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People's Church fills many needs in community

Is a church simply a building where worshippers gather on Sunday mornings or can it be more?

For People's Church, it means a home for the community. A place to not only worship, but to eat, to talk to friends.

And also, a place to go when you have no where else to turn.

"We're not a homeless shelter, we're a church," said the Rev. Bob Kelly, the pastor at People's Church.

People's Church doesn't deny that it offers shelter for the transient and homeless, Kelly said. The church opened as a homeless shelter on Halloween Day, Oct. 31, 2006.

Kelly said there are many churches that are mostly used on Sundays for services and sporadically throughout the week, but People's Church has a different philosophy.

"We're sharing a model that we believe has been, historically, the model of a church," Kelly said.

The church has prompted discussion and consideration about the definitions of a church and homeless shelters - and how to zone areas that would likely contain such buildings.

The Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board and commission have been working on revising their zoning ordinances. During that review, the JPB learned that the ordinance does not address homeless shelters.

The JPB's legal counsel, who did not attend the Wednesday JPB meeting, did consider the issue, but said more research and information was needed.

JPB Planning Administrator Mel Milender said he didn't necessarily disagree that a church could be more than just a building that houses worship services, but told the board that staff needs further direction.

"There are various legal opinions both for and against that opinion," Milender said.

Further complicating matters, at least somewhat, is that People's Church plans to expand its building to house a free clinic.

While no building application has been submitted yet to the JPB, Kelly acknowledged the church's intent during a joint session of the JPB and planning commission on Wednesday.

People's Church plans to add a 40-foot by 28-foot addition to the east of the current building, Kelly explained. The new space would feature a stainless steel kitchen of "restaurant" quality and a handicap-accessible bathroom.

The church already has three parish nurses on staff, he added. They, along with a board of directors and executive director, are leading the effort to establish a free clinic at the church.

Kelly said the free clinic is a needed addition for the community and would complement the services already being provided at the church for the poor and homeless.

"For us, they're not clients - they're friends," he said. "We don't want our friends to freeze to death or get hit by a train ... both of which have happened in this community."

Wednesday night's meeting was scheduled to not only discuss the activities at People's Church, but to also offer the boards an opportunity to consider other suggested changes to the zoning ordinance.

The shelter issue was raised when the Rev. Karol Hendricks-McCracken, the youth and family ministry director with the Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, wrote a letter to the JPB urging it to consider zoning ordinances for homeless shelters. She alluded to the People's Church plans to continue operating as a homeless shelter.

Barb Meuers, a JPB member, said the People's Church fills an important need in the community, especially since Ours to Serve House of Hospitality stopped housing single adults as of Oct. 1. The Ours to Serve homeless shelter now is available only to families with children ages 17 and younger.

"The People's Church is doing a dynamic job of housing people and feeding people," she said.

The JPB ultimately decided to have its planning commission begin looking into the issue and offer a recommendation to the JPB on a potential ordinance addition.