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Sarnia, churches clash over foodbanks and soup kitchens

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Cathy Dobson

Just when you thought Sarnia and its churches were finished with legal battles, religious leaders are asking why the city won’t allow foodbanks and soup kitchens in places of worship.

A little-known bylaw has been on the books since 2002 that prohibits soup kitchens and foodbanks in city churches.

George Esser, the pastor at River City Vineyard on Mitton Street, recently won a long battle in the courts to allow a homeless shelter to operate at his church.

Esser said he’s working up a business plan with the hope of reopening the men’s shelter before cold weather sets in.

He added the bylaw relating to soup kitchens and foodbanks has long concerned him, even though he understands River City was “grandfathered” and the bylaw doesn’t apply to it.

“But I don’t want to be grandfathered. I want everything legit,” he said. “And I didn’t want to fight two fights so I talked to the guys at the SEF (Sarnia Evangelical Fellowship and put them up to going to council about it,” Esser said.

The result was a letter to city council from the SEF, which represents 16 churches including Paterson Memorial, Temple Baptist, Bethel Pentecostal and Redeemer Christian Reform church. In it, church leaders said they were shocked to learn that foodbanks and soup kitchens at their buildings contravene the bylaw.

“Pastors that have been in this city for over 20 years were unaware of this change and their church’s violation…” it reads.

The letter suggests even seniors’ meals served regularly in many churches could be in question.

The church leaders said they aren’t planning to open any large foodbanks or soup kitchens, but believe they should have the right to respond to those in need without fear of contravening a bylaw.

The letter asks city council to get community input and review the rules.

Jane Cooper, Sarnia’s director of planning and building, said consultation was held over the summer. About 70 religious organizations were asked for input and half a dozen responded, she said.

“They are primarily in favour of allowing soup kitchens and foodbanks.”

Staff is writing a report stemming from the SEF’s request that is expected to go before council on Oct. 26.

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