CLARKSTON, Ga. – A lawsuit brought by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) against the City of Clarkston, Ga., potentially adressed important serious constitutional and religious liberty issues, according to observers.
At the center of the lawsuit filed by NAMB in the Superior Court of DeKalb County is a couple of uninhabitable farmhouses from the 1900s the domestic mission entity says is causing Clarkston to slow in issuing a demolition permit.
It’s a permit that would allow NAMB to continue the expansion of the historic Clarkston International Bible Church, which includes a four-city block development of soccer fields, mixed retail and church facilities to reach the immigrants, refugees and other residents. Clarkston, a suburb located along the perimeter of I-285 circling Atlanta, is considered one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than half of its residents are foreign-born.
The lawsuit accuses the city of waffling on the approval to demolish the aging structures on land the church purchased last year from their owners. The purchase is part of NAMB’s long-term plans to boost the church’s ministry presence with a nearly complete rebuild of its facilities.
NAMB bought the multicultural congregation’s property in May 2018 in a partnership that would replace its aging buildings – one of which was being held together with massive bolts to keep the walls from separating. The church became the first of NAMB’s newly rebranded ministry outlets, known as Send Relief, which serve as training centers to equip volunteers from around the nation in a variety of settings. The Clarkston center focuses on multicultural ministry and its six ethnic congregations.
The $10.7 million Clarkston International complex, now undergoing construction on land with approved permits, will spread across four blocks and include missionary housing, education space for volunteer training, a gym, neighborhood playground and parking, which has been in short supply.
In a statement, NAMB President Kevin Ezell told the Arkansas Baptist News, “Southern Baptists have always been about reaching the nations. Today, many of the nations have come to us. Our ministry center in Clarkston is focused on reaching those who have come as refugees and immigrants to start new lives. Unfortunately, the city enacted a retroactive policy to keep us from developing the land we own. After months of negotiation, we had no choice but to take this to a judge. If we don’t fight this, what is to stop the same thing from happening to other churches?”
According to reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), residents of the Clarkston community are concerned about the religious nature of the Southern Baptist Convention development, and that the Baptist mission center might seek to convert residents to Christianity.
“Some people – especially members of the Muslim community – were also worried the Baptist mission center might seek to convert residents of other faiths to Christianity,” a resident told the AJC.
The NAMB project has encountered resistance in the Atlanta suburb since it began.
Earlier, Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry affirmed the work of the Clarkston International Bible Church and its longstanding commitment to help resettle refugees and its programs to help them assimilate into American culture.
“People say the Southern Baptist Convention is bigots, racists, anti-gay. I understand that feeling,” Terry told the AJC in 2018, adding that NAMB’s Send Relief effort was “the more charitable, open-minded wing of the Baptist tent.”
According to the lawsuit, NAMB filed the demolition permits on April 26 for the “generic houses that are vacant and uninhabitable.”
And that is when opposition reportedly arose.
“Four days later, on April 30, 2019,” the lawsuit continues, “the Clarkston City Council adopted a resolution imposing a moratorium that prohibited any demolition applications from being accepted or processed.”
The lawsuit contends that the applications should be processed because they were accepted before the moratorium and that the city is required to issue the demolition permits.
Another challenge emerged when the opposing group fought to have the area designated as a historic district, and then retroactively grandfathered those farmhouses into the district before the permits could be approved.
Ezell said the move hinders the congregation from enlarging its ministry and providing more resources to the refugees and immigrants.
“NAMB has the right to own property, but a decision to retroactively designate an area as a historic district could be used to prevent any church in the nation from expanding its ministry,” Ezell told Baptist Press. “We are challenging this decision not just for Clarkston International, but for churches everywhere who could face their ministries being curtailed.”
NAMB’s Send Relief president David Melber said the new and improved ministry at Clarkston International would focus on the entire community, not just immigrants. But with nearly half of the city’s 13,000 residents reportedly being refugees or immigrants, they would remain an important part of the outreach.
Melber cited the annual back-to-school block party on Aug. 3 where 2,100 backpacks were distributed, as well as services offered such as a free medical clinic and education about community programs such as job training and government services.
In addition, 25,000 school supplies were distributed, 1,500 Bibles were available for the asking, 91 health screenings were provided, and 540 pairs of shoes and 70 prescription pairs of reading glasses were distributed. Nearly 3,500 adults and children attended the popular event.
Ezell, who was at the Aug. 3 event, affirmed Send Relief’s mission to serve everyone in need.
“Our Send Relief goal is to meet needs and change lives, in that order,” Ezell said. “We believe that a relationship with Jesus Christ is the most important part of what we do.
“But there is no obligation whatsoever to proselytize or force anyone to hear a gospel presentation before they receive ministry,” he said. “It’s all free, no strings attached, provided through gifts to the Cooperative Program.”
Compiled with reporting by Baptist Press and the Arkansas Baptist News.
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