, on Monday July 20th, Pastor Abhulime received a phone call from Building Official Benjamin Nascenzi, accusing him of “having a service after being denied zoning approval” and that the neighbors “don’t want all these black people around on the property”. Pastor Abhulime calmly made clear that no service had been held, just a visit to the property so some of the congregation who had not yet seen the church they had purchased could view it. He told Nascenzi that they had every right to visit the property they own, had not yet received a Board determination, and Federal Law protected their right to gather and worship God, had they done so. The Building Official stated that “town laws trump Federal laws” and threatened to have the Pastor arrested if he stepped on the property again without the Official’s permission.

Pastor Abhulime remained calm, through all of these events. He made an appointment with the Department of Public Works and the Building Inspector to address the repair of the steeple, and a leaking roof problem before the building was further damaged. On July 22nd or 23rd a sign appeared on the door of the church stating the building Building was “Condemned”. He was told it was the “danger of the steeple falling” that caused the Building Inspector to condemn the building. This same Building Inspector had never done a full Inside Inspection of the property before approving its sale, which closed less than a week previous to this date!

As time moved on, the darkness surrounding this battle grew ever more deep. Due to rude treatment and insulting comments regarding Pastor Abhulime’s race made in previous conversations by Building Official Nascenzi as he continued to stand in the way of the contractors hired to make repairs to prevent further damage to the inside of the building, Pastor instructed his staff and the contractors to record future conversations. One particular recording of a September 18th conversation, made public in a GoLocalProv story on November 24th, has brought this issue into the public eye.

In this recording, Nascenzi describes Pastor Abhulime with repeated references to his race using very foul descriptive terms throughout a conversation lasting more than four minutes. As a result of the GoLocalProv story, and a later front page story in the Providence Journal, Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena, who had previously refused any communication with the church, immediately reached out to Pastor Abhulime, asking him to meet with him the following day. Pastor initially agreed, but later declined as his attorney was unable to accompany him. The appropriateness of such a meeting as the Zoning decision appeal is still pending is in question, so it has not been re-scheduled as of the date of this article.

Religious Descrimination - BelknapChurchImage2Told that the Mayor wanted the meeting as an opportunity to apologize, Pastor Abhulime explained to me, “This has gone beyond a need for a simple apology. The King’s Tabernacle Church desires to be treated fairly; to be accepted into the Johnston community where they have purchased this church in good faith, with a desire to serve and offer the love of God and His gospel message to the area; in other words, to have the same rights and privileges the previous congregation in the very same building enjoyed for 124 years, without discrimination. As they await their day in Superior Court, they prayerfully deal with what must be a heartbreaking and frustrating situation.

I have found my thoughts quite consumed by the details of this situation; many more than space allows me to share with you here. I am near overwhelmed with the desire to storm into a Town Council meeting and protest what is very likely a purposeful campaign to keep an area segregated, and is the enemy of our soul’s design to silence the voice of a small African-American fellowship in its desire to bring the saving message of Jesus Christ back to this precious church for the healing of hurting souls.

Still, my Lord calls me to peace. I turn to Scripture and am drawn to two passages I believe are meant to guide us with this and any other persecution and discrimination that the signs of our times reveal as the future of Christian believers, whether or not we belong to a particular race or culture.

In Matthew 5 the Lord Jesus made clear His heart for how He would have us respond as individuals to those who would offend and attack us, especially in verses 43-44…. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” and so are we called to do.

Then in Ephesians 6:13 we are told “Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

Can we do both, I wonder?  Can we love those who would do all they can to stop our sharing the gospel? Love and pray for those who have learned to hate people of a different color….or culture….or belief….to the point of wishing us out of their space? And yet while we are loving, and praying for them, can we do all that is righteous and proper to stand for what is right? To defend, for the sake of our children and grandchildren and beyond, the right to believe, and worship, and share the living words of the Saviour with a sick and dying world?

Yes, I do believe that we can, but only as the power of the Holy Spirit enables us, and for that to happen we must pray as never before. Pray for the persecuted church, here in Johnston, RI and in every country hostile to the Truth of God’s word around the globe. Pray for hearts to change, for only the Holy Spirit can make that happen.

I asked Pastor Chris what he would most hope the readers of this story would receive, and he said he hoped you  would see that we need to guard against judging a believer struggling through hard times because Christianity is not without challenges and suffering.

He also hoped you would pray that the will of God be done in their situation. That however God chooses to have things turn out, that He will use it for His glory, as it should be. That you would pray for the people who oppose the whole idea of this church. He believes they don’t really know what they’re doing and if they did, that they would stop. We need to pray for their salvations, that their eyes would be opened to see the greater good to come from this church in their community, and salvation to all men.

And finally, that God would help us to treat one another as God’s children, and not see everybody as different from them. Only God can show us how to work through these fears of people or culture we see as different.

To Pastor Chris Abhulime’s words, I can only say, “Amen!”

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