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Pastor defends mission of Bemidji's People's Church

BEMIDJI - It may not be expanding, but People's Church also is not going away.

If anything, the recent decision by the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board to deny an expansion project for the church has re-energized the congregation.

"We have the right to buy property, we have the right to expand and we have the right to assemble," said the Rev. Bob Kelly, the pastor of People's Church. "These are not oddball positions. We have the right to express our religion."

And this expression, for People's Church, includes serving the homeless.

"We are not a homeless shelter. We assert that we are a church - a church that has a homeless ministry," Kelly said.

There are other opportunities for those in need to find shelter in Bemidji. Ours to Serve House of Hospitality offers shelter for families. Servants of Shelter, a collaboration of area churches, offers overnight accommodations to families, single men and single women.

But, People's Church is different in that it will shelter those in need despite their current condition - some of their "guests" or "homeless friends" are intoxicated or battling addictions.

Concerns about People's Church, located on America Avenue Northwest, have been raised by the city, Bemidji Police Department and neighbors. Most say the church, with its homeless ministry, invites unwanted problems into the immediate community.

The city's building department has found building code violations, and while People's Church has made an effort to correct some of the problems, violations still exist.

City Manager John Chattin in August sent a cease-and-desist letter to Kelly and People's Church saying that the habitual presence of overnight guests, or offering shelter, is a violation of city ordinance.

Kelly said this week that the church has not ceased its homeless ministry.

"We can't say that we don't have a place for them to stay, because we do have a place for them," Kelly said, noting that People's Church has heat, lighting and places for people to sleep.

Chattin said this week that the city's building department is researching the building code requirements that would have to be met in order for People's Church to house people overnight.

"As soon as we review the requirements, we will look again at whether the People's Church facility meets those requirements," he said.

Chattin said the city cannot treat People's Church any differently than the other churches that make up the Servants of Shelter.

"We have to treat People's Church the same as we treat other churches," Chattin said.

The churches making up Servants of Shelter are able to house people for up to six nights at a time before the operation is moved to another church.

Chattin said six nights is the limit through the Minnesota Department of Health, not the city of Bemidji.

Servants of Shelter is a first-year collaboration for the winter months; it is planned to cease operation March 29.

"We expect those folks to ... show up here," Kelly said.

Even though the winter is the most brutal for those without a place to stay, Kelly said springtime, and even summer, isn't much easier due to the wet and cold.

"You would not want to sleep outside any day of the year without a shower," he said.

People's Church, which has about 114 members, was founded 11 years ago by Kelly and his wife, Carol. It always has focused on serving the low-income residents in the area, which included homeless individuals. But Kelly said no one expected its mission to become as devoted to serving and sheltering the homeless as it has become.

"We didn't anticipate that as much as we should have," he said.