A Northwest Decatur church's pastor says its building was unfairly closed by a city hungry for revenue, but officials and a councilman maintain the motivation was public safety.
Barry Strong, pastor of Saint Andrews Church of Grace on Memorial Drive, said city officials targeted his minority church's building for closure so a “lucrative tax-generating business” can open in the prime location.
“This reminds me of a lynching. They’re just using a different tactic. They’re shutting us down with pen and paper. It’s the same thing as burning down black churches,” Strong said.
“I feel we were racially targeted. We’re the first black church the city has dealt with with such a heavy hand. If I don’t say anything, who is next?”
City officials said Strong’s church building and day care were ordered closed July 26 due to safety concerns.
“My decision was not based on race, but simply based on life safety,” said city Fire Marshal Jason Jones.
David Lee, city code enforcement manager, said the 100-year-old building was out of code on several issues.
“People were sleeping in the structure,” Lee said. “There was no adequate source of heat. There were electrical, plumbing and sanitation problems. You see things that could be hazardous. The smart thing to do is not to energize it. It’s our job to look out for people who can’t look out for themselves.”
Strong said his church and Tippy Toes day care will be closed “indefinitely, likely several more months” while he tries to raise the $80,000 for improvements he says it will take to meet the Community Development Department's requirements.
The church has the option to hold activities not utilizing the building, and Strong said it tried one outdoor service but the heat ended thoughts of trying that again.
He said his nonprofit, non-denominational church uses fundraisers, donations and day care tuition to pay bills. He said it has been in operation for 17 years and he doesn’t know where the repair money will come from.
“My theory is the city would like a McDonald’s or Burger King to locate on the corner where the church and day care are instead of a nonprofit like mine,” he said. Strong, 55, said the Community Development Department came in “with their minds made up to shut us down.”
“We were in the middle or remodeling,” he said. “What was wrong? Nothing was unsafe.”
District 1 Councilman Billy Jackson said he feels for Strong, a friend of his for nearly 50 years, but understands city officials' concerns.
“My heartfelt desire is we can help make his ministry work, but the building is not up to code,” Jackson said. “The community can benefit from his efforts in a safe environment. We can’t turn our heads away. I’m a steward of the city. I have to make sure the building is up to code.”
Jones said the he conducted an annual inspection of the day care on July 2 and the downstairs was not found to have any safety issues.
“We received a complaint after July 2 from (the Department of Human Resources) that a child told a DHR rep their family was living there,” he said.
Strong said when Jones came back, officials with the Building Department and Community Development made illegal searches July 23.
“When they are with me on inspections, they don’t need a warrant,” Jones said. “They were part of the inspection process at that time. We found issues with life safety upstairs above the day care and in the sanctuary.”
He said some emergency lights were not properly hanged, ceiling tiles were missing and he saw heavy extension cord use throughout the structure. Jones said some generators and portable construction heaters were stored inside, which is a code violation.
Jones said Strong was given a detailed list of what needed to be done for the building to be brought back in code.
Jones said he returned July 26 and talked with Strong’s daughter. “Strong had started addressing the concern issues,” he said. “That building is not safe for a shelter. It has to have a sprinkler and alarm system like the fire code says. We found somebody living there. That is not allowed.”
Strong said a woman nine months pregnant needed a place to stay. “It’s my obligation as a Christian pastor to provide a place for this woman to stay,” he said. “We do things for the poorest and most defenseless people of this city. For some, we’re the last step to keep them from committing suicide. … It’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t have boots.”
Strong, a native of Decatur, served in the Navy and returned home. “I am a military veteran that served my country. When my time was up, I came home to serve my community. The past two weeks since the city shut us down have been tougher than any time I served in the military,” he added.
Strong said he plans to appeal the city’s condemnation of his building and will trust in his faith.
“Whatever God says,” he said. “I believe God will have the final say in this thing.”